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.