South African Cave Art



Welcome to ArchaeoBill’s introduction to “rock-art.” This edition will be a brief “rock-art” overview. As time permits, the information on this website will be expanded, modified, and corrected as new information becomes available. 


The use of the term “rock-art” is problematic. There are any number of interpretations and theories concerning, not only the term “rock-art,” but the interpretation of the “rock-art” figures, images, and designs. Every book (that I’ve read) written about the subject of “rock-art” must first deal with the definition of “rock-art.” In South Africa, for example, cave paintings or rock-art is often referred to as "Bushman" or "San" cave paintings. There is no consensus among authors when it comes to the definition of the word “art” as we commonly use the word. The only consensus among authors is that the term “rock-art” is woefully inadequate, but all continue to use the term as it pertains to pre-historic and historic drawings and etchings on stone or rock surfaces. Of course, I will continue to use the term “rock-art,” as it is established common practice. 


Rock-art is an endangered species. It is also a National Treasure. Countries around the world are realizing they have a national treasure at their door stoop disguised as rock-art, but due to naturally occurring deterioration by natural climatic conditions, and abuse by humans, rock-art is disappearing.


Rock-art can usually be placed into one of two categories. Pictographs or Petroglyphs. PICTOGRAPHS are figures or images or designs drawn on a rock surface. The artist would typically use a paint made from a variety of available ochre’s and bonded with a liquid medium. Some 30 colors have been identified. The color red, for example, is made by grinding red ochre and mixing it with blood, oil, fat or other bonding agent. White color comes from ash or clay and black comes from charcoal. PETROGLYPHS are the result of pecking or etching a figure, image, or design into a rock using a stone or bone tool. Hammer stones, lithic (rock) knives, lithic (rock) chisels, and bone tools were commonly used. Typically, a rock chisel was hammered by another rock causing a pecking to occur on the rock surface removing the patina or rock varnish outer layer. After this pecking or scraping, the lighter colored rock underneath is exposed and presto, we have the desired result.


Rock-art is found scattered around the world etched and pecked into rocks and stones and painted on rock surfaces, especially in or near rock shelters and caves. These mysterious shapes and symbols stare out at us from dark caves and well-lighted shelters. There are rocks and boulders scattered across farmer’s fields with rock-art pecked into them. Rock-art, either paintings or etchings or both, are found in abundance in the following countries: France, Spain, Portugal, Libya, Namibia, South Africa, United States, Canada, Australia, Nicaragua, and any number of Pacific Islands, just to name the countries with rock-art sites I am familiar with.




The Paleolithic time period, 1,500,000 to 120,000 years ago and the Mesolithic time period, 120,000 to 30,000 years ago, produced little, if any, rock-art. These time periods certainly do not offer, through archaeological exploration, any clues about the prevailing methods of communication between one another. Although opinion varies, the prevailing belief is that emerging, evolving Homo Sapiens communicated by body language and simplistic and possibly quite complex, grunts and groans. The Neolithic or late Stone Age, on the other hand, starting about 30,000 years ago, is characterized by rock-art and a dramatic increase in the variety of tools, clothing, and other cultural attributes. The oldest known and dated rock-art site is in France and dates to 30,000 years ago and possibly later. There are some dates of rock-art being reported in the journals at the 35,000 years ago age. The oldest known and dated site in Africa is located near Ais-Ais, Namibia and is reported to be about 27,000 years old. The oldest dated rock-art in the Americas is a relatively young 10,000 years old. Until 30,000 years ago, maybe 35,000 years ago as new sites and more dating is being reported, there is no archaeological evidence that humans communicated with each other in any manner other than body language or verbally. Unless new evidence and until new evidence is found and verified, it is thought that modern human speech wasn’t possible until Homo Sapiens evolved anatomically with a Hyoid bone. The hyoid bone was found in skeletal remains only since 50,000 years ago or so.


How old is the rock-art and how do we know? There are a variety of dating methods that I will touch on and several that I will not mention. Hopefully, in a revised edition of this brief introduction to rock-art, a larger section will be allocated to dating methods. For a detailed, complete understanding of dating techniques, please consult one of the references I have cited.

 Simply put, there are two general dating approaches- relative dating and absolute dating. Relative dating is exactly how it sounds, relative to something else. Absolute dating is direct dating. For example, a type of relative date would be the assumption that cave art from one cave might be the same age as cave-art from another near by cave with similar style, technique, and materials. If absolute dates have been found by dating stone tools or bones from middens (rubbish heaps), we can apply the rule of relative dating to suggest that the associated cave-art would be of similar age. At one site, a piece of wall with paint intact had fallen into the ground, when excavated it was assigned a date similar to other objects excavated at the same exact level of deposit.

