Drakensberg Rock Art

by jptanabe

The Bushmen (San) people created thousands of rock paintings in the Drakensberg mountains of Southern Africa

The Drakensberg is the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, and some 20,000 rock paintings have been found in its numerous caves and overhangs.

These were made by the Bushmen (also known as San), indigenous hunter-gatherers who have inhabited the region for thousands of years. Their cave paintings are incredible images of a variety of animals including rhinoceros, elephant, and various antelope species native to the area.

Rock art of a human figure holding the tail of an eland from Wikimedia Commons.

The Drakensberg

The Drakensberg (Afrikaans for "Dragon's Mountain") are the highest mountains in Southern Africa. In the Zulu language they are referred to as uKhahlamba ("barrier of spears"). A remnant of the original African plateau, the Drakensberg mountains are formed from sandstone with a cap of basalt.

Water and wind erosion cut into the plateau, producing an extraordinary and almost unique landscape of distinctive formations and colors, dominated by extremely steep cliffs. Since sandstone is easily eroded, these cliffs contain numerous caves and overhangs.

In the Drakensberg caves are thousands of spectacular rock paintings produced by the Bushmen. This represents the largest collection of rock paintings in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Drakensberg became a World Heritage Site in 2000 acknowledging and preserving these cultural treasures.

On the ridge of the Drakensberg amphitheatre
On the ridge of the Drakensberg amphitheatre

The Bushmen or San

The Bushmen (also known as San) peoples of South Africa and neighboring Botswana and Namibia live in the Kalahari Desert, an area which covers much of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Bushmen migrated southward from an unknown location to the Kalahari desert. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, they lived in temporary wooden and rock shelters and caves of the Kalahari. As much as half of the contemporary Bushmen population lives traditionally, essentially like their ancestors lived. Much has been learned about the ancient ways from contemporary Bushmen.

The Bushmen have been nomadic hunters and gatherers of wild food in small hunting bands. Their possessions normally consist only of what they can carry. The only concession most contemporary Bushmen have made to the modern era is clothing. Traditional Bushmen practice shamanism, conjuring animals with sacred songs, and performing almost magical healing. Their folklore is very rich and traditionally passed on through storytelling and acting out hunting and other events.

Public Domain image of Bushmen San
Public Domain image of Bushmen San

Bushmen came to the attention of the contemporary Western world in the 1950s by South African author Laurens van der Post, with his famous book The Lost World of the Kalahari, which was made into a television series. In more popular culture, the 1980 comedy movie The Gods Must Be Crazy portrayed a tribe's first encounter with an artifact from the outside world (a Coca-Cola bottle).

Cave Paintings

Bushmen are also well-known throughout the world for their spectacular cave paintings, thousands of which can be seen preserved in the Drakensberg caves. These date back thousands of years, although many times the same rocks were used over and over with the result that more recent paintings cover the ancient art. The purpose and understanding of these paintings, although originally not realized by Europeans who first discovered them, has never been lost to the Bushmen.

San Painting
San Painting

Drakensberg Rock Paintings

The Drakensberg caves are home to thousands of rock paintings, the creative outpourings of the Bushmen culture over thousands of years. Originally thought by Europeans to be primitive, crude representations of hunting scenes, lacking perspective and three-dimensionality, these artworks gradually became appreciated for their exquisite color and fine detail.

San/Bushman Rock art, Ukalamba Drakensberge, South Africa. It shows an Eland
San/Bushman Rock art, Ukalamba Drakensberge, South Africa. It shows an Eland

These ancient paintings often include hunters and animals such as rhinoceros, elephant and a variety of antelope species, particularly the eland which remains a contemporary inhabitant of the region. For decades Europeans believed that though beautiful, these paintings were no more than simple portrayals of hunter-gatherer life.

Eland cave, Drakensberg, South Africa.
Eland cave, Drakensberg, South Africa.
Book on the Drakensberg Rock Art
The Eland's People: New Perspectives in the Rock Art of the Maloti-Drakensberg Bushmen Essays in ...

Only 1000 copies of People of the Eland were printed in 1976. It was neither reissued nor reprinted. It has become one of the rarest and most expensive of all books on the Afric...

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Finally, however, the spiritual side of these paintings was revealed. Paintings were discovered that showed how hunters gained power from the animals that they killed. Anthropologists decided to interview current Bushmen who confirmed that these paintings represented evocation of a spiritual power.

Contemporary Bushmen have confirmed that a number of paintings represent shamanistic practices. They show shamans stretching out their arms over a fire in a fashion believed to open a portal to the spirit world and evoke power for the hunt.

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Updated: 05/12/2022, jptanabe
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jptanabe on 06/24/2015

Thanks! Yes there are quite a few North American rock paintings - I should research them!

sheilamarie on 06/23/2015

This is a fascinating study. We have a few examples of North American rock paintings along the lake where I live. They are not as intricate as these African examples, though.
By the way, my son went to college in your neighborhood.

frankbeswick on 05/31/2015

I read The Lost World of the Kalahari when I was fourteen and while the memories are distant, your article brought back my feelings of enjoyment from the book. This was an enjoyable article.

jptanabe on 05/31/2015

Yes, relatively unaffected. Of course they face several challenges ...

CruiseReady on 05/30/2015

I find it rather amazing to learn that these Bushmen are still living much as they did many generations ago. It sounds as if their culture has been relatively unaffected by the modern world.

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