Bushman Rock Art in South Africa

Bushman Rock art abounds in many locations in South Africa but no region of South Africa has as many or as diverse bushman rock art sites as does the Drakensberg of KwaZulu Natal. The bushman or San paintings are one of the Drakensberg's and South Africa's greatest cultural treasures. Some 20 000 individual rock paintings have been recorded at 500 different cave and overhang sites between Royal Natal National Park and Bushman's Neck.  

Bushman and San rock art in the Drakensberg South AfricaSubjects range from animals (mainly eland) to humans, therianthropes to ox-wagons and mounted men with rifles. In Ndedema Gorge 3 900 paintings have been recorded at 17 sites. One of them, Sebaayeni Cave, contains 1 146 individual paintings. In the Cathedral Peak- Mdelelelo Wilderness Area there are another 130 sites with a total of over 8 800 individual paintings. Other prime sites include the Main caves in Giant's castle game reserve, Battle Cave in the Injasuti Valley and Game Pass Shelter in the Kamberg Nature Reserve.

Ancient rock art sheds light on the trance experiences of Bushman shamans.

When Europeans first encountered rock art of the San people, or Bushmen, in southern Africa some 350 years ago, they considered it primitive and crude, like the people who made it. They were just “Bushman paintings,” two-dimensional accounts of hunting and fighting and daily life. Twentieth-century scholars had much more respect for the aesthetics of the paintings—often finely detailed and exquisitely colored—but many also viewed them largely as narrative accounts of hunter-gatherer life. A closer look in recent years has yielded another picture altogether. For the San, rock paintings weren’t just representations of life; they were also repositories of it. When shamans painted an eland, they didn’t just pay homage to a sacred animal; they also harnessed its essence. They put paint to rock and opened portals to the spirit world.  

Bushman paintins at Kamberg - Southern Drakensberg
San rock paintings at Game Pass Shelter 

When entering a trance, shamans often bleed from their nose and experience excruciating physical pain. The shamans’ arms stretch behind them as the transformation into the spirit world takes place. Scholars believe that the trance dance serves as the foundation for rock art, and clear corollaries between cave images and trance ceremonies appear in the Drakensberg cave paintings. These ancient images offer a record into ages past.

The Bushman rock art at Kamberg is the best I have seen in South AfricaKwaZulu-Natal's new Kamberg Rock Art Centre, now open to the public, will help visitors understand and interpret the more than 40 000 San Bushman images to be found in the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park.

Opened by KZN Premier Lionel Mtshali on June 4, the centre is situated in the Kamberg Nature Reserve, near to the Game Pass Shelter.

It is here that the "Rosetta Stone" of San art first provided archaeologists with the key to interpreting the symbolism of the paintings as spiritual in content - showing how hunters gained power from the animals that they killed.

The Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is a World Heritage Site - one of just 23 sites worldwide granted this status on the basis of both natural beauty and cultural significance. The 230 000 hectare protected area contains 500 known sites of San rock art.

The Kamberg San Rock Art Trail and Interpretive Centre together offer visitors information about the world of the San, and the opportunity to walk to Game Pass Shelter to view outstanding examples of their art in the company of a trained community guide.

The San people lived in the Drakensberg area for thousands of years before being exterminated in clashes with the Zulus and white settlers.

A video documentary on the world of the San can be viewed at the centre, which also provides contact with their descendants who still live in the area. The centre offers a range of books, posters and videos for sale, as well as a refreshment kiosk.

The walk from the centre to Game Pass Shelter takes two-and-a-half to three hours via the Waterfall Shelter. The trail and centre cater for a maximum of 10 patrons at a time, with tours run seven days a week. It is recommended that places be booked by phoning Kamberg on (033) 263 7312.

Bushman - The san people painted many rock art sites in the Drakesberg"A long, long time ago, we, the Bushmen, roamed these mountains, masters of the unpredictable ways of nature. We were nomads then, moving with the great herds of game and the changing of seasons. When the animals migrated we followed, leaving no houses or roads to mark our presence here. All we left behind was our story painted in the rock, in the shelters, the story of sacred animals and our journeys to the spirit world. These mountains once gave us shelter and the herds of antelope gave sustenance, and meaning to our lives. Especially the eland, for it is the animal of the greatest spiritual power. For us, it is the animal of well being and healing, of beauty and peace and plenty. The eland could take us on journeys to the world beyond and connect us to God."

The eland is the largest antelope in southern Africa and therefore it had some kind of significance just for its size. But for the Bushmen it was more than that. The eland is also an antelope that's got lots of fat and fat to the Bushmen is a very important substance in the sense they believe it has supernatural potency

While there are many spectacular rock art sites in South Africa, few are as exceptional as Game Pass Shelter in Kamberg Nature Reserve. Fewer still can justifiably lay claim to have changed the world's perception of the San people. The Game Pass Shelter is commonly referred to as the "Rosetta Stone" of southern African rock art, for it was here that archaeologists first uncovered a vital key to understanding the symbolism of San rock art.

Bushman painting of an Eland ant Kamberg - One of the better examples of San rock art in South Africa This site is special for so many reasons. It was one of the first sites ever to be seen by Europeans. It appeared in the Scientific American in 1915. It was the first SA rock art to be known in other parts of the world. It's the site that, perhaps of all the sites in SA, that was the key in our revealing of the meaning of San rock art. It was the one that in a sense cracked the code.

The Bushman rock art at Kamberg alone worth a trip to the DrakesbergBook onto the guided trail for as little as R40.OO for a spectacular pilgrimage to Game Pass Shelter within the Ukhahlamba- Drakensberg Park, KwaZulu-Natal South Africa. This trail is nothing short of a world-class experience in Khoisan rock art and living Zulu and San culture, deep within the scenic beauty of the Kamberg Nature Reserve section of the Ukhahlamba- Drakensberg Park.

The trail is initiated by an audiovisual extravaganza and celebration in the interpretation of San rock art. This is followed by a 2 ½ to 3 hour guided walk, via the spiritually moving Waterfall Shelter, to Game Pass Shelter which is home to visually outstanding rock art.


Related links to Bushman / San paintings and rock art.


"NO more do we bushmen hunt in these hills. The fire is cold. Our songs are quiet. But listen carefully. You will hear us in the water. Look carefully. You will see us in the rock."


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