The Riddle of the Rocks—Bushman Paintings
By “Awake!” correspondent in South Africa
FOR an art lover, a visit to an art gallery is usually an occasion of interest and delight. But even in large cities art galleries are few and far between. Southern Africa, however, can boast of literally hundreds of ancient art galleries. They have captivated interest and brought delight to countless artists, archaeologists and sightseers.
We are referring to the Bushman rock paintings. When the visitors gaze in fascination at a rock face covered with these pictures of people and animals, they ask themselves: Was the artist just doodling, or was he trying to convey a message? And, beside a gurgling stream hundreds of miles from the sea, why and how did an artist make a nearly perfect drawing of a dolphin?
Looking for the Answers
Seeking answers to such questions and “motivated by the inevitability of the disappearance of these pictures,” teams of archaeologists and artists such as the Frobenius expedition with artists from Germany, and Harald Pager from Austria, have worked against time to copy and record as many of the drawings as possible. The French archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil was among the world-renowned researchers who, after having investigated European primitive art, particularly that of Spain and France, turned attention to the work of the Bushman artists of Africa. The investigators found the African field to be as full of unanswered questions as any area they had previously investigated. Finding solutions to the many problems became so absorbing that, in some instances, the researchers never returned home. Deciphering the riddle of the rocks became their dominating interest and lifework.
On the other hand, looking for an answer to these questions has sent many an armchair archaeologist to the nearest library. Here we can review the theories and findings of the experts without having to scramble up mountains, crawl into caves or trek through bush and sand in search of ancient works of art.
Man’s Desire for Self-Expression
Rock art has been described as the lingua franca of the so-called “Stone Age”—the vehicle by which thoughts, ideas, even religious beliefs, were conveyed in the supposed absence of the written word. Almost every country has its archaeological sites that testify to man’s innate desire from earliest times to express himself artistically, or to make some sort of record of his life and daily activities. These ancient records range from the sophisticated inscriptions that appear in Egyptian tombs to the more primitive rock paintings found in caves throughout parts of Europe, America and Africa.
The greatest concentration of ancient rock paintings in the world is in Africa, south of the Zambezi River. Whereas the rock art of Europe lies hidden deep in caves requiring artificial lighting, the rock paintings of southern Africa are to be found in sun-drenched cliff caves and on almost any kind of rock face that has the slightest protective overhang. There are over 2,000 known sites in South Africa, besides those of Rhodesia, Botswana, Swaziland and South-West Africa. One area, the Ndedema Gorge in South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains, has 16 sites containing 3,000 paintings. The indication is that this rock shelter, hidden in the gorge, was the home of Bushmen for quite a long period. This gave the artists plenty of time to indulge their tastes in interior decoration, so much so that some murals cover very large areas and contain a multitude of both animal and human figures.
Who Were the Artists?
Although the exact identity of the artists remains a subject for debate, the works of art are generally known as Bushman paintings. The aboriginal Bushmen once were the sole human inhabitants of South Africa, and they preceded, apparently by many centuries, the Negroid types that later migrated down into southern Africa. The Bushmen were short in stature, with skin of a yellowish tinge. Because of the similarity of their skull types, they have been associated with the Pygmy skulls found from Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope. The Bushman’s most notable physical feature was the extremely fat buttock, found in both men and women.
An early Arabic description dating from about 1150 of the Common Era describes these primitive inhabitants of southern Africa and says that their “speech resembles whistling.” This could have been a reference to the language clicks, which many present-day black tribes retain as an inheritance due to the mingling of the early Negroid migrants with the little Bushmen.
In spite of such unusual speech, the Bushmen have shown by their rock paintings that they had keen powers of observation, a sense of humor, and a more sophisticated existence than researchers had realized. Nevertheless, these little people lived a simple life. Apart from game hunted with their bows and arrows, their diet included seeds, berries, roots, insects and reptiles. Being nomads, they lived in caves and shelters under rock ledges. Right there, in their primitive homes, they made the delicate paintings that are a record of their way of life. The early British researcher G. W. Stow was the first to realize that these works of art were a series of pages from the history book of South Africa.
What Do the Pictures Say?
Unlike the rock art of Europe, which concentrates on aspects of the hunt, the African artists showed great interest in man and recorded his activities of daily life—some tragic, others humorous. The Bushmen engaged in hunting, fishing and dancing, and played primitive musical instruments. They held religious ceremonies and, yes, they got drunk, too. Although the artists’ observations of animal and insect life were outstanding, they excelled in portraying human activity. Hunting scenes are numerous, since the search for food took up most of a family man’s working day. The women usually are depicted carrying the digging sticks with which they searched for food. But occasionally they also joined in the dance.
At times the artist treated his subject in a somewhat lighthearted way, and one such scene shows the elated hunter giving a sign of victory as he flings his arms wide open and presents to his fat wife the rewards of his working day—three dead buck. Another picture depicts a successful hunter about to cut into the soft underbelly of a dead eland. Why, the hunter’s toes are curled up in anticipation and large drops of saliva are dripping from his hungry mouth!
