The Swift people: rock art from the Klein Karoo

Rock paintings of  ‘Swift people’ are unique to the Cape fold mountains of the Klein Karoo. We think that these paintings were made by  hunter-gatherer people, some time over the past few thousand years (the rock art hasn’t been dated).

Most of the figures have human heads and v-shaped bird tails. Some of the Swift people have arms and they hold bows in their hands, but others have long arms (wings) that stretch back to their tails. When I began researching them in the early 2000s, only 4 or 5 sites were known. Now at least 25 rock art sites with Swift people have been recorded.

Although I call them Swift-people, not all of these human-bird paintings are swifts. At least one is probably a Greater Striped Swallow. Then there are other paintings of flying figures that are only human appearance. So it seems that the artists  were fascinated by flight. Perhaps they believed in spirit beings that took the form of swifts and/or swallows.

Swifts are the masters of flight. They are amongst the fastest -flying birds and they spend most of their lives on the wing. They cannot perch like most other birds do. They hang from ledges, especially cliffs and overhangs. Swifts, swallows and Rock Martins all nest in rock overhangs. We often find their nests in overhangs where people made rock art.

When they approach their roost in the rocks swifts fly at full speed and at the last minute they ‘brake’ and come to rest. Sometimes it seems they have disappeared into the rock. They have other interesting behaviours. In the evenings they large groups of swifts fly around in a big circle, calling the whole time, and sometimes chasing each other at high speed, suddenly swerving and changing direction. This is called a ‘screaming party. Swifts also clap their wings together, which makes a clapping sound.

In my research on these paintings I have suggested that the artists observed these behaviours and saw similarities with their own customs and beliefs and those of swifts. Southern African hunter-gatherer people (the San, or Bushmen) perform a healing dance in which they move around in a circle while people sit and clap and sing special ‘medicine songs’. Usually they do this at night and the dance can go on all night.

Speaking for themselves? Dorothea Bleek’s translation and editing of ǀxɑm narratives in ‘Customs and Beliefs of the ǀxɑm’

The 1st edition of the edited and annotated Customs & Beliefs of the /xam Bushmen

Dorothea Bleek (1873-1948), daughter of Wilhelm Bleek and Jemima Lloyd, was a scholar of ‘Bushman’ languages’. Amongst her many other research activities she sought out opportunities to publish and publicise the work of the ǀxɑm narrators that her father and aunt had transcribed and translated (see Digital Bleek and Lloyd).

Dorothea Bleek approached the journal Bantu Studies (now African Studies) to publish a series of collected narrativesin which the ǀxɑm narrators spoke about their worldview and practices — what Bleek (1875) and Lloyd (1889) classified in their reports as ‘Customs and Superstitions’. Between 1931 and 1936 selected narratives were published in 9 parts under the title Customs and Beliefs of the |xam Bushmen.

Customs and Beliefsof the ǀxɑm is a large and complex collection of 115 narratives drawn from 52 notebooks in the Bleek and Lloyd Collection. For decades it was one of only two scholarly publications — the other was Bleek and Lloyd’s (1911) Specimens of Bushman Folklore — in which portions of the narratives were published in ǀxɑm alongside the English translation. These publications have played a central role in the study of rock art and in other disciplines.

In her biography, Dorothea Bleek: A Life of Scholarship, Jill Weintroub (2015: 39) writes that ‘the texts were presented in accordance with Dorothea’s stated wish that the translations be ‘simply offered to the world, without comments or interpretations in whatsoever form’’. The idea that a text can ‘speak for itself’ is, of course, problematic. The act of translation is one of transformation. The texts were prepared to make them accessible, in English, to an audience of scholars and other interested readers. In preparing the narratives Dorothea sacrificed the ǀxɑm idiom for more familiar English modes of speech, as was also the case with Specimens of Bushman Folklore. And while Dorothea’s invaluable translations are always closely aligned to the ǀxɑm text, she did intervene in a number of ways.

