Interrogating Rock Art
Interpretation: A Theoretical Perspective
Friday, 22nd of August 2008
By Job Amupanda
Generally rock art can be defined as figures pecked or painted on
rocks. It can be categorised in two ways in terms of their
description, namely pictographs and petroglyphs. Pictographs
entails design painted on stone surface while pictoglyphs is the
design pecked or incised on stone surface.
The paintings were made of ochre-clay pigment mixed with albumen.
The red colour is derived from haematite, yellow from limonite
while black emanated from manganese.
The pecked figure (rock engravings) is said to have been done with
the use of stone tools even though some scholars argue that some
Iron Age tools might have been used in some cases. The topic of
rock art is a topic of interest nowadays to historians,
archaeologists, anthropologists and many other various scholars
whose academic work entails coming into direct or indirect contact
with the art.
In the 21st century the art has created or attracted a lot of
attention across the board and as a result even politics have
found a place on it. The art also contributes to the revenue of
many states via tourism. In this regard, hotels, campsites and
other tourism facilities have been constructed nearer various rock
art sites. This has led to the shift of focus as people are now
only looking at rock art with an economic eye, which is very sad
and indeed disturbing for an African child.
According to Coulson (2007), every continent, except Antarctica,
has rock art, but Africa has more rock art and the greatest
diversity of art than any of them. It also has some of the oldest
Almost every country in Africa has rock art but the greatest
concentrations occur in North Africa’s Sahara Desert and Southern
Africa. In North Africa, the earliest works were made by Stone Age
hunter-gatherers with no knowledge of writing. Later paintings and
engravings in the Sahara were made by Negroid and Berber
pastoralists and in central and eastern Africa by ancestors of Twa
and Sandawe/Hadza-type foragers. In southern Africa, artists were
ancestors of Bushmen/San forager-hunters, Khoe herders and
Coulson (2007) argued that Africa’s oldest rock paintings were
found in southern Namibia in 1969 and carbon-dated to 27 000 years
of age. In a shelter in Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills archaeologists
found probable palettes with paint which were dated to more than
40 000 years of age.
These could also have been used for body paintings and skins.
Meanwhile, earliest fragments of painting according to him have
been dated to 10 000 years. A few years ago, according to Coulson
(2007), a piece of ochre with abstract scratching was found in the
Cape, South Africa, which has been dated to over 70 000 years old.
Also contributing to the literature that provides an in-depth look
into rock art studies, is Parsons (1993), in his book entitled ‘A
new history of Southern Africa’, in which he gives a brief outline
of the art and religion of the San people, the earliest indigenous
people of Southern Africa who are said to be the greatest
contributors to rock art in southern Africa, Coulson (2007).
He started by saying that “there are many thousands of rock
paintings and engravings surviving in hilly regions of southern
Africa. Most of these are ‘naturalistic’ art portraying wild
animals or humans, while others are ‘schematic’ art consisting of
geometric patterns. Over the past few years, archaeologists have
begun to offer detailed explanations of this rock art”.
He argues that some of the ‘naturalistic’ rock art can be looked
at as records of events such as fighting battles between people,
and even apparently the coming of ships and wagons in the last few
hundred years. On ‘schematic’ art such as engravings, he referred
this to have been probably a kind of map, recording the
whereabouts of water holes and camps. Finally and most importantly
he said that most rock art is probably concerned with religion and
“Many of the rock art sites were probably kept for secret
ceremonies. Healers and rain doctors, whom anthropologists
sometimes refer to as Shamans*, used the sites to prepare
themselves for healing ceremonies and rain making.
Painting new pictures on the rock, with animal grease and coloured
pigment might help healers to become ‘entranced’ or ‘possessed’ by
animal-spirit when they danced around the camp fire that night.
Painting of beasts such as rhino and eland, which had grown strong
from eating grass, may have given strength for rain making,” he
“The oldest dated rock art in southern Africa is in Apollo 11 cave
in the Hus mountain of Namibia, just north of the lower Orange
river. It was buried in the middle Stone Age when part of the cave
collapsed, and it has been dated around 24 000 BC.” – Parsons
Rock Art in Namibia is believed to have been done by the San
people. The Khoekhoe are also said to have some rock art as well
as the Bantu people.
