Rock Art and Natal Drakensberg Hunter-Gatherer History: A Reply to Dowson

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A further contribution on art, history and archaeological attitude in South Africa.


Dowson (1993) takes issue with aspects of an article of mine, 'Changing fortunes: 150 years of San hunter-gatherer history in the Natal Drakensberg, South Africa' (Mazel 1992a), published in Antiquity. The essence of Dowson's critique is that by excluding rock art from the paper I commit a host of crimes, one of which is that my '"archaeological" construction continues to negotiate a "primitive" stereotype of the Bushmen' (Dowson 1993: 642). (Is it only art which separates us from 'primitiveness'?) Furthermore, Dowson suggests that by not dealing with the rock art I promote the same views of San hunter-gatherer history as the 19th-century British colonialists (as in 'Changing fortunes' I use the term San in preference to Bushman): 'Our constructions of the past can go beyond a colonialist approach, with its abhorrent stereotypes, only if we are sensitive to the creativity of indigenous people. For the Bushmen, this involves turning to their rock art.' (Dowson 1993: 642, my emphasis). Dowson believes that my approach is symptomatic of the way in which rock art is marginalized by South African archaeologists: 'The exclusion of rock art research from archaeological practice in Southern Africa is commonplace, even today' (Dowson 1993: 641). Thus, the South African archaeological community stands charged by Dowson for marginalizing rock art.

The following response to Dowson will not cover all the issues that he has raised due to space constraints. Instead, I will concentrate on some of the principal issues.

Misrepresenting 'Changing fortunes . . .'

Before proceeding, I need to highlight Dowson's confusion concerning the aim of my paper, which I explicitly stated at the outset: 'to trace and understand the making of the Natal Drakensberg San hunter-gatherer history over the last 150 years' (Mazel 1992a: 758). No attempt was made to construct Natal Drakensberg San history. This history was cursorily dealt with in four short paragraphs to provide the readers with some background. Dowson's confusion about the aims of my paper emerges in the third sentence of his Comment (Dowson 1993: 641): Mazel's history documents 150 years of Bushman hunter-gatherer occupation in the Natal Drakensberg and their changing fortunes at the hands of historians and archaeologists.

The second point is correct, but I am at a loss trying to establish the origin, or meaning, of his first point. Dowson has confused the aim of my paper, that is the making of the history, with the history itself, and this has resulted in a series of groundless misrepresentations and accusations, such as, 'Despite deconstructionist jargon, Mazel's Drakensberg history effectively remains colonial in character' (Dowson 1993: 642).

Some thoughts on rock art studies and Natal Drakensberg San history

Dowson (1993: 642) calls for a 'new concept of "history" that breaks from emphasizing a chronology of certain kinds of events, one which accepts other evidence and other kinds of statements and constructions'. With regard to the San, Dowson (1993: 642) believes that they 'have painted their history', and further that 'rock art negotiates their history more than occupational debris and early colonial reports'. Herein lies the essence of the problem -- not how we define history or what kinds of information should be used in constructing San history -- but that Dowson considers rock art to be the key to San history. I disagree, and I consider his comments about history and my approach to San history as not only ill-informed and misleading, but I believe that they obfuscate what underlies his response to my paper. I therefore am going to disregard them.

Numerous difficulties beset viewing rock art as the key to constructing San history, but the one which particularly concerns my research programme is the lack of a firm chronological context for the majority of the Natal Drakensberg paintings. …