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Namibian San bushman rock art

In Damaraland in Namibia, near a place called Twyfelfontein, is a remarkable collection of rock art carved into the huge red stones of the mountains.

Less than 150mm of rain falls a year here

Twyfelfontein means 'doubtful spring' in Afrikaans, and in this almost totally dry landscape, even a doubtful - by which I think they mean sporadic - spring is worth noting. The quantity and artistry of the petroglyphs suggests that the spring flowed rather more reliably between two and six thousand years ago, when the rock art is said to have been made, than now. It is surely because of the access to water and the proximity to the Huab river (which only becomes a watercourse after the rains) that San bushmen and women chose here to make their marks. But the resident San population left the area in the 1930s when Damara herders moved in.

Most of the petroglyphs depict animals. Here's a rhino...


...and here's a zebra with my hand for scale.

Like petroglyphs the world over, they are almost impossible to interpret. Here at Twyfelfontein there are more than 2,000 engravings carved into over 200 stone surfaces. Most are straightforward depictions of animals, but what they mean and why they were made is not known.

Here's a giraffe and some human footprints

The usual shamanic or ritual purposes theories are wheeled out. Perhaps they were a record of local game or totemic animal.

Curiously this lion has strange hands instead of paws an even one at the tip of its tail...

To me and Moth the most surprising carvings were the ones of concentric rings and dots swirls and circles - just like ones we have seen on British and French stones.

One website I found said of them: ' ... the concentric rings look at first sight like a bicycle but are in fact waterholes on a rocky map.' Yeah right!

Me in a silly, but very practical, hat for scale

The same website interpreted 'the unmistakeable outline of seals and opposite, a penguin.'

Here's the sea lion shape....

The guide who escorted us around the petroglyphs site also told us they were sea lions.

And here's the penguin shape carved into the stone at the left of the photo

And while the San may well have trekked to the 150kms to the coast for salt, I find the sea lion and penguin theory of these shapes totally unconvincing, especially as they are stylistically so completely different to all the other animals shown.

Here's a random panel with all kinds of stuff packed on to, including identifiable animal tracks.

The fact remains that even though we can mostly read which animal is which by their figurative representation, we can no more interpret or understand them than we can the more abstract marks. Just like European rock art then...

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Jane Posted by Jane
2nd March 2007ce
Edited 2nd March 2007ce


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