Gwasira (1998) via an article entitled ‘Rock art in Namibia, its
past, present and future’, eloquently gave a brief historical
outline of rock art in Namibia. He said research into the
prehistory of Namibia has proven for the past five decades to be
more concerned with rock art.
In relation or to justify his argument, Gwasira (1998) gave an
example of the Heinrich Barth Institute for pre-and proto-history
at the University of Cologne that has for the past 30 years been
carrying out systematic documentation of the rock art from the
Brandberg. He said the following when he went back into history
with regard to rock art in Namibia: “Namibian rock art was
catapulted into the international limelight through the works of
both amateur and professional researchers. In 1910, Jochmann, a
German officer published a report in a popular journal. The result
of this publication increased interest in Namibia’s rock art and
set the stage for systematic research. Reinhardt Maack’s discovery
of the ‘White Lady’ in January 1918 raised the interest of even
internationally acclaimed rock art researchers such as Abbe Henri
Brevil, a French priest and respected specialist in European Cave
Art. Perhaps it was Maack’s discovery of the ‘White Lady’ that
marked the beginning of real systematic research in southern
African rock art.”
Rock art is a very important component in historical,
archaeological, anthropological, artistical and many other studies
in various disciplines in the academic arena. It is for this
reason that we as academics engage in studies that attempt to
explain and understand rock art. The 21st century has proven to be
a century in which more questions are asked as to why things
happen the way they do and why they are the way they are. Rock art
is not immune to such questions; therefore we should make sure
that we have answers when questions are posed to us about rock
Also known as the Cologne school of thought, Empiricism emanated
outside Africa in the western world at the University of Cologne.
The Cologne school of thought argues that there is realism in rock
art. This is taken to mean that the painting captures the reality.
The theory uses scientific methods of documentation or in other
words, documenting paintings scientifically. The thinkers of the
theory argue that we can learn about the environment from the
painting (environment intactness).
This theory prefers a simple explanation of the paintings.
Empiricism is of the view that the art speaks for itself and
assumes that most paintings were the product and embodiment of an
aesthetic sense and depict everyday activities or historical and
mythical events. – Coulson (2007).
David Lewis-Williams is one if not the most influential author in
rock art studies of Southern Africa especially the literature that
has to do with the two schools of thought. In his book entitled
‘Images of Power’, he gives a satisfactory look at the school of
thought at hand (Empiricism).
Williams (1989) argues that empiricists are of the opinion that
the art is little more than the record of everyday life. This can
be genuinely taken to mean that the theorist assumes that anyone
can look at the art and tell what the picture means without any
knowledge of the artists, their life and beliefs.
Williams (1989) puts it this way, that the theory argues that the
artists painted everything that caught their fancy, such as
hunting escapades, fights, dances, amusing incidents and many
other events of their daily lives. In summary the Cologne school
of thought argues that the picture is simply a reflection of the
world around the artist’s environment and the world around him. It
argues that we can learn about the environment of the rock art
artists by looking at the paintings and engravings.
Also known as the South African school of thought is a truly
African interpretation that originates from South Africa. This
theory fosters a look and understanding of the life of the artists
(the San people) in terms of their religious beliefs. The theory
goes beyond just the pictures and discovers the true meaning of
The theory believes they there is no realism in paintings.
Interpretive teaches us that every painting or engraving on the
rocks has symbolical significance to the San people (metaphorical).
Paintings can be understood very well by looking at the religious
way of the life of the San people. This religion is what is called
trance dance which can be defined as the altered state of
consciousness. In the life of San people, there are two worlds,
the spiritual world where they get in by experiencing a
metaphorical death and then get into contact with the ancestors,
and the ordinary or material world.
For one to access the spiritual world, he has to go into a trance
(altered state of consciousness). The people who usually go into a
trance are Shamans, also known as medicine men.
