Introduction to Drakensberg San Rock Art
The Drakensberg is fortunate to be unique in the sense that it has the most extensive and perhaps most exceptional repository of rock art in the world. Some 3000 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 that lived in Southern Africa. They roamed freely in the area, especially along the coast. For examples remains of San or their forebears were found in Blombos Cave in the Western Cape some 70,000 BP.
in the South African section of the Drakensberg datings 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 meat of the animal was not spoilt.
Interpretations of Drakensberg San rock art
San rock art provided both a literal or overview of the 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, their belief that specific rock faces in rock shelters were a veil between the real world and the spiritual world. 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 represented by flying people and buck.
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 are very often, portraits of 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 paints binding substances. San applied the colour using fingers, splinters of bone and brushes made from feathers, grass, Wildebeest and later horse-hair.
The following protocol should be observed by tourists, tourist guides and rock art custodians. 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 land-owner on which rock art exists. No more than eight to ten people may visit a rock art site at any one time.
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 principal locations for public visitation in the Northern and Central Drakensberg include Battle Cave, at Injisuthi Camp, Main Cave, at Giants Castle and Game Pass Shelter at the Kamberg Camp. Some 40 other open sites exist in the region. A rock art custodian must be present. (Special thanks to Celeste Rossouw who provided the training of the author as a San Rock Art Custodian to enable the publication of this article and Graham Barry, of Wits End, for his guidance).