 CONDITION: Bolder rock-art images are relatively newer than adjacent faded out images. However, caution must be used. Research has shown that some paint mediums fade out quicker than others. For some reason, artists painted one image on top of other images. This is called superimposition. In cases such as this, the image underneath is said to be relatively older. 

SUBJECT-TIME SPECIFIC: Subject dating takes into account the nature of the subject. For example, accurate dates are known for horse domestication, the use or development of the bow or atlatl, pottery, and the time of extinction for a variety of animals. At a South African site, the picture of a very distinct, masted ship appears along with the pictures of some wagons. It becomes obvious that this rock-art was quite recently drawn. Since the Imperial Mammoth and Ice Age Carnelops have been extinct for at least 10,000 years, rock-art with these mammals shown can be considered very old.

 ABSOLUTE DATING: Two common absolute dating techniques are Carbon-14 dating and nuclear acceleration dating. Carbon-14 requires a considerable amount of material to achieve a reliable date, so, nuclear acceleration dating is being relied upon, as it required only a few grams of organic material. For example, from the rock-art picture, a small amount of pigment, blood, oil, or charcoal is removed. A nuclear accelerator is employed to calculate the amount of radioactive decay that has occurred since the source of the pigment ceased to be a living organism. 

 DATING PETROGLYPHS: The easiest way to date a petroglyph is to remove a bit of the lichen or pollen that gets trapped in the pecked area of the petroglyph after pecking and subjecting this organic sample to Carbon-14 dating. This will give us a very close date of production for the petroglyph. 


Rock-art conveys a message. Rock-art is the oldest known form of communication other than oral or body language. Rock-art is also the oldest known art form or drawing style. Rock-art is the oldest recorded history of human thought patterns and behavior and provides us with a peek into a long gone, ancient culture. We can gain valuable insights into the socio-religious aspects of this ancient culture, including their myth and belief system. Rock-art or cave paintings are precious remnants of an ancient way of life. These paintings are some of our oldest clues of cultures long forgotten. There are no written records except the cave paintings and rock etchings produced between 30,000 years ago and 5,000 years ago. Of course, after 5,000 years ago we have other types of written records. The rock-art message, either simple or quite complex, is very special and not well understood and it is our only peek into the socio-religious aspects of these ancient cultures. There are any number of theories purporting to explain rock-art. Some theories suggest the rock-art images are simply daily life drawings and mean little more. Other theories suggest the drawings and designs are complex depictions and explanations of the trance experience and convey the message about the altered state of consciousness and the shamantic journey and further suggest that a true appreciation and understanding of ancient tribal life can only be understood through the acceptance that rock art can only be understood through metaphor. Easier said, what one sees as rock art on the wall means something else. We must be careful not to assume that the paintings produced in a specific tribal social and religious context bear any resemblance to the belief system of modern Western society of today. Finally, and I would be remiss not to mention that at least one source provides us with a not so convincing argument that aliens from outer space drew the rock-art.


Why does the artist and/or shaman paint or etch these designs on rock surfaces? Why did the artist develop an elaborate method of mixing paint and go to the effort of putting images on walls and rocks some 30,000 years ago? These forms are very interesting, and yes, they depict all sorts of activities including birthing, healing, a variety of other ceremonies, hunting scenes and migrations. It certainly appears that some of the painted scenes involve trance states or altered states of consciousness. But, WHY? Was the shaman, medicine person, or artist sending a message to someone? Maybe an important message to members of the family, group, or tribe was being sent? Maybe to record the event by drawing intensified the desired effect and possibly the drawing or etching enabled the shaman to return to the event for additional clarity or emphasis.

 The reason for a shaman to enter the trance state was to communicate with a spirit or higher authority, but the reason to paint this picture of the trance experience on the rock surface is certainly to communicate a valuable message to others and enables the shaman to remember the experience and message he or she received while in trance.


Aside from my main theme of understanding the importance of rock-art communication and the rock-art message, the images and designs drawn by the rock-art artists is fascinating. What do these figures, symbols, blobs, and pictures mean? The meaning of rock-art, what the artist intended to share with others, is, without doubt, very interesting, very elusive, and very subjective. If we were to compare trance experiences by various shaman or medicine persons, under similar circumstances, the result would be that all the trips (experience) would be different. The experience, the symbols, images, visions, and spirit helpers have different and even multiple meanings for each of the shaman. First and foremost, the shaman or medicine person comes from a different cultural reference or background.

 CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS: Cultural conditioning must be taken into consideration when analyzing rock-art. The artists cultural perspective, his environment, and his belief system, will influence his rock-art and his trance interpretation. For example, if the shaman or artist draws an Eland, the largest of the antelope family, he draws from a pool of cultural knowledge and experience. Eland are found in Africa. A shaman in SW United States would draw a Big Horned Sheep perhaps, drawn from his cultural experience- certainly not an Eland.

 UNIVERSAL IMAGES: The same image or images have been found and documented from rock art sites around the world. This unique phenomena has occurred when it would be impossible for the artists to have had cultural contact with each other. These rock art images are known as "universals." As a result of extensive research, there is reason to believe that there are certain images that will appear during a “trance state” that are universal. That is, these images commonly appear to shaman or others in a trance state without common cultural conditioning. Since all humans have a similar neurological and physiological system regardless of ethnic origin, be it African, European, or Native American, it is possible to experience similar neurological sensations. In other words, we are all “hard wired” in the same way. Therefore, it has been found that persons in a trance state, that state of altered consciousness, can experience similar reactions or sensations. Trance sensations may or may not include the following common experiences.

 First, there are oral sensations. In a trance state there might be whirring, buzzing, tinkling, or ringing hallucinations. These might be interpreted as singing, talking, voices, or music. Progressively, the trance might include somatic or bodily hallucination. There might be a feeling of elongation, weightlessness, or flight or alternatively, of heavy, awkward limbs. Also reported in this level of trance is a feeling of extended neck or extension of other limbs and a feeling of growing hair or something crawling across the skin.

 ENTOPICS: The third level of trance reaction is visual- seeing things. The vision looks real, but is actually occurring behind the eye, occurring in the brain. Leading rock-art experts, including Dr. David Whitley, David-Lewis Williams, and Thomas Dowson propose that the visual hallucinations experienced in trance are of primary importance for understanding rock-art. Some of these reoccurring forms and images are dots and flecks, parallel lines, filigrees or meandering lines, grids and checkerboards, zigzags, nested curves, and spiral or concentric circles. These images are called “entopic” patterns. Entopic refers to “within the eye” or “behind the eye.” These entopic images occur cross-culturally and have appeared on rock surfaces in such diverse locations as France, Libya, Namibia, South Africa, SW United States, Australia, and Nicaragua.

 GEOMETRIC DESIGNS: Geometric designs appear at rock-art sites around the world. I personally have participated in archaeological activities (Surveys and excavations) in several countries where similar geometric designs have been painted or etched years ago. These countries are Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, South Africa, United States, Canada, Nicaragua, and Australia and a few other countries that I have temporarily forgotten.

 CONCENTRIC CIRCLES and/or SPIRALS: When concentric circles or spirals are painted or etched, it is thought that these are a message meaning the feeling of weightlessness, flight in trance, falling, a wind, whirlwind, or tornado or cyclone. These designs are considered a serious part of trance especially if it concerns spatial removal or flight.

ZIGZAGS: Possible interpretation of the zigzag includes snake, snake path, water, or river. The snake is often referred to as a guardian and “spirit helper.” The snake is often found painted or etched crawling out of a rock. . The ZIGZAG art form is a famous motif of the Native American Anasazi Tribe.

  The final stage of “trance” or altered state of consciousness is the “participation” stage. After the physical sensation, elongation, floating, etc., and the “entopic” sensations of dots, helixes, spirals and circles, etc., the person in trance, the shaman, actually sees and feels himself transformed into an animal and participates in the hallucination.


Rock-art provides excellent examples of a peoples belief system, their religion and metaphysics. Shamanism, is a form of worship based on direct, personal interaction between a shaman and the spirit world. Typically, this interaction occurred when the shaman entered a trance, or altered state of consciousness, sometimes referred to as “dreaming.” In this altered state, the shaman could obtain supernatural power in the form of a spirit helper (typically an antelope or eland in Africa). In the SW United States these spirit helpers would commonly be grizzly bears or rattlesnakes.

