San Cave Paintings

Treasures of Caves

The spectacular paintings that the ancestors of the San left on the rocks and the walls of cave and shelter are arguably the most exquisite and finely detailed in the world's hunter-gatherer art. 

©Roger de la Harpe
San rock art in the Drakensberg, KwaZulu Natal.

Equally skilled engravings (petroglyphs) are found principally in the interior of the country, but paintings occur more extensively, especially in rocky or mountainous areas such as the Drakensberg (KwaZulu-Natal), the Eastern Cape, and the south-western Cape (including the Cederberg). Human figures and large antelope are by far most commonly depicted, and features of the landscape are rarely included. For unknown reasons, the engravings include more abstract designs than the paintings. Initially, many people thought that the art merely illustrated scenes from daily lives, or records of hunting, although the idea that the art was linked to religion and mythology was present from the start.

The artistic tradition had died out by this century, and even earlier in some parts of the country. The colours used by the San in their art were principally reds, from orange to brown and maroon; yellow; black and white; and their derivatives. Neither blue nor green was ever used. Sophisticated chemical techniques are needed to investigate the composition of the pigments, and many questions remain to be answered.

Red pigments were obtained from haematite (red ochre) and yellows from limonite (yellow ochre). Manganese oxide and occasionally charcoal were used for black paints, while white pigment, which does not preserve well, may have been made from kaolin or bird droppings. In the 1930s, an old part-San man, who had observed San painters, demonstrated the process as he remembered it, and stated that he needed eland blood to mix with the pigment — undoubtedly a symbolic and magical ingredient.

Dating San Rock Art

Dating the rock art is extremely difficult. It cannot usually be carbon dated, because the pigments are inorganic (i.e. contain no carbon) and because the quantities of organic elements used are too small to test. If flakes of painted rock are found in archaeological deposits, organic material in the same layer can be dated, giving an approximate age.

One Namibian site has yielded dates of over 26,000 years for slabs of rock with black pigment on them, but all other dates fall within the last 10,000 years. Most of the paintings still visible on the rock face are probably even younger since the paint and rock surfaces are vulnerable to deterioration and decay.

Drakensberg paintings of horses and soldiers indicate that these paintings cannot pre-date the 19th century. A striking feature of San art is the stylized wide-striding human figures, which vividly depict action and speed. Action is shown in many different ways: dramatically, by animals galloping or leaping, and subtly, by the flick of the tail or the twist of a neck.

Sometimes the paintings create a sense of tension by capturing the moment just prior to action, such as an archer about to unleash his arrows or a lion about to leap. Like other aspects of San life and culture, there is enormous variation and range, in style, subject matter and so forth, alongside similarities which suggest that they were inspired by similar religious beliefs.

The fine bichrome (two colours) and polychrome (more than two colours) paintings of eland, an animal of great symbolic significance to the southern San, is one pointer to the religious affiliation of some, perhaps most, of the art. Paintings of dances, where women clap while men dance, also link some of the art to ritual healing, as known from the Kalahari San.

Paintings of soldiers, wagons, and similar imagery may have been partly magical in function, but also record historical events — including those which led ultimately to the termination of the painting tradition, and the San hunter-gatherer way of life in South Africa.

Translated by Wilma Koeppen