Engraved Art and Acoustic Resonance: Exploring Ritual and Sound in North-Western South Africa

Article excerpt


There exists a vast corpus of literature dealing with the significance of the landscape in foraging societies and with studies concerning landscapes and rock art (e.g, Deacon 1988; Hardey & Wolley Vawser 2002; Ouzman 2002; Arsenault 2004; Chippindale & Nash 2004; David 2004; Flood 2004; Hyder 2004; Lenssen-Erz 2004; Smith & Blundell 2004), In general terms, the landscape is perceived m a socially- and culturally-constructed phenomenon, a 'mindscape', which is as symbolic and conceptual in character as it is geomorphological (Geana 1980; see also Ouzman 2001; Arsenault 2004). Topophilia, the feeling of a strong emotional attachment to familiar places (Tuan 1974: 92), is a widespread cultural phenomenon.

Recent anthropological and geographical explorations of the interplay of the senses (e.g. Stoller 1989; Howes 1991; Pocock 1993; Tuan 1993; Solomon 2000) critique the exclusively vision-based epistemology, calling for the exploration of the roles of the other senses, of which there may be no fewer than 21 (Durie 2005: 36), in the cultural patterning of perception. Writing explicitly about the realm of sound, Schafer (1985), building on the concept of 'acoustic space' as developed by Carpenter and McLuhan (1960), explores the soundscapes of living environments. That enquiry aimed to illustrate that the concepts of landscape and topophilia do not stand in isolation, but are augmented by what may be termed a cosmologically-prominent 'soundscape' (e.g. Waller 1989; Feld 1994; Leeds 2001). It has been established that music maintains social structure and reinforces group identity, be it among the Suya of Brazil, the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, the Temiar of Malaysia, the Chayantaka of Bolivia, Aboriginal groups in Australia, or the linguistically distinct San foragers of southern Africa (e.g. Marshall 1969; Seeger 1987; Devereux 2001; Connel & Gibson 2003; Barac 2004).


Accordingly, while ethnographic evidence alludes to the existence of intimate associations between San foragers (who formerly inhabited the semi-arid western regions of southern Africa) and particular geographic features (e.g. Bleek & Lloyd 1911; Bleek 1933, 1935, 1936a; Barnard 1979; Deacon 1988), the present paper explores the unique character and socio-religious significance of music, performance and echoing sound amongst San forager groups. To accomplish this aim, I focus on an engraved location known as Klipbak I. The site, located within the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, is positioned on top of an isolated hill in the Korannaberg Mountains in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa (Figure 1). The entire site is situated within an elliptical basin which is bordered on the northern, eastern and western edges by low-lying rocky ridges. It is from these encasing ridges that, on account of human intervention, particularly fascinating echoes emanate.

The Klipbak I site exhibits well-preserved examples of engraved human figures, animal figures and circular motifs, all of which are of the pecked (outline and infill) engraved type. A total of 948 culturally-produced marks occur at the site, the preponderance being located on a smooth horizontal surface adjacent to a sandy area and a natural cistern or klip-bak (Afrikaans for rock-bowl). Of these, 856 comprise spherical ground hollows or 'cupules', with 85 banded circular motifs, 32 abraded shallow elliptical hollows, 9 animal figures and 2 human figures (Figure 2).


Ascertaining the temporal depth of material cultural remains, whilst stated to be notoriously difficult to attain, is nevertheless of primary importance--it is archaeology's 'defining purpose' (Chippindale & Tacon 2002: I07). Examples of engraved art have been dated to 8400 years (Whitley & Annegarn 2001: 194), 4000 to 10000 years (Thackeray et al. 1981: 66), and perhaps even up to 60 000 to 80 000 years in age (Mitchell 2002: 98). …