Information and history

ID #3544

Bushman (Bushmen) Rock Art, Southern Africa.

Some are thousands of years old -- older than the Bible, Moses, and the pyramids. They are the oldest record of human habitation on earth. They are not merely a record of what the artists saw in their environment.  Instead, they are an example of the way in which art may be used for religious purposes. The San selected culturally significant theme to record experiences and provide inspiration.  Rock art is a history of their beliefs, not pictures of their environment. 

The majority were done by the San (or Bushmen) and their ancestors.  They are part of a long-standing artistic tradition that includes both rock engravings and paintings and occur in most areas of southern Africa where suitable rock formations are found. Incidentally, this includes rocks in the open veld, not only under overhangs and in caves.  In the latter case, the artistry is in the form of engravings (petroglyphs) rather than paintings.

The red maroon and yellow paint is made from finely ground ochre, a soft rock coloured by iron oxides.  The powder was mixed with water or blood and possibly vegetable juices as well. The paint lasted a long time because the particles of ochre bond to the surface of the rock. Black paints were made from charcoal or manganese oxide, and white paints from clay.  Neither the black nor white paint bonds as well with the rock. Blank spaces are thus often found where black or white paint was used.

Water or other substances should never be placed on rock art. The water draws salt out of the rock, which expands leading to gradual destruction of the surface.  The salts also obscure the painting. Do not stir up dust or light a fire in a painted shelter as the dust and ash cover the paintings.  It is harmful to make a cast of a rock engraving as this damages the rock and results in accelerated weathering.  Leave them where you find them. If they are broken they cannot be repaired. When you visit a rock art site, behave as you would in a gallery or church.  You may look at the paintings for as long as you draw inspiration from them, but please do not touch them. It is an offence in terms of the National Monuments Act to deface or remove rock art from its original site without a permit. ALBushman

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Last update: 2014-02-28 15:50
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.1

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