She omitted ǀxɑm comments and other details that she did not consider directly relevant to the narrative. References to urination and genitalia were excised. Following the convention established by her father and Lucy Lloyd, her aunt, Dorothea Bleek continued the use of ‘Elizabethan archaisms’ (Wessels: 2010: 3), for example, thee, thou, ye, art, didst, dost, shalst, shouldst. Certain idiomatic ǀxɑm ways of saying, such as expressing hyperbole in the negative (‘not a little large’ rather than ‘very large’) are often overridden in favour of more idiomatic English. The meanings of ǀxɑm words as given in the Bushman Dictionary and in examples from the Notebooks suggest subtleties in meaning that were elided in the Customs and Beliefs narratives.

In this way, and with the best of intentions, ǀxɑm-ka ǂkɑkkən (ǀxɑm speech, or language) has been suppressed. The content of the ǀxɑm ideas being communicated cannot be separated from the ways in which these are formulated, the language, its vocabulary, grammar and idiom. In addition, the ǀxɑm narrators spoke about ideas and beliefs that neither the Bleek’s nor Lucy Lloyd understood. Dorothea Bleek’s insistence that there should be no comments or introduction ‘whatsoever’ to her edited and conflated translations meant that readers were thrown into the deep end of this pool of narratives without any introduction to or understanding of the context of the narratives.

A close reading of the published text in conjunction with the notebook text (ǀxɑm and English) shows how Dorothea Bleek’s translations sometimes weave together several individual statements in ǀxɑm-ka ǂkɑkkən to create a single complex English sentence. In the process however, elements of ǀxɑm-ka ǂkɑkkən (ǀxɑm speech) are lost.

The ǀxɑm narratives are oral-performative in nature and many elements of  ǀxɑm-kɑ ǂkɑkkən are not readily translatable. Lloyd writes of ‘long discourses’ (Lloyd 1889: item 22, p. 19) and ‘… a great deal of repetition’ (1889: item 68, p. 10) while Wilhelm Bleek refers to ‘… interminable speeches by the jackal’ (1875: item 13, p. 12 (31)) and ‘an almost interminable description of springbok hunting’ (1875: item 112, p. 19).

Nevertheless, Dorothea Bleek herself acknowledged the prominence of ‘repetition’ (re-iteration might be a better term) in ǀxɑm-kɑǂkɑkkən : ‘Repetition seems the most striking feature of Bushman speech. Every part of a story is generally told over and over again with slight alterations in the forms of speech’ (Bleek 1929). A a careful reading of these ‘repetitions’ suggests that instead of ‘slight alterations’ each iteration is subtly different and each time a little new information is added. The narratives grow incrementally.

In researching the Customs and Beliefs narratives the English text that Dorothea omitted has been reincorporated in a form that conforms more closely with the verbal style of delivery of ǀxɑm-kɑǂ kɑkkən, as advocated by José de Prada-Samper (2014). This takes the form of ‘a short-line ethnopoetic arrangement’ of the English translations of the ǀxɑm narratives. Dorothea Bleek (1929: 172) pointed out ǀxɑm-kɑ ǂ kɑkkən ‘…is broken up into small clauses, joined either by connectives which precede the subject, by relatives, or by the meaning’. Written English, on the other hand comprises ‘longer, grammatically coherent sentences’ (Lewis-Williams 2000: 38 cited in De Prada-Samper 2014: 619).

This alternative arrangement of the text is not intended to represent ǀxɑm-kɑǂkɑkkən as poetry. It is rather a means to approach the ǀxɑm way of speaking more closely. Each line of text is a clause or unit of meaning on its own. The reader becomes aware of how the narrative develops clause by clause. A short example of omitted ‘repetitive’ text arranged according to De Prada-Samper’s delineation illustrates this.

