The San rock art of Southern Africa

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San rock art is perhaps the best known of all of Africa’s rock arts. It is also amongst the best understood. For decades researchers believed that the art was simply a record of daily life or a primitive form of hunting magic.

Those were the days of gaze and guess, when it seemed that the longer one gazed at the art, the better ones guess would be as to its meaning. Thankfully those days are gone. By linking specific San beliefs to recurrent features in the art, researchers have been able to crack the code of San rock art.

What has been revealed is one of the most complex and sophisticated of all the world’s symbolic arts.

Far from a general view of life, the art focuses on a particular part of San experience: the spirit world journeys and experiences of San shamans. Thus we see many features from the all important trance dance, the venue in which the shamans gained access to the spirit world. We see dancers with antelope hooves showing that they have taken on antelope power, just as San shamans describe in the Kalahari today. Then, we see shamans climbing up the so-called ‘threads of light’ that connect to the sky-world. We see trance flight.

To show their experiences, the artists also used visual metaphors such as showing shamans ‘underwater’ and ‘dead’. These capture aspects of how it feels to be in trance.

The artists also show their actions in the spirit world, such as their capturing of the rain animal, their activation of potency for use in healing or in fighting off enemies or dangerous forces.

But, the art was far from just a record of spirit journeys. Powerful substances such as eland blood were put into the paints so to make each image a reservoir of potency. As each generation of artists painted or engraved layer upon layer of art on the rock surfaces they were creating potent spiritual places.

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