African Rock Art

Works of Art


Rock paintings and engravings are Africa’s oldest continuously practiced art form. Depictions of elegant human figures, richly hued animals, and figures combining human and animal features—called therianthropes and associated with shamanism—continue to inspire admiration for their sophistication, energy, and direct, powerful forms. The apparent universality of these images is deceptive; content and style range widely over the African continent. Nevertheless, African rock art can be divided into three broad geographical zones—southern, central, and northern. The art of each of these zones is distinctive and easily recognizable, even to an untrained eye.

Not all rock art in these three zones is prehistoric; in some areas these arts flourished into the late nineteenth century, while in other areas rock art continues to be made today. In the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, a number of rock paintings depict clashes between San (Bushmen) people and European colonists mounted on horses and armed with rifles. Many of the Drakensberg works use subtle polychrome shading that gives their subjects a hint of three-dimensional presence. The product of many authors, time periods, and cultures, the flowing naturalism and lively sense of movement of the best rock art attests to the conviction of masterful hands and trained eyes.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2000


Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “African Rock Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2000)

Further Reading

Blundell, Geoffrey, ed. Origins: The Story of the Emergence of Humans and Humanity in Africa. Cape Town: Double Storey, 2006.

Coulson, David, and Alec Campbell. African Rock Art: Paintings and Engravings on Stone. New York: Abrams, 2001.

Garlake, Peter. Early Art and Architecture of Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Le Quellec, Jean-Loïc. Rock Art in Africa: Mythology and Legend. Paris: Flammarion, 2004.

Lewis-Williams, J. David. Images of Mystery: Rock Art of the Drakensberg. Cape Town: Double Storey, 2003.

Lewis-Williams, J. David, and David G. Pearce. San Spirituality: Roots, Expression, and Social Consequences. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2004.

Smith, Benjamin. Zambia's Ancient Rock Art: The Paintings of Kasama. Livingstone, Zambia: National Heritage Conservation Commission, 1997.