First, the notebook translation and its punctuation as given in the notebook is presented in the usual manner (A2.1.052: 4145–4157, The tale of a wise person/sorceress, what she said, when she talked with us). The ‘snoring’ refers to the ǀxɑm practice of sniffing sickness out of a patient into the body of the healer, who then expels the sickness:

And it seemed/used to seem as if she could not ‘snore’; and the people used to say that she did not ‘snore’ a person well; because she was one who had been rendered weak. This was why the thing seemed as if she did not ‘snore’ a person well. For she was one who had been rendered weak. This was why the thing seemed as if she did not ‘snore’ a person well. For, she had been a sorceress who had been able even if a person were lying dying, to snore up the person who had lain a long time.

Here the same text is presented using the ethnopoetic style of delineation:

And it seemed/used to seem as if she did/could not ‘snore’

And the people were used to say that she did not ‘snore’ a person well

Because she was one who had been rendered weak

This was why the thing seemed as if she did not ‘snore’ a person well

For she had been a sorceress who had been able

Even if a person were lying dying

To snore up the person who had lain a long time

Aside from the changes to the lineation and the omission of punctuation, no alterations were made to the English — the delineation alone enhances the reader’s perception of the reiteration and elaboration of phrases in the narratives.

Customs and Beliefs is an important text. Like most of the published literature from the Bleek and Lloyd Collection, however, the focus has been on the English translations rather than on the ǀxɑm. One obvious reason is that readers are not familiar with ǀxɑm-kɑǂkɑkkən and their primary interest is on getting information in English from the text. There is however a cost attached to relying exclusively on Dorothea Bleek’s translated text. Meaning and expression are masked, understanding and insight are reduced. One does not have to speak or read |xam to access the language, however. With the help of the Bushman Dictionary (Bleek 1956), the arrangement of parallel texts in Customs and Beliefs — one column in ǀxɑm-kɑǂkɑkkən, the other in English — makes it possible to move between the two languages and identify salient words and phrases. The research into Customs and Beliefs described here involves close readings of ǀxɑm words and phrases, on behalf of others, for discrepancies between ǀxɑm-kɑǂkɑkkən and English the exploration of the contexts of the utterances. In this way readers will be better equipped to identify, understand and appreciate the texts.



BLEEK, D.F. 1929. Bushman Grammar: a grammatical sketch of the language of the ǀxɑm-ka ǃkˀe. Zeitschrift für Eingeborenen-Sprachen20: 161–174


BLEEK, D.F. 1956. Bushman dictionary. New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society


BLEEK, W.H.I. 1875. Dr Bleek’s second report concerning Bushman researches, with a short account of the Bushman native literature collected. Government Printer: Cape Town

BLEEK, W.H.I. & LLOYD, L.C. 1911. Specimens of Bushman folklore. London. George Allen & Company


DE PRADA-SAMPER, J.M. 2014. Di-xεrretən and the lioness’: text and landscape of a Xam narrative. Critical Arts: A South-North journal of Cultural and Media Studies 28(4): 610-630. doi: 10.1080/02560046.2014.929219


LEWIS-WILLIAMS, J.D. 2000. Stories that float from afar: ancestral folklore of the San of Southern Africa. Cape Town: David Philip


LLOYD, L.C. 1889. A short account of further Bushman material collected. London: David Nutt


WEINTROUB, J. 2015. Dorothea Bleek: a life of scholarship. Johannesburg: Wits University Press


WESSELS, M. 2010. Bushman Letters: interpreting /xam narrative. Johannesburg: Wits University Press

An encounter between eland and hunters

The encounter between eland (or other large animals such as elephant, giraffe & kudu) and hunter is a central theme in southern African hunter-gatherer culture, but it is not merely a record of a hunt or of an intention to hunt.    

Ntate Sekotlo guiding us to the rock art site above the Sebapala River. The paintings are NOT in the large krans at the top of the picture. They are in an overhang of which you can only see a small part just above Ntate Sekotlo's head
The interior of the low and shallow overhang, with Renaud Ego on the right

Painted in an unobtrusive shelter above the Sebapala River in southern Lesotho are images that give us insight into the worldview of ancestral Bushman hunter-gatherers. Ntate Sekotlo guided us to this rock art site above the Sebapala River. The paintings are NOT in the large krans at the top of the picture to which Sekotlo seems to be pointing. They are in an overhang of which you can only see a tiny part just above Ntate Sekotlo’s head. The interior of the overhang is low and shallow. Renaud Ego on the right.

