Rock art in South Africa

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There is no part of the world with a richer mythology than South Africa. Rock art is one of South Africa’s most valuable cultural heritage items and one of its most sensitive assets to safeguard. (1) The amazing San artists have given to South Africa one of the greatest collections of prehistoric art to be found anywhere in the world. Unfortunately the locations cannot be divulged because unscrupulous people steal or damage prove of this cultural heritage.

The age of rock art is measured in hundreds of years, for their rate of fading and erosion is very significant. (2,3). The natural pigments used (especially the white and yellow) are very sensitive to deterioration due to light or water exposure. The earliest paintings still visible in the rock galleries are primitive efforts, apparently the beginning of rock art, and these are not more than two thousand years old. With digital technology the photos taken of faded rock art can be enhanced, enabling more accurate identification.

The origin of the San people go so far back that they are lost in the mists of times. The evidence they left behind of their way of living, clearly shows what it was like to live in a Late Stone Age society. They spent their lives wandering in hunting parties (7/4), obsessed with the thrill of the chase and the need for constant renewal of a dwindling larder.

They inhabited the whole of Southern Africa; high mountains, deep valleys and wide planes alike were their homes. They showed their appreciation of their environment by the beautiful paintings they left behind them in rock shelters all over the country (4/10 5/6).

The mountains, ravines and hills of the Klein Karoo are endowed with permanent, deep water holes in the otherwise semi-arid region. Rock sites are often found close to these waterholes.

The rock art in the Klein Karoo offer a glimpse of an artistic and spiritual world defined by rain and water sources. The reading of the San artists’ rock art is based on a connection between the art and the beliefs and practices that focus on myth, ritual and perceptions of the spiritual world. The artists were the invokers of the spirits and tellers of tales, but their true genius lay in recording and bringing to life upon the enduring rock the ceremonies, rites and myths which their people whispered around the fire at night.

In the mountains of the Klein Karoo mythical water beings are signified by an eland (a rain animal). The shaman or rainmaker painted their experiences on the rock walls. The diversity of motives used to depict what lies beyond the material world, such as zigzags, chevron patterns, grids, boat-shaped images, dots, lines, elongated limbs as well as half-human, half-animal.