Drakensberg Bushman Rock Art
The existence of so much Bushman
rock art, representing an otherwise lost
culture, is a matter of fortune. All of the
Drakensberg rock art are on Cave Sandstone,
a rock custom-built for the purpose. It erodes
in a way that produces weatherproof overhangs
– few are real caves. So the artist can
work in peace, and his work will not be washed
away by the first rain. The sandstone is porous
so that paint applied will sink in and “grip”.
Paint on a smooth surface would soon peel off.
The age of the bushman rock paintings is open
to speculation, but the newest are generally
considered to be about 130 years old. The last
recorded sighting of a Drakensberg Bushman was
in 1871. The amount of wear provides a rough
index that can be applied to paintings in a
poorer state of preservation and presumed older.
Some of these might be 500 years old. Very likely
the Drakensberg Bushmen and their art are much
older than this however.
Like most art this has a distinctive style,
perhaps combining the attitude of the artists
and what was considered fashionable. To me its
greatest value is that it is a picture book
of the past. Because many of the pictures are
of clearly recognisable subjects, we can place
a lot of trust into other pictures. Nobody can
doubt that this picture of a man on a horse,
complete with rifle and Boer hat is a Voortrekker.
So the clearly older picture of an Arab slave
gang can only be based upon direct observation.
The Eland must have been the favourite animal
of the Bushmen. Eland pictures outnumber those
of all other animals put together. Something
all the Eland pictures have in common is the
exaggeration of those qualities so typical,
its huge neck and shoulders. To emphasise the
point the legs are made small and weedy. Nobody
has dared say so, for fear of appearing irreverent,
but these are the world’s first cartoons.
This opinion does not lessen admiration for
their quality. Notice how the work of one artist
does not necessarily respect that of another.
Best painting surfaces must have been at a premium,
with rivalry over-riding any finer feelings.
We tend to regard the Bushman artist as a sort
of Neolithic van Gogh: was he instead a freelance
public house doodler?
Two other Drakensberg
antelopes are beautifully portrayed. This Red
Hartebeest has the typical jaunty kink to the
horns, and the Vaal Rhebok has its long ears
and snout exaggerated just that little bit,
surely to distinguish it from a Mountain Reedbuck.
It is interesting to note an obvious absence
from the menagerie. The Blesbok is never painted,
evidence that it never occurred in the Berg.
It is not obvious why not, for it is a highland
dweller common not far away. But recent attempts
to introduce it failed, the Bushmen had it right.
The Black Wildebeest is not often painted, despite
being common on the highveld not far away. The
Roan Antelope, although absent from the Berg
today features quite often, suggesting a recent
Bushman paintings also illustrate several other
animals not found in the Berg today. We have
to believe that they were there. This perfect
Elephant from Fulton’s Rock can only have
been painted from life. It is true that the
Bushmen were not (all) sedentary, and would
have encountered Elephants on journeys to the
lowlands. But it is more likely that they would
paint what they could see, rather than something
remembered – less than perfectly –
from events past. The heavily built cat, so
much more robust that the “pink panther”
Leopard that Symons never saw, is surely a Lion.
This Antbear is perfect. These white animals
are often called Bushpigs by scholars, perhaps
because they cannot bring themselves to believe
that they are Rhinos. Rhinos have not always
been confined to the lowlands, Paul Kruger once
shot five in an afternoon on the highveld.
These animals were not necessarily resident,
although we know that climatic change can be
sudden, and conditions would have been more
suitable for them a few hundred years ago. A
little extra warmth would expand the range of
termites up the mountains, giving the Antbear
a living. The Elephant, Rhino and Lion, and
several other species including the Roan Antelope,
were most likely summer migrants from the lowlands.
Grass quality and other forage in the Berg summer
can support lots of animals. The trick is to
get out before the winter famine sets in. The
end of most of these animals in the Berg came
with the extravagant hunting of big game by
the colonials in the nineteenth century and
their settling of the migration route.
Plants are very rarely painted, even though,
if other hunter-gatherer societies are a yardstick,
they were probably at least half of the diet.
Plants also provide painting materials, medicines,
poisons and other commodities. Could it be that
because finding plants was women’s work
it was so unimportant as not to be worth a mention?
Male chauvinism is the norm for most of recorded
Note that about half of the animal pictures
face to the right. This implies that they were
painted by a left-handed person. Such a proportion
of left-handedness is very high. Modern research
shows that artistic people are more likely to
be left-handed than mere mortals, but nowhere
near to the Bushman level. Were they a race
of super-artists in which nearly everyone could
Most human scenes seem very real. In the battle
scenes warriors are as dynamic as any ever portrayed,
all speed and vigour. The scene must depict
an attack upon the occupants of a cave, for
there are women tending the wounded of the “home”
side. The away side would not have such support.
We can deduce that life was not all peace and
harmony, man has always fought over the best
things when they are in short supply, here evidently
the rock shelter.
The portrayal of the human figures shares a
characteristic with the animal paintings –
lifelike, but not exactly true to life. Distinctive
features are emphasised. Here this means enlargement
of the buttocks, the feature that most obviously
distinguishes the Bushmen from other races.
None of the paintings ever portrays the human
face. This cannot be because it was too difficult
a feat. Many other cultures believe that a portrait
renders the subject vulnerable to harm, and
perhaps that was the case here.
The materials used in the paints are all local.
Blood, or rock or soil rich in ferric oxide
(rust) provide reddish brown. Variations in
redness can be obtained by heating the pigment
in a fire. A very interesting aside is that
the Lammergeyer “paints” its white
breast by repeated contact with iron-rich rocks,
and must do so after every moult. Charcoal provides
black, while white is created with bird droppings
or clay. Other colours are rare. The Bushmen
weren’t that particular about matching
colour to that of the live subject. Elephants
tend to be painted red. The subtly different
colours in life of some of the small antelopes
are not addressed in the paintings, making some
Less is known about the medium used to convert
the pigment into usable paint. Melted fat beeswax
or egg white work well, but the secret ingredient
that gave permanence to the paintings is not
known. Old eyewitnesses, long dead, claim the
Bushmen used a brush of Black Wildebeest mane
or tail attached to a reed; pointed bone was
used for finer definition. We know from incomplete
paintings that white was applied first, and
additional colours, if any, were painted on
It is a great sadness that Bushmen art will
not last forever. At least not in situ, where
we can stand where the artist stood and feel
his world around us. Natural deterioration is
quite fast, and already some of the famous paintings
are known only from photos or copies made when
they were first discovered. Although the pigments
used in the paintings are quite strong, and
reasonably colour-fast, the rock faces slowly
crumble. Missing pieces of paintings attest
to this. Nor have the paintings been properly
cared for since the departure of the Bushmen.
In the early history of the reserve visitors
were allowed to camp where they liked, and often
built fires near the paintings. Some had the
Victorian attitude of scorn towards alien art,
especially “primitive” pictures
of naked people, and fired shots at the pictures.
Others tried to collect the pictures, always
unsuccessfully, by chipping them off. The first
law protecting the paintings was passed in 1911,
but enforcement is difficult. People still scrawl
graffiti across them.
A concluding note clarifies our use of the
term “Bushman”. For long the usual
name, it fell into disrepute as being mildly
disparaging, implying a country yokel. San seems
appropriately Sanitised, but originates with
those Khoikhoi people who are not hunter-gatherers.
It actually means “those who own nothing”,
and really is an insult. Real Bushmen prefer
to be referred to as such.