The Last of the San Rock Artists
San Rock Art of South Africa

The question arises that if the San people are extinct, how is it that we know so much about their culture?

Do or Die

©Jacques Marais
Cederberg, Western Cape, South Africa.
A /Xam man in the North-Western Cape, when asked by a British commissioner in the 1860’s why he and his people continued to take stock from the colonists, replied poignantly, ”It is a fight with death either way”, for if they did not take food, they could not eat, and if they could not eat, they would die. With the arrival of the European settlers came the pressure for land and the concept of individual ownership of land and livestock. These concepts clashed directly with the San belief that land and animals belonged to everybody and inevitably they clashed with the settlers.

Lifestyle Changes

©Roger de la Harpe
San Rock Art of Elephant Herd. Cederberg Wilderness Area, Western Cape, South Africa.

The /Xam San were hunter-gatherers, which meant that they used the indigenous plants and animals for all their needs as they grew no crops and kept no herds. With the very limited resources at their disposal, they took refuge in the caves and ravines in the mountains. Some of those that survived the skirmishes moved northwards to the Kalahari, where the Kung or Northern San live today.

As the years passed, the /Xam became increasingly marginalized and ceased to exist as a tribe. Many of these people became farm hands or domestic servants and added to the gene pool or our modern South African society. These people were South Africa’s first freedom fighters, but their cause was not recognised during the colonial heyday and they have gone forever.

Info Recorded

©Roger de la Harpe
Rock Art at Main Caves. Giant's Castle Game Reserve, Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

It is due to a fortunate quirk of fate that we have such a wealth of information about the San people and their paintings. Three /Xam San men who had been living in the North-Western Cape in the second half of the nineteenth century inadvertently provided valuable testimony about the rock art tradition of their vanishing people.

The written records of the San folklore, their beliefs and life stories were compiled by German philologist Dr Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Dr Lucy Lloyd in Cape Town in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Fascinated by reports of San raids on colonists’ herds, Bleek interviewed these men who had been imprisoned at the Breakwater prison in Cape Town for crimes ranging from stock theft to murder.

He later got permission from the governor for some of the prisoners and their wives to live at home with his family at their home in Observatory, Cape Town. This afforded him and Dr Lloyd the opportunity to compile a comprehensive study on their culture.

Lost Traditions Explained

©Roger de la Harpe
San Rock Art, Bamboo Hollow. Giants Castle, Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Dr Bleek died and the family went back to Europe but returned to South Africa in 1904. Lucy Lloyd taught her niece, Dorothea Bleek to continue documenting the San culture, but when she travelled to Prieska and Kenhardt to look up the families of the people that they had known, she found that the descendants of the /Xam there no longer lived in the traditional way.

They no longer knew the language and could not remember the clan stories. Prof David Lewis-Williams of the University of the Witwatersrand and Patricia Vinnicombe were the first to relate this detailed and largely forgotten record, plus a few other historic accounts of San beliefs, to the rock art. He says, “When I began going into this, I could hardly believe the detailed fit.

It was convincing.” This was during the 1960’s, and Professor Lewis-Williams went to the Kalahari Desert in Botswana to interview some of the remaining Northern Kung San hunter-gatherers. Despite having no painting tradition and speaking a different language, their religious beliefs were essentially very similar, and they gave similar explanations to copies of rock paintings as the /Xam San men interviewed by Bleek and Lloyd.

Professor Lewis-Williams concluded that the artists were shamans and the paintings reflected an altered state of consciousness. This incredible insight has helped us to understand and appreciate the rich legacy of San rock art, and we owe this wealth of knowledge to those hapless, long-dead prisoners and the patient researchers who recorded their tales.

Iziko/The South African Museum in Cape Town has a superb exhibition showcasing this history, as well as magnificent examples of San Rock Art.By Louise Brodie