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Images of the Spirit World Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by J.D. Lewis-Williams

[image] San rock paintings always had spiritual significance. In addition to red ocher and other substances, some images of the eland, Africa's largest antelope, were made with its blood, thought to contain the animal's supernatural potency. This example, in the Prentjiesberg Mountains of South Africa, is less than ten inches from nose to tail. (Courtesy Rock Art Research Centre, University of the Witwatersrand) [LARGER IMAGE]

Summer in South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains brings bright, hot days with late afternoon thunderstorms, the great grassy spurs ranging, brilliantly green, as far as the eye can see. One such day in 1992, a colleague and I were recording ancient paintings on the wall of a remote rock-shelter. Clambering around the side of a mountain, I spotted a prominent outcrop with a rock-shelter at its base. The shelter floor was littered with tiny stone tools known as microliths, and on the back wall was a beautiful human figure in red ocher, a classic image by an anonymous painter of the San people, the ancient inhabitants of southern Africa.

Archaeologists have traced the ancestors of the San back more than 50,000 years. For these ancient hunters and foragers, the spirit world was never far from daily life, and nowhere was it closer than at the tens of thousands of rock-art sites scattered across Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Lesotho. There, on the walls of the rock-shelters where they lived, they depicted antelopes, rhinos, elephants, and other animals; people hunting and performing rituals; and bizarre, mythical creatures, half animal and half human. Dating individual paintings is quite difficult as the shelters were used seasonally over long periods of time.

The knell of the southern San sounded in 1652 when the Dutch established a colony at the Cape of Good Hope, a maritime waystation midway between Europe and the East Indies. As new settlers moved inland from the cape, they came increasingly into conflict with the indigenous inhabitants. Rock art from the colonial period even shows Europeans, with their guns and covered wagons, shooting San people. In South Africa, mass murder, acculturation, and intermarriage completely destroyed the San way of life, though it survives in parts of Botswana and Namibia.

Today, few people would question that San rock painting deserves a place among the world's great art traditions. Fifty years ago, however, the vast majority of scholars dismissed it as the crude daubings of a simple people depicting their simple way of life. In the 1970s, researchers began to study nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts of San life and beliefs. These studies showed that the San had inhabited a spiritual world as complex as any, filled with supernatural beings and animals. No matter how realistic, these images all had a spiritual dimension: they were insights into the otherworld, the rock a veil through which artists and shamans believed they could see and travel.

J.D. Lewis-Williams is professor of cognitive archaeology and director of the Rock Art Research Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America