Encounter with an eland: eland on the left and hunting figures at the right. One of the central themes in southern African hunter-gatherer rock art is the meeting of hunters and one of the big meat animals, such as this eland

Encounter with an eland: eland on the left and hunting figures at the right. One of the central themes in southern African hunter-gatherer rock art is the meeting of hunters and one of the big meat animals, such as this eland.

Large and beautifully painted eland. The hunter-gatherer painters in South Africa's southeastern mountains spent more time and effort on eland images than almost any other.

At left is a very large and magnificent eland with a large dewlap. It is probably an older, bull eland. The hunter-gatherer painters in South Africa’s southeastern mountains spent more time and effort on eland images than almost any other category of image. 

Facing this massive eland are a few human-like figures. A section of the rock on which they are painted has broken off so we cannot see much of them. But we can see a figure in red (the head is obscured) that is holding a strung bow and pointing it at the eland. Next to this is another larger figure in orange with its hands raised high and bent at the elbow. To the left is the figure's bow and arrows.

Facing this massive eland are a few human-like figures. A section of the rock on which they are painted has broken off so we cannot see much of them. But we can see a figure in red (the head is obscured) that is holding a strung bow (note the white bowstring) and pointing it at the eland.

Next to this is another larger figure in orange with its hands raised high and bent at the elbow. This is a common posture that is often found in painted contexts in which a human figure confronts large meat animals. To the left is the figure’s bow and arrows. These are hunters.

Bowman with strung bow and arrow. The head and shoulders are obscured but you can see both hands gripping the bow and the (white) bowstring
The figure with both arms raised. This is a common posture that is often found in painted contexts in which a human figure confronts a large meat animals

Anthropologists and rock art researchers have long recognised that ‘hunting’ is a religious matter. Mary Douglas goes so far as to say that the significance of hunting in cosmological terms ‘far surpasses its primary object—the supply of meat’.

 ‘Hunting,’ says Megan Biesele of the Ju|’hoansi, ‘is an activity for which special power must be cultivated through supernatural disciplines’. Hunters do not simply go out and shoot an animal—they find and kill animals because supernatural forces permit it.

 Eland (and other animals too) were created by the entity (god) called /kaggen. He did his best to frustrate the intentions of the hunter. Hunters had to follow a ‘code’ of behaviours in order to be successful.

 On the other hand, people had developed the ability to ‘own’ animals, that is, to control animals, their behaviour and their movements. These powers could bring an animal under a hunter’s arrow and make it die quickly of the effects of the arrow poison.

 The emphasis on human-animal encounters like the one in this post points to a persistent underlying conflict between hunter and prey, and the taking of life. And in order to have some understanding of the significance of rock art we must try to apply what we know of the beliefs of the hunter-gatherer artists to understand them.

In praise of lenses

My three amigos -- isidudla (fat boy), encane (tiny) and isilenda (slim one)

I am not an equipment “queen”, one of those people who are more concerned with the equipment than doing the actual work for which it designed. But I do know that “the glass”, or lenses, are at the heart of the photographic documentation of rock art. Image quality is the goal and to get the best pictures one needs the best glass. Choosing the lenses and purchasing them was one the most exciting things I have done in my professional life.

So, let me introduce my star performers, my companions in the field, the lenses that get the job done. They are manual focus lenses and have none of the more advanced features such as image stabilisation and so on. But that moment when one turns the focus ring and suddenly everything jumps into focus is one of the pleasures of rock art photography.

These lenses started their working life recording rock art sites in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal and as my colleagues and I worked with them they got names and personalities.

The big, fat Zeiss wide angle lens is called isidudla, the fat one. No space is too cramped or (mostly) too big for the 15 mm isisdudla to cover. It loves landscapes too, devouring the wide open spaces in its gaze. The colours and resolution are supreme and I always look forward to viewing them when I get back to camp after a day’s work.

