African Rock Art of the Southern Zone

Works of Art


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

October 2001


Blundell, Geoffrey. “African Rock Art of the Southern Zone.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001)

Further Reading

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

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.

Additional Essays by Geoffrey Blundell