San Paintings


For thousands of years before the first European colonists arrived, the San (Bushmen) hunter-gatherers and their ancestors lived in the Ceres Karoo. They left behind stone tools used for knives and leather processing, the bones of the animals they hunted with bows and arrows, grindstones for preparing vegetables and bored stones, that women used to wight their digging sticks. But it is their rock paintings that most eloquently express their presence. One of the overhangs in Kerneels Kloof, that would have been used as a shelter by the San.



The oldest painting could date back at least five or six thousand years. They were done with a fine brush, feather or sharpened reed, dipped into paint made of powdered ochre, mixed with blood, egg, water or plant juice. Some of the clearest images are of the animals that were seen by the artists on the plains and in the mountains. The artists selected these animals not as a preferred menu, but because of their religious significance.

When you visit a rock painting site, please behave as you would in a church or art gallery. Never put water on the paintings and never touch or brush against them. They are irreplaceable pages from the history book of the Ceres Karoo, so please treat them with the respect they deserve.



History of the San people

Major changes came in the Western Cape more than 1700 years ago. Khoikhoi (Hottentot) shepherds, with domesticated sheep and cattle, moved into the region from Botswana. They have also left stone tools, as well as earthenware pots used for cooking and storing dairy produce. The new stock farming economy was attractive to some of the San who left their former lifestyles and joined the Khoikhoi. Others refused to change and remained hunter-gatherers in the mountains.

The letter H, painted next to the San paintings, symbolizes the stamp of authority over the San, during the colonial era. The wagon wheel is a clear indication of the contact between the San and the colonists of that time. About 300 years ago the first European colonists ventured beyond the mountains and gradually took over the land for farming. They build stone walls, roads, fences and houses. Colonists displaced both the San and the Khoikhoi and missionaries gradually converted the descendants of the indigenous people. San religious beliefs were lost along with their religious art, but some people (it is not possible to say whether they were San, Khoi or both) painted Europeans. At Vaalkloof you can see wagon wheels, women in long dresses and domesticated animals. Some researchers believe that the artists were expressing their anger and frustration at losing their land to the Colonists; others see the paintings as the work of the medicine men who were using their super natural powers to mediate between the real and the spirit world and to help their people to adjust to changing circumstances. Note that the technique used for these paintings is different from that used by the earlier San. The paint was applied by finger rather, than by brush.

The San's way of living is brought to light by the rock paintings Notice the wagon wheel being an integral part of numerous paintings. The final chapter of the history book on the rocks at Vaalkloof is the letter H painted in red, next to the San rock art. It symbolises the stamp of authority and ownership of the colonial era over the indigenous legacy of the San and the Khoikhoi.




The San Religion

San religious experiences were painted in much the same way as art in churches, temples and mosques and illustrate animals and rituals of that time. It is impossible to interpret the meaning of every painting - a general understanding of the basic elements of San religion has been built up, helping with the interpretation of rock art. The information comes from /Xam San, from the Karoo (19th century) and San in the Kalahari (20th century), but many of the paintings remain as a tantalising reminder that we do not have all the answers.

At Vaalkloof you will see a finely painted quagga, accurately represented with no stripes on the rump, but with odd shapes painted on its flank and no hooves; there is at least one Eland that was believed by the San to have a special power that could bring them closer to their god; there is a hartebeest with the characteristic, but oddly mid-sharpen horns; there are several small antelope like grysbok placed in strange positions and faded human figures. All are typical of the artistic tradition of the San, but the artists were not keeping diaries. Each painting is a record of a unique, spiritual experience, either a vision seen in trancelike state, or a graphic representation of the sensations of supernatural experience, or a record of a ritual. There is a complex interplay between reality and the super natural - human figures may be shown with animal heads, or in a dancing posture. Lines and dots depict the patterns of light seen by medicine men and women when they begin to hallucinate. At Vaalkloof you will see examples of these in the form of finely painted nested U-shapes and swarms of finger dots.