Southey and others (1999) said that “Shamans are frequently
artists as well, making objects for use in their rituals. In
essence, the Shaman is a mediator or go-between, bringing the
material and spiritual worlds together through the experience of
A Shaman connects the affairs of the dead with the affairs of the
living and links the supernatural with the natural … a special
characteristic of a trance state is the experience of
hallucination – visual and sensory perceptions formed in the
central nervous system rather than as a result of normal vision
and physical feeling. Hallucinations provide the Shaman with
extraordinary visions and experiences, which are regarded as a
means of access to the spirit world.”
They continued by telling us that “the women sang and clapped the
rhythm of the ‘medicine song’ that had supernatural powers, while
the men, many of whom were Shamans, danced in a circle around them
until they entered an altered state of unconsciousness.”
During the trance, the Shaman performs important symbolic
functions such as rain-making and healing of the physical and
social evils. The trance creates a boiling energy in the stomach
and as a result a person (Shaman) starts shivering and sweating.
The sweat that comes from the person in a trance results in
healing once it lands on a sick person. The Shamans (medicine men)
when they get into a trance, they get a vision that they then draw
on rocks as they see life and other messages from their ancestors
when they are in the trance.
The drawings of the Shamans are what we see today as rock art.
During the trance, one sees features such as nose bleeding, laying
down their belly, raised hands and supporting sticks. These are
the most common features in many rock paintings in Namibia and the
South African school of thought just helps us understand them more.
Looking at the Two Schools of Thought
Although all the schools of thought are interpreting rock art,
which is a very nice thing to do because this will not only give
us an intellectual understanding, but it will also leave a large
pool of knowledge for our future generation.
On the same note, it is of outmost importance that we
cross-examine the two schools of thought so that we can weigh them
to determine the one that holds more water and the one that
carries weight in a true and authentic interpretation of rock art.
To start with, empiricism sees rock art as a reflection of actual
life of the San people and that there is realism in rock art. It
argues that everyone can get to know the meaning of the paintings
even if they do not know the life, religion and belief of the
This is the first absurd argument that I have ever come across
from academics. To make it worse, it originates outside Africa and
it was architected and spearheaded by people of western origin who
do not know much about first-hand historical experience and whose
perspective and way of thinking is totally different from that of
Scholars also came out strongly in rebuking empiricism. Williams
(1989) argued that “there are numerous reasons why such comments
distort Bushman rock art. Perhaps the most telling reason is that
they result from viewing the art through western eyes … it is,
then, far less likely that a westerner can look at foreign art
like that of the Bushmen and know intuitively what it means. Yet
this is exactly what the Abbe Breuil thought he could do with his
White Lady … . Each art must be seen, as far as it is possible,
from the point of view of the people who created it. If we do not
try to adopt the artists’ viewpoint, we may appreciate and enjoy
an exotic art’s beauty, but we shall never know what it means.”
The South African school of thought (interpretive) is more
convincing than empiricism for many reasons. To start with, it is
from an African perspective and it goes to the extent of looking
inside the way of life of the artist.
It goes to the extent of understanding the life, religion and
beliefs of the San people, while empiricism merely focuses on the
analysis of the person that just stood next to the picture and
gives an interpretation.
Southey and others (1999) argue that the drawing of an animal we
know to have had religious significance for San hunter-gatherers
cannot be regarded as simply an illustration of that species.
Instead, they argued, we should regard it as a symbol of the
values attached to the animal by that society.
While South African school of thought looks at all the types of
paintings, the Cologne school of thought specialises on selective
paintings mostly putting its focuses on animal paintings. When one
looks at what oral history is saying and even the records of
people like Dr Wilhen Bleek, you can really see that there is a
link between stories, records and Trance and Shamanism theory more
that the western Empiricism.
In Africa we don’t just do art because we feel like drawing the
next object nearer you, but we do it to convey a message and
express a particular feeling.
On this note empiricism or the Western Cologne school of thought
does not make logical sense and in a way it makes a mockery of our
*** Job Shipululo Kanandjembo Amupanda is a 3rd year student of
Political Science and Industrial Psychology.