[Knock,knock] I’m feeling shy because the ladies in the gift shop directed me to this office to ask about the Apollo 11 cave; when I arrived at the closed door, the door plaque stated “Park Director!” From within I hear “who’s there?” Actually, I don’t but I do hear a muffled reply which I take to be an invitation to enter. I inch the door open, poke my head inside the air-conned room, and speak to the man behind the desk. Yes, I’ve found the director of Namibia’s Fish River Canyon National Park. But alas, no, I can’t see the Apollo 11 Cave for two reasons. First, it’s in the deepest interior of this 500-meter-deep canyon (1800-foot) and they don’t allow visitors to descend past the lip of the canyon after September 30, due to the extreme summer temperatures. Secondly, it’s still an active archaeological site and not open to tourists even in the winter season. I’ve always envisioned rock art as ancient classrooms where cliff overhangs and cave walls provided ancient, permanent chalkboards. So it’s a shame that we can’t see Apollo 11 as it is claimed to be the oldest rock art in the world (32,000 years old). Though, the Spaniards and French claim that their art in El Castillo and Chauvet caves have older art. But, no matter: Africa has plenty more to teach us.
Lesson 1: Rock Art Isn’t Dead
Makgabeng Plateau, South Africa
Having visited plenty of rock art in the United States, I associate rock art with phrases such as “left by a vanished culture” and “using the clues left behind to guess at the meaning….” A visit to the Makgabeng Plateau in the Limpopo province of South Africa, then, was a pleasant surprise because the culture behind the art is very much alive. Our guide, Jonas Tlouamma, is the son of a local Sotho chief who grew up herding his family’s cattle among the rock outcroppings, and he played in the canyon beds of the Limpopo and Sashe Rivers where more than 600 panels of paintings have been located to date. When researchers come from around the world to study this little-known region, it’s Jonas who guides them to the sites and introduces them to local Sotho, Venda, and Shona people. These people are a mere 3 generations from the original artists. They can explain the traditions described by the initiation ritual symbols, traditions still practiced today. They can repeat the oral history of the war in 1894 during which Boer soldiers arrested a Hananwa chief and took him away in the train represented in the “resistance art” panel at the base of a an overhung cliff. Even the much older San paintings are interpreted by descendants of the nomadic “Bushmen” painters, who keep their traditions alive by hunting with poisoned arrows even while governments push them from their lands and force them into permanent settlements. It is easy to discern the more recent art from the older San paintings. The older art was painted with a brush and it is usually more refined than the newer art that was painted with fingers. Secondly, the older art used a different paint that was derived from the blood of the animal depicted, and other roots. This gave the art its red color and it is much more durable than the newer art that was made from white soils and roots.
An excellent resource on the Makgabeng Plateau pictography is Capturing the Spoor: An Exploration of Southern African Rock Art, Edward & Cathelijne Eastwood (New Africa Books, 2006).
Lesson 2: Look in Unexpected Places
Spitzkoppe is a large massif rising out of the landscape, one of the four sacred mountains used by the San to orient themselves on hunting expeditions in the Namib Desert. With approximately 40 panels dating as far back as 6,400 years ago, I was surprised at the fine detail and quality of San art after seeing the relative roughness of the more recent artwork at Makgabeng. One of our guides explained it quite simply: the San have perfected this art for millennium whereas the Bantu speakers who moved into the Makgabeng area learned the skill relatively recently.
Compared to other rock art sites we visited, Spitzkoppe had fewer paintings and emphasized practical communication. Animals are drawn with the head pointing towards the direction where a herd was last seen. Paintings of hunters represent the size of the group and their direction of travel. Now for the lesson of this site: We spent 2 days at Spitzkoppe and enjoyed a 2-hour guided tour. On the 2nd morning, Franz, our guide from the previous afternoon, stopped by our campsite with another group of tourists, and asked if he could show them the rock art. “What rock art?” we asked. He grinned and pointed to the wall where we’d been sitting in the shade eating breakfast. The rock art was literally under our noses, and for 2 days we had completely missed it. It was some of the clearest, most delicate art I’ve ever seen. It still astonishes me that it has lasted for 6,000 years. [Note from KC: Too bad house paint doesn’t last that long.]
