The meaning of South African rock paintings

Term Paper, 2001

10 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Pictures from the Past

2. Discovering rock art

3. The spiritual world and shamanism

4. Trance

5. The eland symbol and animal power

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction: Pictures from the past

One aspect of the wealth of material evidence left behind by the early people are the pictures in south african rock art. They occur in paintings and engravings. In 1996 the total number of sites in South Africa was estimated to be a little over 10 000 but the actual number of sites is significantly undercounted. It is still not known exactly when the artists started to make rock art, although new techniques of radiocarbon dating, using very small samples of paint, open the possibility of an absolute chronology. The oldest example of rock art in Africa was found in 1969 by Eric Wendt in the southern region of Namibia at a site called Apollo 11. After various datings, mainly with the radiocarbon method, archaeologists concluded that the rock art tradition in southern africa is at least 27 500 years old. In South Africa the oldest dated rock art is an engraving in the Northern Cape which was found on a small slab of dolomite at the Wonderwerk Cave south of Kuruman. It has a radiocarbon date of c.10 200 BP. Rock paintings are found in the mountainous parts of the subcontinent in abundant rock shelters and shallow overhangs, while engravings were generally made on the interior plateau of South Africa. There are about 1600 paintings in South Africa. In this assignment I will focus on the meaning of rock paintings, on the specific symbols and their importance for the early people. In Chapter Two, I provide a short introduction about the artists and their methods. Then I will explain the three important approaches to reveal the meaning of rock art described by Lewis – Williams and give some examples of misinterpretations of rock paintings. Chapter Three deals with the spiritual world and shamanism in the society of the Bushmen. In the fourth chapter the state of trance and the trance dance are described, which are important key parts for understanding rock art. Chapter Five shall point out the symbolism of the eland – antelope in addition to animal power in general. This symbol is of great importance and represented relatively frequent in the art. These symbols and the discussion of their meanings seem to be a representative selection, to help better understand the spiritual background of south african rock art and its meaning.

2. Discovering rock art

“Familiar paintings are suddenly transformed and illuminated when they are seen through San eyes; whole new vistas of meaning and subtletly open up.” (Lewis – Williams, 1996: p. 1)

South african rock art was made by various groups. The Khoisan group, which produced most of the paintings, consists of the San hunters and gatherers (Bushmen) and the Khoekhoe pastoralists (Hottentots). As rock art shows, Bushmen lived in all parts of southern Africa. Later the black farmers also shaped the so-called “late white” tradition. In this work I focus on the rock paintings made by the San. Some are stylised representations but the majority faithfully and skilfully portray the people and animals of the region: hunters, giraffes, elephants, rhinos, lions, antelopes and so on. Minerals of various kinds provided the pigments for making the rock paintings. Ferric oxide, ochre and blood were used for making red, the most durable of all colours. Charcoal and specularite provided the black pigment. White was made from silicia, china, clay and gypsum. The artists used small bones, hair, feathers and wood to make tiny brushes with which they applied the colour on the rock. Drawings made of handprints and with the fingers are found, too.

The knowledge of San rock art has developed over the years. There are different aspects that have to be considered when we try to reveal the meaning of rock art. J.D. Lewis–Williams made some important attempts to reveal the symbolic meaning behind the pictures which seem to be simple drawings at first sight. He distinguishes this process in three approaches: the aesthetic, the narrative and the interpretative approaches. (Lewis–Williams, 1996: p. 12-62). From an aesthetic point of view the pictures of animals attracted most attention, because they are painted in striking detail. Different postures and movements are shown in a very realistic and animated way in depictions of animals and human figures. The artists occasionally used perspective and some paintings have been done directly on top of others. The narrative approach provides access to the daily life, customs and traditions of this group. In the San society men were occupied with hunting and the women with gathering plant food which is also reflected in the paintings. Women are, for example, often depicted with digging sticks and men are shown with bows, arrows and baskets. But the paintings can not be seen as a simple, straightforward narrative of San life. There is a deep pattern of symbolism lying in the art which has to be examined carefully and with a complex knowledge about the San culture, customs and religious beliefs. The interpretative point of view is concerned about the San‘s beliefs and deals with the trance dance and the spiritual experiences of the shamen which provide a deeper insight into San rock art. It is very complex and involves varied meanings and symbolic associations. One little detail can change the whole meaning of the picture. It is true that real objects are represented in the paintings, but an interpretation can not be based on these recognisable features alone.

Misinterpretations of rock paintings are still often made because the observers do not know enough about rock art and the traditional background and view the art through Western eyes.

“Mistaken ideas about the mental capabilities of so–called ‚primitive people‘ and a lack of close attention to the art itself are the basic ingredients of a recipe for misunderstanding.” (Lewis – Williams & Dowson, 1989: p. 23). One of the most bizzare interpretations has been that of a painting of a man with body decoration, carrying a bow and arrows, which is called “The White Lady” and preserved in the Brandberg in Namibia. It has long, and erroneously, been described as the representation of a white woman of Cretan origins. Archaeologists like C.K. Cooke critizised this interpretation. He wrote in 1969, “I am of the opinion that this beautifully drawn figure is that of a youth. Because a bow is being carried it is most unlikely that a woman is the subject. [...] The original sketch by Reinhart Maack shows the male sexual organ. This is no longer visible in the original but many have well been obscured by the film which has since covered the whole figure.“ (C.K. Cooke, 1969: p. 86). David Lewis – Williams and Dowson pointed out, that “...the famous White Lady of the Brandberg is neither white nor a lady.“ According to Lewis-Williams and Dowson, “The White Lady and accompanying figures are clearly Bushman rock paintings, striking, but no different from many paintings throughout southern Africa. Only someone unfamiliar with the broad sweep of Bushman rock art would wish to single out the White Lady for special treatment.“ (1989: p. 7).


Excerpt out of 10 pages


The meaning of South African rock paintings
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University  (Faculty of Arts)
Course: South African Archaeology and Ethno–history (SA 301)
1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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461 KB
South, African, Course, South, African, Archaeology, Ethno–history
Quote paper
Lenka Tucek (Author), 2001, The meaning of South African rock paintings, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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