Nguni Rock Art, South Africa

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In contrast with the Sotho-Tswana tradition, the rock art of Nguni speakers seems to be entirely engraved. Nguni rock art is amongst the most poorly studied of South African rock arts.

The art comprises a series of circles and concentric circles, often connected by meandering lines.

One of the best known examples of this art is the site Boomplaats in Mpumalanga. In the early 1930s Raymond Dart recognised that the circles might depicts maps of settlements. Egbert Van Hoepen, in 1939, took this interpretations further and compared the ‘maps’ with the plans he had made of the stone-walled Iron Age farmer settlements in the area. He concluded that there was a definite relationship and that there could be no doubt that the art was made by local farmers. He realised that the engravings represented settlements seen in plan: a cattle kraal surrounded by huts, with cattle tracks connecting various homesteads.

Barend Malan and Tim Maggs have subsequently published other similar sites in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Free State. All are connected in that they represent settlement plans, but the nature of the plans varies regionally reflecting local cultural settlement pattern differences.

The art is centred upon the Nguni-speaking South Africa and the vast majority of the engravings depict typical Nguni settlement patterns. At the edges of the tradition, in the Free State and Gauteng, predictably, we see Sotho-Tswana influences.

However, when one moves deeper into true Sotho-Tswana speaking South Africa and Botswana, this art tradition disappears. This gives us confidence in an original Nguni authorship for this art. Some sites in the Free State and Mpumalanga depict settlement patterns of groups currently speaking Sotho-Tswana, but who are know originally to have been Nguni, for example the Koni in Mpumalanga (the engravers of Boomplaas) and the Phuti in the Free State.

Whilst we are starting to have a detailed understanding of the authorship and subject matter of this rock art, its meaning and the motivation for its creation remains poorly understood.

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