Lesson 3: Lessons from Afar
“What do you see there?” asked our guide, Dion, a local Damara man from the central Namibian region where we stood sweltering in the late morning sun. Then he stood back and smiled while he watched our expressions change from puzzlement to astonishment as we identified sea creatures. Yet, here we were more than 100 miles from the coast looking at pictographs of seals and penguins. Clearly, ancient San visited the coast and brought back tales, if not the meat, of seals and penguins to this arid inland hunting region. Named Twyfelfontein (“doubtful springs”) by the first Afrikaans settlers for its sporadic water sources, much of the rock art here focuses on directional signs in which a circle represents a water hole. The European settlers quickly realized the small springs couldn’t support their farming efforts. Just looking at the sandy soil and inhospitable terrain, it’s astounding they even tried. But the San and Damara people are experts at surviving in this harsh landscape. They wrote down directions to seasonal and permanent water holes, so that the groups that followed could find water. Had the Europeans been able to decipher the rock art, they would have known that a circle with a dot in the center indicated a permanent water hole, whereas circles lacking dots were seasonal waterholes. Each circle also had a straight line shooting out from it. This indicated the direction of the waterhole.
Unlike Spitzkoppe, an area visited only during the rainy season, Twyfelfontein was habitable for most parts of the year due to its reliable water sources. As a result, Twyfelfontein contains excellent examples of ritualistic art. Giraffes, an animal associated with rain because its head seems to reach the clouds, figure prominently here. Shamanistic figures, half-human and half animal, represent the shaman’s transformation when visiting the spirit world during healing or rain-making ceremonies. During his trance, shamans report feeling painfully stretched, and this elongation is often depicted in rock art.
Lesson 4: Focus Your Energy
My first introduction to Tsodilo Hills in northern Botswana was in a story recounting a tourist’s tale of her first visit to the rock art (before the local community began requiring guides to eliminate vandalism). She encountered an eland as she hiked up a steep trail, but the normally elusive animal – the largest antelope in Africa – merely watched her then stepped by her and continued down the path. On her second visit, she again encountered an eland in the same place. When she later met a San man and relayed this story, he immediately knew he could trust her; he had never known the most powerful protector spirit of Tsodilo to reveal itself to a white person. (The woman eventually became instrumental in helping the San fight their battle against the Botswana government when it began to displace them from their traditional hunting lands after diamonds were discovered in the Kalahari. It’s a shameful and too-often-repeated story still going on today as I write.) The point of this anecdote is that the peaks of Tsodilo Hills, known as Mother, Father and Child, have a special kind of energy. People have felt it for centuries; the San and subsequent tribes who moved into the area know it’s a sacred place where their ancestors’ spirits reside, and even when we visited in December (2013), the Krishnas had been meditating there for 3 days. When Laurens van der Post came to research the rock art in the 1950s, he was instructed by local people not to hunt near Tsodilo but one of his staffers didn’t receive the message and shot a zebra. This was bad juju. Immediately, the party began to experience malfunctioning cameras and tape recorders. Finally, after three consecutive mornings of swarming bee attacks, Van der Post wrote and buried a letter of apology to the ancestral spirits of the mountains. The nastiness thereafter stopped. His San guide told him that it was an indication of the spirits’ loss of power in recent years that Van der Post hadn’t been killed outright. The rock art at Tsodilo is astounding: more than 400 panels display over 4,000 individual paintings spread over almost 2,500 acres. The area has been inhabited for 100,000 (!!!!) years and the oldest art is 3,000 years old while some of the more recent art only a few hundred years ago.