Then there is encane, the little one. This is a 50 mm Zeiss macro lens that I use a lot for overall photography of clusters of rock art and also for close up work. It is smaller than the others but it is very solidly built. When you hold it in your hand you can feel it is not a lightweight. No plastic, or even aluminium inside. Encane can take images up to half life size and is sharp and clear. Once I’m inside a site this is the lens that works the hardest.

Last but not least is isilenda, the slender/thin one. As the name suggests this lens, a second (third/fourth?) hand lens I bought on the internet is much longer than the others. It is a 125 mm Voigtlander, believed by some to be one of the best macro lenses ever, although it is no longer made. With its ability to take life-size images of tiny things, this lens opens worlds within worlds. It is one of the most exciting lenses to work with. One can see details of paintings or insects or plants or whatever else you like with crystal clarity. It is the eagle’s eye that can discern the smallest detail.

I cannot talk about these lenses without mentioning another comrade in arms – the tripod. I take a lot of photographs at really slow shutter speeds and small apertures so the camera must be absolutely stable or the images will be blurred. That’s why I often mount the camera on the tripod. It goes everywhere with me. When it’s on site it can bring the camera to exactly where I want it, whether that is standing on all three legs on the level ground, or half way up the back wall of an overhang. It’s like a goat that can graze anywhere it wants to, and so I call it imbuzi, the goat.

Empty attachment or post type not equal ‘attachment’

This lens cap fell 20 m over a cliff and landed in a pool. I panel-beated it and am still using it

Just as human beings get dusty, tired and scratched when out in the field, so the lenses also get their scratches and dents. I have a lens into a mountain stream and dropped a large, steel lens cap 20 m over a cliff. But dust is the biggest problem. Rock art sites are dusty places and the lenses spend the whole day inside these places. Try as I might to keep the lenses closed and in bags within bags when Im not using them, inevitably it seems that they get dirty. After finishing several weeks of fieldwork they have to be serviced, which is very expensive because the lens has to be dismantled, all the seals replaced (which you have to get from Europe) and then reassembled. But what else can one do? No point spending time and money getting to the sites and then using dirty equipment is there?

The lenses are core element of my equipment. I chose the best back as I carry them though the landscape, to their weight in my hand and their cool metallic feeling. They take me to places I would otherwise never have got to. And if I look after them, they will serve me for the rest of my life. Why settle for less?

The dancing kudu of the Waterberg


It’s not often that I get to work in the northern parts of South Africa so I was excited to get an assignment recently in Limpopo Province, which borders on Zimbabwe to the north.

My brief was to document and develop management plans for two rock art sites at the Lapalala Wilderness, about 3,5 to 4 hour’s drive north of Johannesburg. Lapalala is in the Waterberg, a mountainous massif that takes its name from the Northern Sotho name, Thaba Meetse, literally, ‘water mountain’. It is a dramatic landscape of cliffs, hills and gorges of red sandstone and conglomerate that have been carved out by rivers over hundreds of millions of years. The sandstone stores underground water and has attracted animals, human ancestors, as well as modern humans, for millions of years.

Waterberg formation view-

 The Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers who made the rock paintings occupied this area for about 1000 years. These people were the ancestors of those we now call ‘San’ or ‘Bushmen’. Both of these terms have negative connotations and I only use them because there are no alternatives. Later, in the early 19th century Northern Ndebele people built extensive (10 ha) stone-walled settlements on Melora Hill and Melora Saddle, both of which fall within the boundaries of the Lapalala Wilderness. There is also rock art in the Waterberg, probably made by the Northern Ndebele farmer communities, although I did not see any on this occasion. These paintings look totally different to the hunter-gatherer paintings: they are drawn with the finger, using white clay. The images are usually of schematic animals and the art is believed to be part of initiation rituals.



The Waterberg hunter-gatherer rock art features different animals to the rock paintings further south such as the Drakensberg. In the Waterberg and elsewhere in Limpopo, kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) is the most commonly painted animal image, whereas in the Drakensberg it is the eland. 



