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South African Rock Art

When the Dutch first arrived on the shores of South Africa, they found a particularly different indigenous group of people living in small clusters around the country. These people were mostly peace-loving, short, hardy and had an incredible knowledge of nature. Instead of farming with cattle these people chose a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle – living off the land and forming an affinity with nature instead of dominating it or complicating their lives with animal husbandry. The Dutch called them ‘Bushmen’ because of their amazing ability to live solely on the various foods provided by the sometimes harsh African Bush. However today they are commonly known as the San people. While most of them were forced into the African interior during the 19th century, they have left behind and incredible legacy of South African rock art. This South African Rock Art has drawn art lovers, history lovers and just tourists in general to some of the most remote parts of the country for a closer look.

Southern Africa has one of the richest rock-art heritages in the world. The art includes paintings and engravings and is widely distributed over the southern half of the continent. Some of the art dates back at least 25 000 years, with the most recent being roughly 200 years old. The majority of rock engravings occur in the plateau regions of the country where the outer skin of the rocks is completely removed to create the engraving. The rock paintings are much more widespread and are found on natural rocky shelters or overhands. They were likely painted with fingers, animal hair brushes, feathers and sticks. Pigment was obtained from a wide variety of items. Yellows and reds were obtained from lumps of ground iron oxides while black was obtained from manganese oxide or burnt bone. Fine clay powder was used for white. It is surmised that they mixed egg albumen, blood, urine or plant sap with the various pigments as a binder which would have helped it to stick to the rock. The artists may have incorporated natural rock features into the painting and may have also made additions to earlier paintings.

The rock painting was often done whilst the painter was in a trance and sometimes features rather unusual looking creatures. The art often depicts dances or hunts and the care taken to produce these images is evident even today. Each picture tells a story and you can easily find yourself imagining the event that might have caused these ancient peoples to put pigment to rock and create these beautiful works of art. A number of painted stones have also been found though these are usually associated with burials. If you’d like to view a large selection of rock art, there are a number of museums which specialise in this type of artwork. The Kamberg Rock Art Centre in Kwa-Zulu Natal is perhaps one of the newest centres open to the public. If you feel that trekking through the wilderness would enhance your experience, there are several major sites around the country which can be reached on foot. The Drakensberg and Free State regions are generally considered the best places to go for rock art viewing.

If you are interested in visiting some of the rock art sights around South Africa, you should keep in mind that rock art is incredibly fragile. All rock art sites are protected by law and it is a criminal offence to damage any rock art or archaeological artefacts. This includes wetting or touching the rock art. You should also keep in mind that a number of rock art sights are on private land and so should ask permission from the land owner before attempting to visit any such sights. It is also usually very beneficial to visit the sight with an informed guide as this will enhance the experience. You may also not remove any artefacts or alter the site in any way. Generally speaking landowners and guides are very friendly and will help answer questions to the best of their abilities.


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