Deciphering South African Rock Art by Mallory Bernstein

Photographed by David Coulson/ Trust for African Rock Art (

All along the ridges of the Drakensburg Mountains in the highlands of KwaZulu-Natal, there are cliffs with paintings- people, giraffes, elands, ‘boks’ of all sorts (springbok, rooibok, etc.). In 2013, I was hiking through the Drakensburg with my university class-mates studying abroad in Durban, South Africa. We were hiking near Cathedral Peak, 3 hours in, going up steep terrain with a barely navigable trail and bracing ourselves for sunburn in the late summer sun. Suddenly, our professor pulled aside and gestured towards the wall of the cliff. On it, images dripped with colour as multiple eland and human figures in a circle danced about the rock. It looked as if they were painted yesterday, the detail and colour was preserved so well.

These were the work of the San (Bushmen) – long before the incoming of Europeans to South Africa.

It’s 2016 and at the British Museum, Dr. David Lewis-Williams professor emeritus of cognitive archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand was invited to speak about his experience in developing the methods of interpreting South African Rock Art. Lewis-Williams is a renowned academic who was invited by Thabo Mbeki (former president of the Republic of South Africa) to translate the national South African motto which can be seen on the National Seal in San language in 2000, and in 2015 he was accepted to the Order of the Baobab, a prestigious national honour for his research and advocacy.

The first element Lewis-Williams discussed was that rock art in South Africa is not necessarily a coherent story of origin (as outsiders often wish to assign such meaning to the paintings), but rather  what he calls ‘nuggets’ of meaning. He further argued that the oral history and traditions of the San can help to decipher these nuggets in the context of the historic San culture.

Lewis-Williams went on to acknowledge the source of luck in his work- around 12,000 pages of San ethnography from the 1870s. These were created and held in the Cape Colony and recorded/translated in English phonetics. This recorded history was able to give the rock art context alongside ethnographic insights from the current Khoi of the Kalahari.

One nugget of rock art in South Africa is what Dr. Williams termed ‘nasal blood’. In the rock art, one often sees humans with lines of red falling down the rock from the face (one also sees this with the eland, an esteemed animal in San and Khoi culture). With referencing the ethnography, Williams began to unravel that these lines indicated nasal haemorrhaging, which were common when the spirit would leave the human body to visit the spirit world in an alternate reality. Linguistically among San and  Khoi languages- the word for “nose” or “ncung” also means ‘the power to enter the spirit world’.

Upon subsequent visits to the Khoi in the Kalahari, Lewis-Williams was invited to watch a public event. In this event, women stood in a circle, and clapped to induce access to the spirit world, and men danced- an experience that conjured memories for Lewis-Williams as the image is common in rock art depiction. In the rock art, along with the nasal blood, it is common to see images of a man’s figure with the head of an eland in a dancing arms back posture. These exact motions were part of present-day Khoi ritual to enter the spirit world. Lewis-Williams argues then that the persistence of religion and culture is palpable and unrelenting in Khoisan culture.

As a student of African Studies at UCL, we are exposed to many different ways to understand the current geopolitical, cultural, and socioeconomic status of Africans in Africa. The idea of complex cultural, spiritual and economic mosaics is one effective way of understanding both Africa’s past and present Lewis-Williams work exemplifies this complexity both for current San populations and those of the past. After his experience with the Khoi, Lewis-Williams became certain that using ethnographic nuggets was a door into understanding the rock art of the San and that using a mosaic of experiences and sources would lead to better understanding and appreciation of this exquisite artwork. While there are challenges and pitfalls with using such ethnographic analogies, Lewis Williams offers a nuanced understanding of the culture of these marginalized peoples who are often presented as ‘simple’ to outsiders’ eyes.

As the speakers’ time came to a close, he stated, “the one thing I want all of you to take away from this is that this art is as complex [in detail and in meaning] as art in Italy… These paintings weren’t only made to be looked at, but to be experienced”.


To read more about Dr Lewis-Williams’ work, visit:

Example of rock art in the Drakensberg near Cathedral Peak. Picture obtained from: Coulson, David. Http://Africanrockart.Org/Wp-Content/Gallery/South-Africa-Rock-Art-Gallery/SOADRB0050007.Jpg. 2017. Print.




  1. Wangũi · February 20, 2017

    The credit for the rock art photo is David Coulson/ Trust for African Rock Art (


    • mallobern · February 24, 2017


      Thank you so much for the information! I’ve updated the entry to include the original author.


      Liked by 1 person

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