The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 21
Graham Hancock & Santha Faiia
The Earth Mysteries
Prehistoric Rock Art of South Africa
In Part III of Graham Hancock and Santha Faiia's series The Earth Mysteries, written specially for Nikon Owner magazine, Graham examines the prehistoric rock art of South Africa.
Across South Africa, hidden away in the mountain fastnesses of the Drakensberg, and in the wilderness areas of the Cedarberg and the Karoo, tens of thousands of mysterious painted images decorate the walls and ceilings of remote rock shelters. The oldest of these images so far found in the region (in neighbouring Namibia, rather than in South Africa itself) has been dated to 27,000 years ago while the youngest were completed within living memory at the end of the 19th century. Throughout this vast span of time, the essence of the art did not change. It represents one continuous, unbroken tradition - the single longest artistic tradition ever to have been documented anywhere in the world.
Reports by European observers in the 19th century help us to understand the rock art of southern Africa. From these reports we know that the painters were Bushmen - the "San" - who the white settlers despised and even hunted, and that it was the ancestors of the San, leading the same hunter-gatherer lifestyle, who had been responsible for the entire artistic tradition of the region stretching back deep into the Stone Age. We also know that the painters described in the 19th century reports were from a very specific class of people in San society - the gi:ten, or shamans. They used an arduous circular dance accompanied by rhythmic drumming and clapping to induce trance states in which they bled from the nose, collapsed unconscious on the ground and experienced out-of-body travel and encounters with supernatural beings. Later, after they had returned to normal consciousness, they mixed simple pigments of white, black and red ochre to depict these experiences and encounters on the walls of the rock shelters.
Although Bushmen do still survive today in parts of southern Africa - notably in Botaswana and Namibia - and although their shamans still perform the prehistoric "trance dance" in order to contact the spirit world, they are not closely related to the San and they do not make painted records of their visions. Nor, any longer, do the San themselves - who could be hunted to death legally until 1927 and who had been driven to extinction by the middle of the 20th century. Quite possibly the connection between San shamanism and the extraordinary rock art of South Africa would have been forgotten altogether had it not been for David Lewis-Williams, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Witwatersrand whose research since the 1980s has unequivocally established that this is indeed an art of visions and that it does not depict or describe anything in the physical world of everyday life but rather expresses powerful spiritual experiences.