Rock art is a fascinating window into the past, providing us with glimpses of the lives and beliefs of ancient civilisations. In Southern Africa, specifically in countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia, thousands of rock art sites have been discovered and studied extensively. These sites offer valuable insights into the cultural references, beliefs and practices of hunter-gatherer painters and engravers who once inhabited these regions.
Southern Africa is characterized by wide variation in physical environments, ranging from rainforests to arid deserts. The geographical characteristics of different regions have influenced the type and distribution of rock art. Inland areas with exposed boulders and rocky outcrops tend to feature engraved rock art, while paintings are commonly found in protective rock shelters in mountainous or hilly areas.
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The most widely distributed rock art tradition in Southern Africa is associated with hunter-gatherers. This tradition includes both paintings and engravings, featuring images of animals and people. While there are differences in style, composition and colour between regions, there are also commonalities in imagery and style.
Paintings often depict people in procession and carrying items such as bows and arrows, while animals, particularly large ungulates, are naturalistically depicted. Some paintings are described as “fine-line” paintings due to their delicate rendering with a thin brush.
In the northeastern portion of Southern Africa, a different form of rock art known as “late white” paintings is found. These paintings are associated with Bantu language-speaking Iron Age farming communities that entered the region around 2000 years ago. “Late white” paintings are predominantly white in colour and often depict animals, people and geometric shapes in schematic forms.
The accurate attribution of authorship, date, and motivation of rock art is difficult to establish. However, it is generally accepted that hunter-gatherer art in southern Africa reflects images and motifs of spiritual and cultural importance.
Some images are believed to represent trance visions of San|Bushman spiritual leaders, while others may relate to specific themes such as initiation or rainmaking. The interpretation of rock art is an ongoing process, with researchers studying individual sites and their historical context to gain a deeper understanding of their meaning.
Rock art sites throughout southern Africa form a crucial part of the archaeological record, providing valuable insights into the lives of past inhabitants. Many of these sites are open to the public, allowing visitors to experience rock art in its original setting. However, the exposed nature of rock art makes it vulnerable to environmental damage and vandalism.