ANIMAL SPIRIT helpers were considered dangerous and powerful. The shaman, in trance, would become that animal and acted the part of the animal. The shamans’ animal spirit helper was rarely an important source of food because it was taboo for a shaman to eat the meat of his animal spirit helper. Usually it took many years of training to become a shaman. During the training period the apprentice would experience trances, hallucinations, dreams, and other visions caused by illness. To enter a trance, the shaman would fast, dance, pray, chant, and submit oneself to exhaustion by exertion or pain. It was also important for the shaman to seek out a most probable location to enter the spirit world. Dark caves, high dangerous places, rocks, lakes and other water places were all considered entryways to the sacred realm. In some cultures, the spirit world was thought to be through or beyond “the rock,” be it a boulder or a rock wall. Snakes are often found painted partially entering or leaving a “rock” through a crack in the rock. These special places are entry points to the world of the spirits. Sometimes the entry point (power point) was denoted by a blob of paint, usually red, on the rock wall. The snake, sometimes drawn as a zigzag, is thought to be a guardian of the spirit world. It was probably best to be the snake’s friend.


Typically to answer questions about the environment, difficult problems, to cure, maybe to cause others illness, to find lost objects, to make rain, stop rain, to ward off evil spells, answer questions about fertility, promote hunting success, and possibly communicate with ancestors.


After the vision quest, the shaman would communicate his experience by painting or engraving his vision on a rock or rock wall. In this way, not only do the members of the tribal group see the power of the spirits through a vision quest, the rock art enables the shaman to re-visit the site to revitalize the memory of the trance and to renew the power or re-enter the realm of the supernatural for additional power or further consultation with the spirits.




The perplexing problems surrounding various tribal groups were explained in a variety of ways. The socio-religious belief system often used animals to support or justify their beliefs. For example, the Supreme Being for the Kalahari San people would present himself through the eland antelope, the largest of the antelope family. When a group of eland were nearby, the San could be sure that the Supreme Being was also close. The snake is seen as powerful and dangerous. It is also seen as the guardian.


Therianthropes are pictures of part animal and part human. It might be a human figure with the head of an antelope. These pictures are probably a shaman transformed into an antelope while in trance. Another theory holds that this type of cave art represents the “living dead.” Could it be ancestor spirit worship and the drawing depicts deceased relatives spirits returning through the animal world. Pictures with white paint seem to represent death or afterlife while red is often associated with life.

 TRANCE: Pictures or drawings or etchings that depict a trance state may include animals or therianthropes, part animal and part human, bleeding through the nose, exaggerated figures, elongated figures, hooves instead of feet, figures bent over, erect or fibulated penises, and/or erect body hairs. 

TRANCE DANCE: A trance dance was often used en route to an altered state of consciousness. The trance dance incorporated a combination of activities including  hyperventilation, physical exertion, dancing, dehydration, and lack of sleep.


Did the shaman perform a magic ritual to ensure good hunting? According to most research, probably not, but I suggest that this possibility is very real. However, there are problems with this explanation. For example, the rock-art depicting “a hunt” is usually found on rock shelters used for habitation or sacred, holy trance locations, far from a game trail. Also, the animals usually found in rock-art are often sacred animals- not to be hunted or eaten. For example, the eland and snake.


I think not. The local people knew their territory well and didn’t need to inform themselves or others of territorial boundaries. In fact, it was probably better not to inform others of your presence. In the very early days of rock-art, the people were nomadic, and territories not of importance. Finally, when people began to remain in one place for a lengthy period of time, trading and social interaction, for mating, became important. I believe that territorial rock-art was still not important. 


Probably. Either to identify the period of the year or as powerful magic if the shaman could have a trance on a particular day

 In the final analysis, what is more important, the interpretation of the drawings or etchings we find on rock surfaces or the intended motive and use behind the drawings and etchings? Or, can it be that one must understand the motive behind the act of drawing to fully appreciate and understand WHY the message was being sent? After 10 years of “rock-art” research and formal education about “rock-art”, I am constantly drawn to the question about drawing or etching these figures on rock surfaces and what was meant to be accomplished by doing so. WHY the communication via art forms? As time goes on, I prefer to look at the rock paintings and etchings as “rock communication.” Is it possible that the drawings and etching we observe are an example of the first known method of communication other than oral or body language? Do we dare extend this hypothesis to include the possibility that not only are these drawings and etchings a means of communication, but also to include the first known method of recording events, thoughts, and ideas through the use of “rock-art?”


Books have been written about the subject of rock-art and cave-art. This brief overview does not do the subject justice. However, this is just a start. Hopefully, as time goes on this portion of my website will grow and provide you, the readers, with accurate, up to date information about the world of ROCK-ART. 

The beautiful Bushman paintings you are about to see will take a while to download. Your patience will be rewarded. For additional information about these pictures, other Bushman paintings, or your own personal guided tour to Bushman cave art sites, please do not hesitate to contact Hannes at