Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

African Rock Art of the Southern Zone

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This zone stretches from the South African Cape to the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia formed by the Zambezi River. The rock painting of this region is characterized by exquisitely minute detail and complex techniques of shading. Engravings are also found in this zone, generally on boulders and rocks in the interior plateau of southern Africa, while paintings are found in the mountainous regions that fringe the plateau. There are only a few places where paintings and engravings are found in the same shelter. Aboriginal San hunter-gatherers made most of these paintings and engravings.


While the rock art of southern Africa is different from that of the central and northern zones, it is not homogenous. There is, for example, great diversity between the art of the Matopo Hills in Zimbabwe, the Brandberg in Namibia, and the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa. Nevertheless, scholars have suggested that a great deal of San art throughout southern Africa may be explicitly and implicitly linked to San shamanic religion. Principally, a great deal of San art depicts their central most important ritual, the healing or trance dance, and the complex somatic experiences of dancers.

In addition to San rock art, there are also rock paintings and engravings made by closely related Khoi pastoralists. These people acquired domestic stock through close interaction with Bantu-speaking people some 2,000 years or more ago. Although there is some evidence that they also made engravings, Bantu-speakers' rock art is characterized by finger painting in a thick, white pigment. Often found superimposed over San or Khoi paintings, this art is implicated in initiation rituals and in political protest and is not a shamanistic art.

Geoffrey Blundell
Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Lonyana Rock, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.
Image courtesy of Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
RSA LNR6

The southern zone is characterized by very detailed, fine-lined San paintings. This image is one of two known circular depictions of the curing or trance dance. Figures dance around a seated figure apparently healing another reclining person enveloped in a kaross.
Makgabeng Hills, Northern Province, South Africa.
Image courtesy of Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.
RSA BLA8 20

The white, finger-painting tradition of Bantu-speakers is not a shamanistic art but concerns initiation and political protest. In this painting, there are numerous figures depicting colonial forces riding horses or shooting guns.
Elands Bay Cave, Western Cape, South Africa.
Image courtesy of Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.
RSA ELA 6

Decorated handprints are one of the enigmatic images of the southern zone. It is now thought that Khoi herders made them and not San hunter-gathers. Although they are images in a sense, it is now believed that such decorated handprints may be more concerned with touching the rock surface than with intentional efforts to create an image. It is thought that they are the residual markings of rituals that involved contacting the spirit-world behind the rock surface.
Driekops Eiland, Northern Cape, South Africa.
Image courtesy of Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.
RSA DRE 160

Both San and Khoi made engravings. There are three principal engraving techniques—pecking (in which the rock surface is hammered numerous times), and incision (in which the rock surface is cut), and scratching (in which the patina of the rock surface is scratched, thereby exposing a new, unoxidized surface).

The shaded area, south of the Zambezi River, indicates the southern zone of African rock art, characterized by fine-lined representational imagery.