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Rock Art

Most researchers who study rock art tend to focus on technical aspects, such as the material and techniques used. Their studies have revealed that ochre was used as paint and an albuminous binding media. The paintings consisted mainly of human figures, animals and some abstract figures with geometric origin. A transition occurred with the arrival of Bantu-speaking people, as some human figures were then painted in black with charcoal. The emergence of domesticated animals also marked this infiltration, as these new people were farmers and they had tamed animals, such as cattle, which gradually started replacing the eland in the art.

Lewis-Williams argues that previous research on the hunter-gatherer rock art has always taken an ethnocentric point of view by imposing an 'art for art's sake' interpretation. Rock art, he argues has to do with the trance dancing in which the medicine man (Shaman,) in a state of trance, forms the link between the natural and the supernatural. The paintings are then used as a medium of communication with the spirit world, especially for rituals such as rainmaking and healing/cleansing. It is even suggested that the shamans were the artists who, after emerging from a trance, would paint the images they saw. Painted sites were thus storehouses of the potency that made contact with the spiritual world possible (Lewis-Williams, D. 1981).

Ethnology and oral history has been used to obtain information about "Bushman" belief systems. Such studies have revealed that the Eland is a central symbol. Eland fat is associated with girls, as they are seen in that culture as fat and both, in turn, symbolise a "good thing". During the trance dance, the shaman "dies" in the same way that an eland dies, with legs crossed. The San believe that rain is caused by an animal that flies across the sky, which when captured, is brought to the land requiring rain, it is then cut so that its blood can "rain" over the land. Kaggen, the mantis, it is said threw up into the air the moon which was his shoe. He also had a pet eland, his wife was a dassie (rock rabbit) and an adopted daughter was a porcupine. Lewis-William suggests in 'Believing and Seeing' (1981), that in "Bushman" art one finds intentional meaning where eland, trance figures, trance buck, etc. are juxtaposed. Further he postulates implicational meaning, such as that of the eland metaphor in girls' puberty.

The most significant images are the zigzags and other geometric figures. These are images that one usually sees when entering an altered state of mind, especially through trance and that is one way how the trance has been related to rock art. Symbols of aggression such as predators are also present, thus reflecting threat and stress with the environment, this however changed to black figures, when the pastoralists arrived, and later to figures with guns when the Europeans arrived. Rock art seems to be abundant at this stage, as the hunter-gatherers retreated to the mountains, avoiding conflict with the new arrivals. Most rock art in South Africa is found in the South-western and southern Cape, the Drakensberg, Eastern Cape, Lesotho and Swaziland. These are mountainous regions and served as places of refuge and sanctuaries.

Last updated : 19-Sep-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011