Rock art as an expression of hunter-gatherer society and world-view
Paintings and engravings on rocks in the open air and on cave walls are called rock art. There is rock art on about every continent, but South Africa has some of the most beautiful and advanced examples. It is also sometimes called Bushman art because most of it was created by the San.
What did the artists paint?
Ancient rock artists painted people and animals. It is difficult to say why they painted these pictures. Some archaeologists think that the paintings were created to bring good fortune to a hunt as a kind of spiritual exercise. It could be that the artists simply painted things they found beautiful.
How old is our rock art?
Archaeological dating techniques have improved a great deal over the years and today we have confirmed that some of the rock art found in South Africa, at the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, a World Heritage Site, is about 3 000 years old, instead of about 1 000 years, which was the initial estimate.
Click here for a list of World Heritage Sites.
South African rock art was only discovered about 350 years ago and the first European people to see it thought it primitive. Today these paintings are protected. They provide a link to the past because they tell the story of the lives of these hunter-gatherers.
Where do we find it?
There are thousands of rock paintings and engravings in South Africa and some museums also have collections that are open to the public. The most prominent site is the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park in KwaZulu Natal.
Protecting our treasure
It is very important to protect and conserve our wealth of rock art and UNESCO and the uKhahlamba Park help to protect the paintings. Not too long ago visitors used to wet the rocks with water to make the paints brighter for photographs. This caused a lot of damage to the pictures. Now the pictures are fenced off and are people forbidden to touch them.
Museums where we can learn about Rock Art
The Transvaal Museum in Pretoria.
The Johannesburg Rock Art Museum in the Johannesburg Zoo.
The Africana Museum in Johannesburg.
The South African Museum in Cape Town.
The National Museum in Bloemfontein.
Activity: Below we have compiled some information on 'tools used to make rock art', using this information have some fun get the class to come up with their own rock art symbols and interesting ways to depict these figures on a surface e.g. engraving into a rock, crushing berries etc.
Tools to create rock art
To create a painting you need brushes and paint, made up of pigment and a mixing medium, while some artists like to use other tools like palette knives, or even their hands to get certain effects. The people who created rock art did the same. A researcher observed a descendant of ancient rock artists in Lesotho in the 1930's, and like any other artist he made his tools with materials available to him.
Brushes were made from bird feathers stuck into thin reeds, or from animal hair. We know this because in some paintings the paint is thick enough to show brush strokes. In some places the lines are so thin and delicate that they were probably made by a quill pen. There are even pictures of a painter in a burial stone near Humansdorp in the Western Cape, and he is holding a feather in his right hand like a pen. He is also carrying a palette made of stone in his left hand. We know it is a palette because examples of this type have been found with red ochre paint and marks from quill pens on it.
The most popular and common shade of paint used by rock artists was made of red ochre pigment, which was easy to come by and was mined in Swaziland. Yellow ochre was also easy to find and used often. White paint came in three different shades and researchers think it was made from different shades of white clay or from bird droppings. Black came from charcoal and manganese oxide. There are many different shades and colours but black, red, yellow and white were the basics.
The painter in Lesotho, who came from San and Sotho ancestors, also mixed different colours with different mediums when painting his pictures. He used blood with red ochre, black with water and white with the thick, white juice from a plant. Some of the paint in ancient rock have been analysed by scientists who found traces of albumen. This could mean that they used egg whites to preserve their work, just like more modern painters from the last century. A painter carried his ochre powder in a little horn with other materials in a leather pouch over his shoulder.
Some artists didn't paint, but made engravings on hard rock with other hard materials, like sharp stones or spears.