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Rock art

© SA Tourism© SA TourismRock art is a cryptic window into a lost world we can never hope to fully understand, but from which we can gain immense inspiration for living in the present. As well as their aesthetic value, these ancient paintings offer a fascinating insight into a way of life long (and unfortunately irretrievably) gone. The first Europeans who saw these paintings assumed they were merely mindless depictions of everyday life and animals, and attributed any anomalies to errors and lack of sophistication. But later archaeologists, historians and anthropologists paid attention to the more unusual and less realistic aspects of the paintings. It would appear that the paintings are depictions of trance states, and perhaps even some sort of identification with animals that were being hunted.

For example, one of the most powerful animals in the Khoi-San bestiary is the eland, which is often depicted in unusual states, with lines emanating from its nose or mouth. People, too, are often depicted in the act of transforming themselves into animals – thought to be a depiction of shamanic rites.

The most easily visited areas for rock paintings are the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal (which can only be visited with a guide), the Cederberg Mountains near Cape Town, and the Eastern Highlands of the Free State, although there are pockets of art in almost all the mountainous areas.

In the mountains near Oudtshoorn, there is a particularly fascinating panel with strange creatures that have alternately been called mermaids or water spirits, or simply swallows by the sceptics – who have as yet been unable to give a plausible explanation for the fact that some of the “swallows” appear to be clutching spears in their wings! Whatever explanations you hear or choose to believe, probably the only thing we can be sure of is that we will never really know what the ancient artists were trying to say – although there is a growing body of academic work supporting the shaman trance theories.

Surprisingly, rock engravings are far less common than paintings. Two of the better known sites are at Twyfelfontein in Namibia and near the Northern Cape town of Kimberley. The latter is rather unique – quite unlike all the other rock art in South Africa – in that it seems to consist of abstract designs as opposed to animals and people. Was this the work of one particularly talented individualistic artist, or is it part of a whole alternative social structure of which no other evidence remains?

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