South African Rock Art

Copyright: Rock Art Research Institute

South African rock art is said to be one of the most complicated rock arts in the world. The research into this sophisticated ancient art form is considered very important in the post-apartheid era, and the South African government is using millions of dollars to protect the rock paintings and simultaneously help the people living in the poor rural areas.

South Africa is the cradle of humankind, the place where our very first ancestors lived. The oldest human skulls found in the area are more than two million years old. The oldest piece of art ever found on earth, a piece of ochre that was only found last year, is 77 thousand years old, says Dr. Benjamin Smith, the director of the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In South Africa rock art is not in deep caves as in France, but in small rock shelters and on flat rocks. Rock art does not survive very many years exposed on the rock surfaces, Dr. Smith says. The rock art that can still be seen is only 5 to 15 thousand years old. The oldest pieces of art have survived because they were buried on the ground.

Research has shown that the places where rock art was painted have been spiritual places, the places that were close to god. The painters were shamans, and they only painted on places where the ancestors and the spirits would communicate with them.

Who were the painters?

One of the most sophisticated rock arts in the world

Copyright: Rock Art Research Institute

The oldest art is made by the San people, who were one of the first inhabitants of Africa. The San people have also been known as Bushmans. Many other people living in the area have also painted on rock surface, even the white intruders. Now some of the ancient graffiti is also protected by law, because it is considered to be part of the history of South Africa as well.

All inhabitants of South Africa have done rock paintings

Rock art hasn't always been so appreciated as it is in post-apartheid South Africa. The Europeans who colonialised Africa expected the Bushman to be one of the most primitive people of the earth. The anthropologists studied Bushman in order to find out what Europeans have once been like.

Research, however, did not support this view. Rock art of the San people is one of the most philosophical, sophisticated, complex belief systems anywhere in the world, says Dr. Smith. It is an incredibly reflexive art that uses metaphors and symbols. The paintings found in South Africa are said to be one of the most complicated rock arts anywhere in the world. Dr. Smith compares San rock art with the stained glass windows of old cathedrals. In comparison with the rock art he studies, the complexity of symbolism in those Christian churches seems actually rather simple.

Some of the art is political

Rock art tells a wholy different story than the old history books

Copyright: Rock Art Research Institute

South Africa has been inhabited for millions of years. History in South Africa under the apartheid regime started in 1652 when the first Dutch boat landed in South Africa, but for most of us that was actually the end of history, says Dr. Smith. He emphasises the need to rewrite history so that it becomes relevant for everybody. South Africa needs new history books that collect the traditions and stories of the people who have always lived there.

If you look at the schools in South Africa for over the past 40 years, history is a subject that just died, regrets Dr. Smith. This has been due to the fact that the history taught in schools has not been the history of the black majority, it was the history of the white people. In his view archeology has a key role to play in making history relevant in South Africa.

Nowadays the people in South Africa know the value of rock art. During the past few years the Zulu people have began to acknowledge their San roots again. The San and the Zulu were living in the same area for nearly two thousand years, explains Dr. Smith. Therefore practically every Zulu family has a San ancester, but even as recently as three years ago they would have never admitted that their relative was a Bushman. Dr. Smith is happy to see the change that is happening in his home country. South Africa is coming together, and racial divisions are being broken down, he says.

History of South Africa has to be rewritten
People can again be proud of their roots in post-apartheid South Africa

Increasing tourism and protection of the rock art can be combined

Copyright: Rock Art Research Institute

For millions of years the people of South Africa have painted on rock surfaces. The modern day San people still know how to paint, but since they live in the desert area where there is no rock, they do not paint rock paintings anymore. Instead they mix pigment for ceremonies in which they decorate their body with the paint. According to Dr. Smith, the last San rock painters died about 80 years ago. This was due to the process of what can only be called genocide, which was practiced against the Bushman and inhabitants of South Africa, he claims.

Rock art is threatened by nature. The major problem, however, is human beings, and I'm sure it's the same here in Finland, says Dr. Smith. Rock art is destroyed by graffiti mainly made by white people. On the other hand, rock art tourism is a massive growing international industry, Dr. Smith points out. Millions of tourists visit rock art places in France, Australia and America.

The rural areas are the poorest in South Africa. Sustainable rock art tourism could help the people living there. The South African government has given large sums of money to build the guided tour centers. The work is done by local people, using traditional building techniques. Showing people that rock art is not just culturally valuable, but can also provide living to those living in rural areas, is the best way to protect the ancient art of South Africa.

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Sustainable rock art tourism

Dr. Smith was invited to Finland by The Finnish Society for Prehistoric Art. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, department of Development Cooperation, made his visit possible financially. During his visit to Finland in April 2002 Dr. Smith gave lectures about rock art at the main event of the campaign Africa 2002, People and Development, organized by the Ministry of Foreign affairs from 18 to 21 April, 2002. His visit to Savonlinna was organized by The Finnish University Network for Tourism Studies and the regional office of The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation.