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Rock art

More about rock art in the Drakensberg

Our species, Homo sapiens, originated in Africa. This is mainstream scientific thinking based on numerous paleontological finds across southern and central Africa. Recent finds at Blombos Cave in the Western Cape, where 70 000 year old art (geometric patterns engraved on rocks) was found, now suggest that modern humans may have emerged in southern Africa. The Bushmen (or San) are the likely direct descendants of these first modern humans and have remained in southern Africa while many other lineages migrated further north in Africa and on to all the other continents. So southern Africa is home to us all! 

The Bushmen were the original inhabitants of the Drakensberg. Excavations at the Good Hope Shelter (off the Sani Pass road) suggest that Bushmen have been living in the rock shelters of the Drakensberg for a minimum of 10 000 years. For much of that time, they have been painting in some of these shelters. The Drakensberg is thus home to one of the largest art galleries in the world, with around 600 painted sites and over 35 000 individual images. One can look at paintings of eland or rhebok, turn around and look out at these very animals! 

Latest dating techniques suggest the oldest paintings in the Drakensberg are around 3500 years old, but given the nature of the sandstone they are painted on, it is possible that any older paintings have faded away. The most recent paintings show subjects like horses and date from the mid-1800’s. This is when they were driven from their ancient lands and were pursued to extinction or assimilated into neighbouring peoples.

All that remains are their paintings. They provide us with much beauty and fascination, but also give us a glimpse into the inner workings of their caring and compassionate society as hunter gatherers. There are scenes depicting a wide variety of animals, human figures engaged in hunting, dancing, fighting, food gathering or ritual and trance scenes of hunting or rainmaking.

One of the pioneers and a giant of rock art research, Pat Vinnicombe, was born and bred on a farm near Underberg. In the 1960’s and 70’s, she conducted a massive survey of painted sites in the southern Drakensberg and Lesotho, tracing carefully all the images (her tracings are kept in the natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg) and writing a ground-breaking book, “People of the Eland” which completely changed the way researchers thought about rock art from then on. The southern Drakensberg thus has a special place in rock art areas of southern Africa.

The rock art sites in the Maloti Drakensberg park are managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in conjunction with AMAFA, the Heritage Council of KZN. There are strict rules and policies in place to protect the art, the most important one being that visitors may only access a rock art site with a guide. Those who guide visitors to view the art not only ensure best practice in the shelters to protect the priceless heritage, but are all highly knowledgeable and passionate about their subject. You will gain tremendous insight, not only into the Bushmen and their way of life, but also into many other aspects of our beautiful mountains.

Rock art guided hikes