When you’ve climbed, scrambled and sweated your way over endless boulders in the hot afternoon sun and are finally confronted with a crumbling cave wall of barely discernable smudges and shapes, it’s easy to wonder why so much fuss is made about ancient rock art. But when face to face with some of its more vivid depictions, it’s hard not to be moved, especially considering the thousands of years it may have survived the elements.

Of course, being able to interpret the art helps to deepen your appreciation, though theories come and go about what it all means and why it was done. More recent thinking, informed by anthropological work with existing San communities about their beliefs and ritual practices, considers most rock art to be related to San religious cosmology. Thus, what earlier theorists took to be straightforward representations of hunting scenes, interpreted either as narratives of actual hunts or messages to other San groups about where to find food, are now thought to relate to rainmaking rituals, which involved animals, or to the symbolic association of particular beasts. The oft-represented eland, for example, was frequently led to a hilltop and sacrificed in the belief that rain would fall there; a buffalo may in fact be the “Rain Bull”, controller of rain but also of sickness and health and therefore a death deity. A cornerstone of San religious beliefs is the ability of the shaman to enter the spirit world through a trance dance, and many of the figures and scenes suggest their trance visions – understood as symbols and metaphors, rather than literal depictions – which are probably linked to San mythology. The high number of paintings that are half-animal and half-human may relate to the widespread San creation myth that all animals were once human; alternatively, they may embody the physical transformation the shaman undergoes when entering the spirit world.

Rock art falls into two categories that are rarely found together: rock paintings (pictographs), for which the Brandberg is most renowned, and rock engravings (petroglyphs), found in abundance in Twyfelfontein. Increasingly, the context of the art is considered to be significant: many paintings or engravings are located near fissures and crevices in the rock, which would serve as entrances to the spirit world; some paintings are situated in dark caves, where shamans were thought to concentrate their energies.

Not all rock art found in Namibia is of San origin: the Apollo 11 Cave, in the inaccessible Huns Mountains west of the Fish River Canyon – and the most ancient known site in Africa, estimated to be over 25,000 years old – is also thought to contain art by the Khoikhoi. Their art differed from that of the San, generally displaying more handprints, dots and geometric shapes, and drawn with their fingers rather than with brushes.

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