Interestingly, most of the hunter-gatherer paintings of kudu elsewhere in Limpopo Province are female. At Mdoni Shelter I recorded an interesting cluster of paintings of kudu and humans. There is a row of five kudu each with only one front and one back leg depicted, without horns, and moving in procession from right to left, with four of them in a group and a single kudu further to the right. Because the kudu are hornless they probably depict kudu cows. Each kudu image is slightly different in shape. At left are a large kudu (possibly a female) and a small kudu (calf?) following behind.

When it comes to understanding rock art, things are seldom what they seem at first glance. For a Westerner, a realistic-looking rock painting of an animal or a human figure is only that – a beautiful painting. For the hunter-gatherers however, those images could depict spirit animals and people in the spirit world. Take this sensitively painted image of a female kudu, its neck extended, the head slightly raised, and the tail lifted. This stance is typical of female kudu courtship behaviour and indicates that the kudu cow is ready to mate. But why did the painters make this image?


To investigate this question I turned to records of San/Bushman beliefs and to Ed Eastwood’s work on kudu paintings in Limpopo (Animals behaving like people: San rock paintings of kudu in the central Limpopo basin, southern Africa. South African Archaeological Bulletin 61(183): 26–39 [2006]).

In contemporary San/Bushman communities in the Kalahari it is said that ‘women like meat’ and that ‘women are like meat’ (see Megan Biesele’s 1993 book Women like meat). Men are praised when they bring meat to women, but men also  ‘hunt’ (i.e. marry and have sex with) women. In women’s initiation ceremonies of women the initiate is compared to a female antelope. A special dance is held at the conclusion of the initiation in which the women remove their aprons to show their buttocks and dance the Eland Dance. During this dance the girl is said to ‘become’ an eland (see Tricksters and trancers [1999] by Matthias Guenther). Elsewhere in southern Africa the dance is named after one of other large, ‘strong’ animals, like a gemsbok, or giraffe, or kudu.

5618 Channel a

What has this got to do with the painting of the female kudu in a mating posture? Well, first we need to recognise that the female kudu image may in fact be a female initiate, not ‘just’ a painting of a kudu. Secondly, close to the kudu in the mating posture are three rather strange-looking kudu. They have long back legs and short front legs. One of them has its tail raised like the kudu in the mating posture. These images look like kudu but there is also something subtly human about them. Instead of standing on all their legs they are standing on their back leg(s) and the front ‘legs’ are like arms. So why were they painted in this way? The artists could certainly paint realistic-looking animals when they wanted to. But they chose instead to create images in which women and kudu cows are merged in a sublime moment in the life of hunter-gatherer women – the dance of initiation in which women become kudu cows.

These are the dancing kudu of the Waterberg!

Formlings 1: The Toghwana Dam formling

overview of paintings-

These well-known paintings, close to Toghwana Dam, in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, are important in understanding mysterious paintings that have long puzzled researchers – the so-called ‘formlings’. These are large, segmented, organic-looking shapes, different in their details, but still recognisable as the same basic thing. They are painted at hundreds of rock art sites, mostly in Zimbabwe, but also in Limpopo Province in South Africa and, possibly, in Namibia too. 
What‘s striking about the Toghwana Dam paintings is that they show a human figure interacting with a ‘formling’ in a very purposeful manner. A figure – with tasselled hair and what may be a porcupine quill in its hair – kneels on one leg and holds an object in right hand towards the ‘formling’. Three sets of dashed lines seem to enter or exit the ‘formling’.
What is being shown here? One explanation is that the figure is smoking out a bees’ nest. The object in its hand is a torch of smouldering plant material whose smoke will confuse and stupefy the bees. The ‘formling’ is a bees’ nest with red honeycombs inside, and the three dotted lines depict the flight paths of bees. Not surprisingly, variations of this composition are very popular with beekeepers – they use it on their labels – as you can see on this bottle that I took to Zimbabwe!
An alternative interpretation is that the ‘formling’ is a termites’ nest and that the dotted lines are winged termites leaving the nest. These creatures are a delicious food, sweet and nutty, and very nutritious. Kalahari San people apparently watch the entrances of termite nests and may close them with a grass plug in order for large numbers of winged termites to build up at the exit from the nest. Then they remove the plug and are able to gather large quantities very efficiently. The Toghwana Dam paintings may therefore show somebody who is controlling the flow of the winged termites.
How does one decide which explanation is right? After all, the artists themselves are dead, so there can be no final proof from them. But then that’s the point of research – to construct explanations for things (like rock art) that puzzle us. And in the absence of final proof, explanations cannot be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – rather, they compete with each other – one explanation strives to be better than another.
So which explanation (if any) is best? To find out we need to look at more examples of ‘formlings’ at other rock art sites, to see if there are ‘patterns’ in the way they are depicted and associated with other images. In future posts I’ll show how ‘formlings’ are painted in more complex painted panels that include serpents, a menagerie of animals, fish and plants.

