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The Lost History of South Africa

The strange creature is half antelope and half bird.

Painted in jet black, frozen in flight on the wall, the animal has the hind legs and tail of a buck, and the magnificent wings of a raven that spread out from its shoulders. Above the flying figure, a long scaly reptile with crocodile-like ridges stretches across the length of the cave wall.

I lean close to the dark paintings, trying to decide if any of the species depicted are indigenous, or perhaps even from this world.

They are not.

Photo by Paul Steyn
Photo by Paul Steyn

Where, then, did the strange animals come from?

Thousands of years ago, a person sat where I sit now, in a shallow rock shelter in the remote Cape Fold mountains at the southern tip of Africa, and painted what he had seen.

During a ceremony involving rhythm, drums and hot fire, he entered a state of altered consciousness, where animals, people and even God appeared in front of his eyes. As the energy and heat of the trance culminated, he believed that he could harness the animal’s energy to do miraculous things, such as make rain during a drought or heal the sick and wounded.

After the ceremony was complete, the shaman would sit down in the artist’s chair and paint the experiences he saw and felt. In doing so, he left behind a priceless archive of religious art—a window into the mind of the world’s first people.

The San people of southern Africa are the oldest continuous population of people on Earth.

They are a broad group of hunter-gatherers who occupied the coastal plains and dramatic Cape Fold Mountains of South Africa long before Europeans arrived on their ships in the 1600s. There were here, too, before the Bantu-speaking pastoralists migrated from the north some 2,000 years ago.

In fact, the people who today identify as San and Khoi have DNA ancestry stretching back over 100,000 years— to the earliest branch of humans from which all other groups of Africans (and, indeed, all the people of the world) stem.

The San did not write and record their seminal history using words and books.

Instead, they painted their expressions on the rocks, caves and shelters of the sandstone mountains that curl round the southwestern tip of Africa. Writers and poets have dubbed these mountains “The Louvre of Africa” because of the magnificent gallery of artistic heritage. To me, exploring these expressions is as important as reading about Nelson Mandela, Jan Smuts, and the story of South Africa — or visiting Robben Island or the Apartheid museum.

Of the many and diverse peoples in South Africa, the San (more accurately known as /Xam) are probably the least appreciated or understood.

The entire hunter-gatherer culture was lost during the country’s long and messy colonial history. Even after South Africa’s reconciliation, their unique click language doesn’t feature as one of the country’s 11 official languages. Save for a few related groups remaining in Botswana and Namibia, The /Xam culture exists only in their art, and a number of rare interviews that provide a window into how the paintings were created, and why.

Dr Wilhelm Bleek, a German linguist living in Cape Town in 1857, spent years learning the San language and interviewing two “Bushmen” who had been thrown in jail on Robben Island.

After translating thousands of pages of testimony, he was convinced from these interviews that the rock painting “were a truly artistic conception of the ideas which most deeply moved the Bushman mind, and filled it with religious feelings.”

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Photo by Paul Steyn

I stare at the paintings; silently dancing, flying, charging and falling across the wall.

The images whiplash my sense of time. With the religious ceremony so deeply rooted in San Culture, I begin to wonder how far back the practice of art-making stretches.

The earliest known complex rock paintings are from a cave site in France, dated to around 35,000 years ago. But there is evidence to suggest that the origin of artistic thinking appeared much earlier, in Africa.

In one shallow cave perched above the rocky coast near Stillbay in South Africa, archaeologists have unearthed 100,000-year-old mashed up red ochre used to make paint. The findings in this cave (and others along the same stretch of coast) show that people here shaped new and advanced stone tools, partook in the earliest known rituals, used the earliest forms of chemistry, and were experimenting with art and symbols long before they emerged elsewhere in Africa, Europe and other parts of the world.

Given the genetic and archaeological evidence, some scientists hypothesize that these early coastal people are not just the ancestors of the San, but may have been one of the original populations of modern-thinking humans that gave rise to every person on the planet today.

The great saga of the San—South Africa’s lost history—is still being uncovered.

Every day, scientists find new items, bones, tools, paintings and DNA that shape the story a little more. And while the haze of history clears, the rock art of the Cederberg and Klein Karoo mountains is there for anyone to see.

There are secrets in the paintings that even the casual observer can decipher if they look closely enough. With the right type of lens,  perhaps with a kind of familial bond, we can spot links to the past that no amount of science or research could see.

And as I sit quietly in the shaded overhang, while the warm berg breeze blows through the shelter and seems to catch the dark wings of the painted antelope, I can hear the drumbeat rhythm of the San, and feel the heat of the fire, the vibrations, and the movements and the dance.

And so I lean a little closer, to see what else I might discover.