Rock Art and Changing Perceptions of Southern Africa's Past: Ezeljagdspoort Reviewed

By Lewis-Williams, David; Dowson, Thomas A. et al. | Antiquity, June 1993 | Go to article overview

Rock Art and Changing Perceptions of Southern Africa's Past: Ezeljagdspoort Reviewed


Lewis-Williams, David, Dowson, Thomas A., Deacon, Janette, Antiquity


Africa 48: 117-34.

LEWIS-WILLIAMS, J.D. & T.A. DOWSON. 1988. Signs of all times: entoptic phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic art, Current Anthropology 29: 201-45.

1989a. Images of power: understanding Bushman rock art. Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers.

1989b. Theory and data: a brief critique of A. Marshack's research methods and position on Upper Palaeolithic shamanism, Rock Art Research 6: 38-53. Since copies of Bushman (San) rock paintings were first published just over a century and a half ago, approaches to the art have undergone significant changes: at different times, different aspects have been singled out for comment and interpretation. These changes did not happen randomly. Rock-art research, like any other academic pursuit, is historically situated: changes in research strategies and explanations are implicated in ideology and politics. This paper therefore investigates the kind of knowledge rock-art research produces and its relevance to contemporary thought.(1)

In South Africa, knowledge of indigenous peoples has been appropriated and used in political manoeuvres (Smith 1983; Parkington & Smith 1986; Wright & Mazel 1987; Hall 1988). In educational propaganda the Bushmen have long been presented as simple, helpless nomads, wandering aimlessly across a landscape they did not own. Because they are said to be inherently 'primitive', their artists are described as naive chroniclers of daily events. So conceived, their stature as human beings capable of creative thought and controlling their own destiny is obscured.

Today a new colonial ideology is building on this picture of primitiveness by holding them up as exemplars of natural ecologists. They are now said to live 'in harmony with nature', using but not destroying the bounty of their environment. Along with this emphasis on admirable people-nature relationships there is a concomitant portrayal of the Bushmen's supposed child-like, mystical wisdom, spiritual insight and almost supernatural powers. As presented by writers such as Laurens van der Post, they have been made to speak as if from an innocent Garden of Eden; Jungian archetypes come easily and platitudinously. Although this new ideology appears to exalt them, it is actually presenting them as an indissoluble part of primeval circumstances, a mystical people unable to look after themselves in the materialistic modern world. The spiritualizing of the Bushmen is simply a more palatable way of rendering the reality of their immediate day-to-day needs invisible and marginalizing them in political debates (Voss 1987; Barnard 1989; Biesele & Weinberg 1990; Marshall & Ritchie 1984; Mazel 1992).

Recent rock-art research has explicitly challenged both the primitive and the other-worldly stereotypes by revealing the complexity and subtlety of Bushman thought and art (cf. Lewis-Williams 1989; 1990). The rock paintings and engravings do not record a child-like interest in the events of nomadic life; nor are they reflections of an innate, romantic empathy with 'nature'. This research has been based on the copious 19th- and 20th-century Bushman ethnography. The complex and detailed fit between the ethnography from both centuries and specific features of the art confirms its relevance and suggests that the rock paintings and engravings can be explained, at least in part, in terms of widely held Bushman beliefs and widely practised rituals (Lewis-Williams & Biesele 1978; Lewis-Williams 1972; 1980; 1981a; Vinnicombe 1972a; 1976; Dowson & Deacon in press). The centrality of the ethnography in any study of the 'meaning' of Bushman rock art is now accepted by virtually all researchers.

As a contribution to rock-art research's challenge to demeaning stereotypes we consider a single rock painting in some detail. We begin by examining straightforward narrative views of the painting. We then show that ethnographic research can reveal otherwise unsuspected complexities.

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