Honey bottle-
Detail of Toghwana Sam figure-
Toghwana formling channel A-
Toghwana formling with figure-

You can see that the label designer made a few changes, perhaps to avoid copyright infringement — not of the original painting, but of a copy made by Harald Pager many years ago. So this one has a bow at its feet and it’s holding the ‘torch’ away from the nest, not towards it. And the ‘streams’ of bees have been altered too. For the record, it was very good honey!

It’s really hard, if not impossible, to tell whether these lines of dashes are supposed to be ‘bees’ or ‘winged termites’. They are not detailed enough to identify I think…

Formlings 2: variations

Following up on a previous post about a very distinctive element of the Zimbabwe hunter-gatherer rock art – paintings of large bee or termite-like nests that are known as ‘formlings’. I posted photographs of the Toghwana Dam formling that one might imagine depicts hunter-gatherers of the past harvesting insects or insect products (honey). 
All the formlings seem to be based on the same basic model. Each is made up of individual lozenge-shaped cells or chambers, usually stacked more or less upright.
Often, these chambers are filled in with solid colour – usually red, sometimes yellow or a combination of red and yellow. Chambers sometimes have ‘caps’ painted in a contrasting colour on either end. Chambers are sometimes partially painted with rows of white, sometimes red, dots. Some formlings are shown with an opening through which ‘things’ (minute painted flecks) enter or leave these massive ‘nests’.
Paintings of formlings are often surrounded by other images, as though the presence of a formling draws other images, of powerful animals and human figures, to cluster around them. As a result there are paintings around and on top of many formlings.
But most of the paintings of formlings are just too big and complex to be realistic representations of bees’ or termites’ nest. It has long been recognised that the paintings of so-called formlings depict things beyond realistic illustrations of gathering honey and/or termites. So what are the formlings about?
In a following post I will show you one of the most spectacular formlings in Zimbabwe and present the latest ideas about their meaning and significance

Formlings 3: eNanke Cave, the ‘ultimate’ formling

This is eNanke Cave, in the Matobo of Zimbabwe, the final place we visit on our tour of formlings. Here is one of the largest, most spectacular, and well-preserved formlings in southern Africa.

In his book Termites of the Gods (2015) rock art researcher Siyakha Mguni argues that the formlings are paintings of what some 20th century San people call ‘God’s house’, the divine residence of the Great God.
God’s house is the ultimate source of cosmic potency, and the formlings are, as Mguni puts it, “wombs of creative potency”.

He bases his argument on close observations of details in the paintings, the natural history of termites, and records of San hunter-gatherer beliefs. To grasp his argument you need to follow it through step-by-step.

The formling at Nanke is much bigger than your ‘average’ formling – over 2 metres wide and at least 1,2 m tall in places! It is surrounded by a variety of San ‘power animals’ – those species believed to have potency – such as elephant, kudu, zebra and eland.

There are especially many giraffe painted around and inside the chambers of this massive nest structure, as well as very uncommon paintings of fish (at left of formling) and termite alates (to the right). Many of the paintings show the use of shading and subtle tone transitions. The presence of such a variety of delicately painted and unusual creatures is perhaps in keeping with the massive and detailed formling.