Sometimes tragedy made the rock “headlines.” A scene from the Matopos in Rhodesia shows the unhappy end of a lion hunt with one arm of the vanquished hunter lying in front of a fearsome-looking lioness. Another drawing depicts a murder being committed. The victim is having his head smashed in by a stone-wielding assailant, while a second foe shoots arrows into him. We wonder, Was the artist one of the attackers, or merely a ‘rock reporter’ recording the day’s events? There is also the ever-present question, How many years have passed since any of these scenes were painted?
Difficulties of Accurate Dating
Among the problems that have prevented accurate dating is the fact that none of the wall paintings is covered by datable deposits. Besides this, some pictures have been superimposed on others, and where primitive implements can be recognized, they have a time range of up to thousands of years. The earliest date Dr. E. Denninger ascertained for a painting in the Ndedema site is within 200 years either way of 1150 C.E. or about 350 years before the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape. Later paintings showing ships, horses and wagons can be dated historically with the arrival of the white settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries.
But, by that time, according to some opinions, styles and techniques had retrogressed. In his book The Artists of the Rocks, the South African painter Walter Battiss says regarding the techniques of foreshortening and perspective: “Uccello, in Italy, during the Renaissance was only rediscovering and re-inventing what they [the Bushmen] had long possessed.” Battiss suggests that the technical development of the earliest Bushman painters preceded by many years the frozen styles of the Egyptian dynasties. “Rock engravers and painters were at work in Africa before the pyramids were built,” he says.
Was There an Ancient Link?
Whether there was an ancient link between the primitive art of Egypt, the rock art of Europe and the rock paintings of southern Africa remains another mystery. But some Bushman paintings seem to present evidence of North African or Middle Eastern connections.
A scene found in the Makgaberg Mountains of the northwest Transvaal presents problems as to both time and place. It would appear to represent a court scene depicting five European-type figures in long white robes and wearing tiaras and turbans. They are offering gifts as tribute to a personage whose form is unclear, and they are bent over in a reverential position. The dignitaries give every appearance of being Persian, and since the Islamic faith forbids representation of the human figure, the picture probably depicts a scene from pre-Islamic times. Because the site is 480 kilometers (298 miles) from the nearest shore of the Indian Ocean, the question arises, When did the aboriginal Bushmen view the sophisticated court scene involving people of a different culture from a distant land?
Discussing a similar painting nearby, Professor Raymond Dart, in a foreword to Harald Pager’s book Ndedema, sees in another tiara-wearing figure a resemblance to Zeus, the mythical god of thunder. Legend has it that Zeus, in the form of a white bull, invited the maid Europa onto his back and then carried her off to the island of Crete. Surprisingly, an African legend tells of a young woman who, upon climbing onto the back of the rain bull, was carried away by it.
Also puzzling is the Bushman’s association of dragons and rain gods, and there is a resemblance to the earliest Babylonian idea of the dragon goddess Tiamat. The same concept is to be found in China. This bears a remarkable likeness to the African artists’ illustrations of a horned, smoke-breathing, flying dragon that they associate with thunder.
Techniques and Materials Used
Whatever time period was covered by the paintings, the matter of their preservation also presents food for thought. The artists took no particular trouble to place their paintings out of the reach of either their fellowman or the elements. Yet, in most cases, the colors remain fresh and the outlines clear and discernible.
The colors were obtained from earth pigments, charcoal (from burnt bone), iron oxide, lime and chalk, as well as red and yellow ocher. These were mixed with fat, animal blood or birds’ eggs, and also with plants yielding latex or resin. The painters made brushes from feathers, bones, sticks or hair. Hollow bones or small horns held the paints, and some archaeological sites have yielded slate palettes.
The Last of the Bushman Painters
During the latter half of the 19th century, English researcher G. W. Stow mentioned two Bushman painters who had small horn paint pots hanging from their belts. A very old Zulu remembered that Bushmen were living in mountain caves during his boyhood in about 1888, and that they were still painting their pictures at that time.
But the little Bushmen who had spent many centuries wandering about Africa, as free as the birds they painted, did not survive the changing African scene as successfully as did their pictures. During the last centuries, as southern Africa was increasingly settled by black races such as the Zulus, as well as by the Dutch colonists and British settlers, the Bushmen were forced farther into the hills. Unfortunately, they took the immigrants’ cattle and sheep with them. But it was a losing battle and, as they drove the cattle up into the mountain fastnesses, they were tracked down and killed by black and white alike. Today, some thousands of the Bushmen still live their simple, nomadic lives in the deserts of South-West Africa and Botswana; but their painting days are over.
The Vanishing Record of the Rocks
Weathering by wind and rain, and smoke from the fires of shepherds and campers, as well as outright vandalism, are rapidly reducing the number of paintings. Some early settlers reportedly used the painted animals as targets for rifle and revolver practice. Hundreds of pictures were chiseled out during the last century and sent to museums in Europe. At times, well-meaning enthusiasts have chalked over drawings, penciled in outlines or washed down the paintings in order to produce “better” photographs.
All of this has brought about much-needed action on the part of art lovers and archaeologists who, backed by acts of Parliament and government notices, have been moved to preserve the last of the Bushman paintings. Nevertheless, these masterpieces by primitive but talented artists of the past still provide a captivating and valuable record of African history. They also present a challenge to all those seeking to solve Africa’s intriguing riddle of the rocks.