Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
San Rock Art

San Rock Art

J. D. Lewis-Williams
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Ohio University Press
Pages: 158
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    San Rock Art
    Book Description:

    San rock paintings, scattered over the range of southern Africa, are considered by many to be the very earliest examples of representational art. There are as many as 15,000 known rock art sites, created over the course of thousands of years up until the nineteenth century. There are possibly just as many still awaiting discovery. Taking as his starting point the magnificent Linton panel in the Iziko-South African Museum in Cape Town, J. D. Lewis-Williams examines the artistic and cultural significance of rock art and how this art sheds light on how San image-makers conceived their world. It also details the European encounter with rock art as well as the contentious European interaction with the artists' descendants, the contemporary San people.

    eISBN: 978-0-8214-4458-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology, Archaeology, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-5)
  3. 1 An ancient tradition in today’s South Africa
    (pp. 7-27)

    Many South Africans are unaware that the central image in their country’s coat of arms derives from a San rock painting (Fig. 1). In 1994 South Africa moved out of the dark decades of apartheid and set out on a new democratic path. It was a time of renewal, and new symbols of unity had to be found. In due course, on 27 April 2000 President Thabo Mbeki unveiled a new national coat of arms. He and the government had decided that it would be appropriate to incorporate a San rock painting in the new design. They therefore approached the...

  4. 2 Conflicting perspectives and traditions
    (pp. 28-48)

    The initiation, efflorescence and demise of research perspectives are always situated in specific social circumstances. A history of such perspectives should therefore try to identify the social, political and personal forces that created conditions for their acceptance and, in many instances, eventual rejection. There is a catch here for the historian. The characterisation of research contexts and the circumstances and values to which individual historians of research point will inevitably be in many ways framed by their own, often unarticulated, values and aims. We tend to judge the past by the present. All I can hope for is that the...

  5. 3 Keys to the past
    (pp. 49-63)

    As I have pointed out, the image that appears in the centre of South Africa’s coat of arms (Fig. 1) is merely a small part of the large, crowded Linton panel (Fig. 2). At first glance, we may think that these apparently jumbled images are all independent of one another. But that idea must be abandoned when we notice that there is a bifurcating thin red line fringed with small white dots that runs through the whole panel: it joins images that are far apart and others that are closer to one another yet seem to be in no ‘scenic’...

  6. 4 Threads of light
    (pp. 64-84)

    The duplicated and reversed figure that now stands in the centre of the South African coat of arms is in the lower centre of the Linton panel. That position, of course, results from the way the slab was chiselled from the rock face. The whole panel was but part of a much larger panorama of paintings across the wall of the shelter. If the removed section is viewed as a whole, the standing figure is by no means prominent: there are at least four human figures that are considerably larger than it, and there are also some large, striking images...

  7. 5 The mind in the brain
    (pp. 85-103)

    I begin this chapter with some varied accounts that Kalahari San shamans have given about the ‘threads of light’ they see during a trance dance or in dreams. These personal testimonies give a vivid idea of what San religious experience was, and still is, like. As with all components of San religion, there is an element of idiosyncrasy – but within certain parameters. This is why the line appears in different forms in the paintings. Intriguingly, the descriptions that the San give of the line, though varied, seem to suggest something more ‘real’ than simple imagination. It and other spirit world...

  8. 6 Capturing the rain
    (pp. 104-117)

    In 1874 Wilhelm Bleek wrote: ‘A Bushman painting will frequently help us to unearth a myth, legend, or fable, which otherwise would have been forgotten, and might have remained unrecorded.’ More than that, he found a two-way pattern of illumination and wrote that what he called San ‘mythology’ and copies of their rock paintings ‘will serve to illustrate each other’. Just such a case began to emerge when Bleek showed one of his |Xam informants a copy that Joseph Orpen had made in the Maloti Mountains.

    This painting shows two quadrupeds of no identifiable species (Fig. 14). A group of...

  9. 7 An ancient tradition in today’s South Africa
    (pp. 118-138)

    Today it is still unfortunately easy for those who do not know much about San religious beliefs and rituals to revert to Arbousset and Daumas’s view that San rock paintings were simply ‘innocent playthings’. For some, the very phrase ‘Bushman paintings’ is dismissive. Even if modern viewers of the art accept that much of it was religious in nature, many give little thought to the events that must have preceded and accompanied the making of an image and, just as importantly, the role that the images played in San life and thought after they had been painted on the walls...

  10. Endnotes
    (pp. 139-140)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 141-152)
  12. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 153-154)
  13. Index
    (pp. 155-158)