More unusually, there are paintings of people (or spirit beings) that seem to be part of the formling itself.

There are some very detailed and strange looking humans with white faces and red stripes behind (or coming out of) a part of the formling that looks like a thumbnail. Just above them is a snake-like form in red and white that is draped over the large thumb-like part of the formling and stretches over to lie across another, smaller, thumb-like shape. There are three long red lines hanging down from this snake-like image with small white shapes at the end, and pairs of very small red flecks of paint in close proximity.

At the other end of the formling are images of human heads (also white-faced) that are perhaps emerging from inside the chambers of the formling, as though they were larvae hatching out of their nest chamber! And instead of the more commonly painted rows of tiny dots, here the artists made a circular pattern and two bands on a small, single chamber from which a human head protrudes.

We currently have no explanation for what these human images signify, but their depiction here is potential information about the relationship between people and formlings for future researchers who want to explore the further intricacies of formlings.

Channeling Donald Trump on Rock Art

Channeling Donald Trump on world rock art…

“So much rock art in the world, it’s fantastic, we have the best rock art in the galaxy, phenomenal rock art, really the best…”

There are something like 42 World Heritage rock art sites that have been ‘inscribed’ (that is the term used) for their Outstanding Universal (sic) Value (OUV). Quick parenthesis: altogether there are 1073 World Heritage Sites. Places can be outstanding for ‘cultural’ or ‘natural’ reasons, but you can also be both cultural and natural (like the Maloti-Drakensberg Park, which was declared amongst other things for the endemic Maloti minnow and San rock paintings).

OUV means “so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity” (as defined in the Operational guidelines for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention). The best in the world and you know it kind of thing. There are yet more wannabe rock art sites on what they call the Tentative List.

A site has to be very very very special to bear the World Heritage Site brand. In one of the manuals there is a diagram of a stratified pyramid, with ordinary sites at the bottom, in a shaded bluegreen receding colour gradient. The topmost stratum of the pyramid is red, and is for those sites that have made it to the top. Of course it’s a silly idea on the one hand, to think that beauty meaning insight is only inherent in the most magnificent, the biggest, the brightest, like prizegiving at school. I feel an affinity for the rough diamond, the scruffy and the damaged sites, where you have to work to see the wonder.

But equally you can’t blame a rock art site for being totally awesome and fantastic. They’re like the supermodels. These are places that for whatever reasons make you want to gasp or cry at their presence and impact. So how do you become a World Heritage Site? There are Criteria, lower case roman numerals, i – x. You chooses your criteria and you starts the process of nomination. Choose one or many, depending on what kind of Property you have. All rock art sites on the Lists so far invoke Criteria iii: the rock art bears “a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”. Isn’t that just so true with rock art? It’s the one cultural expression that is part of the landscape and it always means something deep. Testimony indeed. The people who made it are gone but the ‘memories’ linger on.

And there’s such a range of testimonies, from single caves to extensive landscapes, people everywhere have been there and done that and in many different ways.

So, here are some of the best of the best from all over the Universe. Totally spoilt for choice. I know it and you know it. We got the greatest rock art…

A visit to the Maanberg

Maanberg 1 nested lines
Maanberg 2 nested lines enhanced

I was lucky enough to visit this strange hill called the Maanberg (Moon mountain) with archaeologist John Parkington from the University of Cape Town. The Maanberg is between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam in Western Cape Province. It’s very rocky, with little vegetation, so with a little imagination you can see that it looks a bit like the moon. We found this curious painting of nested lines in one shelter, and these two very small elephant paintings (about 80-100 mm long) in dark brown. They are not very well preserved but you can see that both of them are facing to the right. There is a little one at the right (you can see its trunk) and to the left are the remnants of a larger elephant (you can also see its trunk). It may be a mother and juvenile elephant, which is a common theme in the rock art of this area.

Maanberg 3 two elephant