Introduction to Drakensberg San Rock Art
The Drakensberg is fortunate because it has one of the most extensive and perhaps most exceptional repositories of rock art worldwide. Some 30000 examples of Drakensberg San Rock Art exist in the Drakensberg World Heritage Site. A core reason why this beautiful mountain range received world heritage site status.
Rock art is paintings or engravings on a rock. Rock art in the Drakensberg was the work of the San or the Bushman as they prefer to be referred to in Botswana and the Kalahari.
Archaeologists concur that the San were descendants of the first Homo Sapiens Sapiens who lived in Southern Africa. They roamed freely in the area, especially along the coast. For example, remains of San or their forebears were found in Blombos Cave in the Western Cape, some 70,000 BP (See the Origins of the San section).
In the South African section of the Drakensberg datings of San Rock Art are some 8,000 years BP. They were hunters and gatherers. Their hunting techniques are particularly renowned. They used specially poisoned arrows to bring down their prey, but in such a way that the animal’s meat was not spoilt.
Interpretations of Drakensberg San rock art
San rock art provided a literal overview of their day-to-day activities in the Drakensberg and their spiritual beliefs. Shamans painted the more spiritual paintings after they had emerged from very painful trances and depicted their visits to the afterlife. These paintings symbolised four essential aspects of their religious beliefs, namely:
- Firstly, they believed that specific rock faces in rock shelters were a veil between the real and spiritual worlds. Often represented by a painting of an Eland emerging from a crack in such a rock face;
- Water bodies, where they could engage with their ancestral spirits;
- Dying, usually represented by a dying Eland; and
- Lastly, the spiritual world is represented by flying people and bucks.
The San believed in three extraordinary spiritual beings, firstly, their ancestors; secondly, God and lastly, unusual animals. The Eland had the most spiritual relevance.
The San believed that their Shamans could communicate with their ancestral spirits and, at the same time, merge with animals such as Eland (“Anthropomorphism”). Humans that combine with spiritual creatures – “Therianthropes”. One theory is that Shamans’ paintings often portray their experiences as “Therianthropes”. They also represented their experiences as being elongated beings.
Shamans often requested their ancestors for rain or to assist them in healing a sick member of their community.
Another belief is that these were images of San dancing with animal masks.
How they painted
Their most famous paintings were first; those of Eland, secondly of Rhebuck, whom they believed could bring rain and lastly, humans.
Charcoal, burnt bone, iron oxide, white clay and bird droppings formed common ingredients of their paint pigment. Blood and fat formed the paint’s binding substances. San applied the colour using fingers, splinters of bone and brushes made from feathers, grass, Wildebeest and later horsehair.
Tourists, tourist guides and rock art custodians should observe the following protocol. Firstly, visitors may only visit a rock art site in KwaZulu-Natal under the guide of a rock art custodian, who has been trained by the heritage council of the province of KwaZulu-Natal or Amafa aKwaZulu-Natali . Also, seek the permission of the landowner on which rock art exists. No more than eight to ten people may visit a rock art site anytime.
The rock art custodian should inform guests that they must not touch, alter, deface, bump against or stir up dust in a shelter. All of these variables can seriously damage rock art. They should also inform visitors of the religious significance of such sites and that appropriate respect is shown when entering a site.
San Rock art sites that can be visited by the public
The public may not visit most San rock art sites. However, the main locations for public visitation in the Northern and Central Drakensberg include Battle Cave, at Injisuthi Camp, Main Caves, at Giants Castle and Game Pass Shelter at Kamberg Camp. Some 40 other open sites exist in the region. A rock art custodian must be present.
Site Map | Interpreting San Rock Art | The Origin of the Drakensberg San