When Europeans first discovered the rock art of the San people, or Bushmen, in Southern Africa over 350 years ago they thought it to be as primitive and crude as the people who made it, considered two-dimensional accounts of daily life, fighting and hunting. However, 20th century scholars have far more respect for the aesthetics of the finely detailed and exquisitely coloured paintings, which they consider to be largely narrative accounts of hunter-gatherer life.
After a closer look in recent years, another picture emerged completely, showing that for the San rock paintings were not only representations of life, they were also permanent records of their history. When shamans painted an eland for instance, they not only paid homage to a sacred animal, they also harnessed its essence, and by putting paint to rock they opened portals to the spiritual world.
Scholars now believe that the trance dance serves as the foundation for rock art and offer a record of ages past. This is a guide to some of the best San rock art sites to be found in South Africa, showing a record of just how prolific as artists these first inhabitants of South Africa really were:
Kamberg Rock Art Centre: This is where the first South African rock art was found and then introduced to the world, the result is that the Ukhalamba-Drakensberg Park is now a world heritage site where San paintings are national monuments protected by law.
Didima Gorge Rock Art site: Situated in the Cathedral Peak area of the Drankensberg Mountains in Kwazulu-Natal, this is a site that has some of the most intriguing and mystical San Bushman rock art in the world.
Drankensberg Rock Art: The Drakensberg mountains in Kwazulu-Natal has the greatest concentration of San Bushman rock art in South Africa, but most of it is in remote but supremely beautiful surroundings well worth the hike!
Bushman’s Kloof, Pakhuis Pass, Clanwilliam, Western Cape: This rock art site, which is part of the Bushman’s Kloof Wilderness Reserve, has been declared a National Heritage site because of its spectacular San paintings and because it is part of the Cape Floral region.
Gifberg, Western Cape: The Gifberg rock art site is linked in a vital way to the life of the ancient San Bushmen as this was where they found the poison for what were otherwise puny arrows!
San Bushman art is prolific in South Africa and reaches into areas such as the Brandberg Mountains and Twyfelfontein areas in Namibia, and if a Bushman art cultural adventure is what you are after, you will be able to follow in the footsteps of this nomadic hunter-gather culture to your heart’s content!