Changing Fortunes of Southern African Archaeology: Comment on A.D. Mazel's 'History.' (Response to A.D. Mazel, Antiquity, Vol. 66, P. 710, 1992)

By Dowson, Thomas A. | Antiquity, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Changing Fortunes of Southern African Archaeology: Comment on A.D. Mazel's 'History.' (Response to A.D. Mazel, Antiquity, Vol. 66, P. 710, 1992)


Dowson, Thomas A., Antiquity


Histories of research provide insight into the prevailing attitudes within a discipline at a given time and, often, lingering survivals of outdated methods. Mazel's 'history' (1992: 758--67), part of a special section on 'archaeology, history and the uttermost ends of the earth' (ANTIQUITY 66: 710--83), provides both of these.

Mazel's history documents 150 years of Bushman(+) hunter-gatherer occupation in the Natal Drakensberg of South Africa and their changing fortunes at the hands of historians and archaeologists. Mazel rehearses points discussed more fully by Wright (1971) and Vinnicombe (1976), major studies that challenged prevailing constructions of the Drakensberg's past far more than Mazel allows. And there is in Mazel's piece something sorely missing, perhaps not missed but certainly summarily dismissed. The Drakensberg has some of the most complex rock art in the world; it was produced by Bushman hunter-gatherers. Further, as Mazel points out (1992: 758), its interpretation has contributed to the understanding of rock art worldwide. Yet he provides no further comment on the rock art, its study, or why it is missing from his history.

The exclusion of rock art research from archaeological practice in Southern Africa is commonplace, even today. A new pamphlet entitled A career in archaeology, produced by the Southern African Association of Archaeologists, Department of Archaeology, University of Stellenbosch, ignores the study of rock art made by indigenous peoples of Southern Africa. Together, this pamphlet and Mazel's history demonstrate the marginal role rock art is accorded by Southern African archaeologists, with very few exceptions (Manhire et al. 1986; Parkington et al. 1986; Hall 1986; 1990; Kinahan 1989; 1991; Parkington 1989).

In Mazel's history of the Natal Drakensberg the absence of rock art and its study is inexplicable. It has been the focus of numerous rock art researchers in Southern Africa, from Breuil (1949) to Lewis-Williams (1981). Indeed, Mazel (1982; 1983; see also Manhire et al. 1986) himself has worked on rock art in this region. Further, the Drakensberg rock art provided the material for each major conceptual shift in research on Bushman art in Southern Africa. And it was the study of rock art, not archaeology as it is presently perceived in South Africa, that finally, in 1992, led custodians of art galleries and cultural museums to incorporate rock art in their displays, where it will finally appear alongside other Southern African cultural materials and not just juxtaposed with stuffed animals and geological specimens in natural history museums. The sensitive study of rock art has done much to change attitudes towards the Bushman people of Southern Africa.

The ignoring of rock art by archaeologists, historians and art historians comes from the misconception that the art merely depicts, albeit in a complex manner, Bushman religious beliefs. Yet Lewis-Williams (1982) demonstrated that beliefs associated with painting in the Drakensberg were part of the social and economic fabric of hunter-gatherer existence. This paper provided the first explicit, socially theoretical approach to Later Stone Age life in Southern Africa. Campbell (1986; 1987), continuing this approach, demonstrated how changing social conditions in the Drakensberg, brought about by the arrival of new people, transformed Bushman social formations. Yet, because Lewis-Williams and Campbell dealt with religious beliefs associated with the production of rock paintings, their work has been ignored by the majority of Later Stone Age archaeologists; their approach to Bushman history is not even cited by Mazel.

Rather, Mazel concentrates on early European colonial reports about the Bushmen and on the results of excavations by white archaeologists. Barham (1992), challenging archaeologists' use of occupational debris in their quest for social interpretations, suggests that rock art is more suited to this line of enquiry. …

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