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The San and their rock paintings

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Southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants and the most direct descendants of the late Stone Age, the San, or Bushmen, lived in the caves and shelters of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg for thousands of years before the arrival of the Nguni people and later the white farmers. There is still some disagreement over what to call these early hunter-gatherers. Many liberal writers use the word “Bushmen” in a strictly non-pejorative sense – though the word was originally deeply insulting. Several historians and anthropologists have plumped for “San”, but as the term refers to a language group and not a culture, this isn’t strictly accurate either. Since there is no agreed term, you’ll find both words used in this book.

The San hunted and gathered on the subcontinent for a considerable period – paintings in Namibia date back 25,000 years. In the last two thousand years, the southward migration of Bantu-speaking farmers forced change on the San, but there is evidence that the two groups were able to live side by side. However, serious tensions arose when the white settlers began to annex lands for hunting and farming. As the San started to take cattle from farmers, whites came to regard these people as vermin; they felt free to hunt the San in genocidal campaigns in the Cape, and later in other areas, including the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg, until they were wiped off the South African map.

San artists were also shamans, and their paintings of hunting, dancing and animals mostly depict their religious beliefs rather than realistic narratives of everyday life in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg. It’s difficult to date the paintings with accuracy, but the oldest are likely to be at least 800 years old (although Bushmen lived in the area for thousands of years before that) and the most recent are believed to have been painted after the arrival of the whites towards the end of the nineteenth century. However, it’s easy and rewarding to pick out some of the most significant elements in San paintings. The medicine or trance dance – journeying into the spiritual world in order to harness healing power – was the Bushmen’s most important religious ritual and is depicted in much of their art. Look out for the postures the shamans adopted during the dance, including arms outstretched behind them, bending forward, kneeling, or pointing fingers. Dots along the spine often relate to the sensation of energy boiling upwards, while lines on faces or coming out of the nose usually depict nosebleeds – a common side effect of the trance state. Other feelings experienced in trance, such as that of elongation, attenuation or the sensation of flight, are expressed by feathers or streamers. The depictions of horses, cattle and white settlers, particularly in the Southern Berg, mark the end of the traditional way of life for the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Bushmen, and it is possible that the settlers were painted by shamans as a supernatural technique to try to ward off their all-too-real bullets.

To enter the spirit world, shamans often tapped into the spiritual power of certain animals. You’ll see the spiral-horned eland depicted in every cave – not because these antelope were prolific in the Berg, but because they were considered to have more power than any other animal. Sometimes the elands are painted in layers to increase their spiritual potency. In the caves open to the public, you can see depictions of human-like figures in the process of transforming into their power animal. Besides antelope, other animals associated with trance are honeybees, felines, snakes and sometimes elephants and rhinos.

Paintings weather and fade, and many have been vandalized. Well-meaning people dabbing water on them to make them clearer, or touching them, has also caused them to disappear – so never be tempted. One of the best and most up-to-date introductions to rock art is the slim booklet by David Lewis-Williams, Rock Paintings of the Natal Drakensberg, available from most decent bookshops in the area.

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