Every year I spend a week in the Cedarberg leading Grade 10s through the Bushman Sevilla Art Trail as part of their Epic journey, the theme of which is becoming a man. The boys go on a number of hiking trails, they cycle and do watersport.
Another aspect of this trip is spending time at a school at Elizabethfontein, meeting and playing with the children, creating crafts and telling stories. This relationship with the school has continued over a number of years. The school is internationally famous for its teaching and performances of dance. Rieldans is a form of dance that is indigenous to this area, and throughout the Karoo, the Northern Cape and Namaqualand and goes back to Khoisan roots.
I include a short video of their dancing concert performed for us a few years ago.
However, I want to concentrate on the Bushmen or San paintings. They say that there are more rock paintings per square kilometre in the Cedarberg than anywhere else in the world.
The wonderful caves at Lascaux and Chauvet in France are exquisitely beautiful and go back some 46,000 years and are mainly of animals. Our paintings go back up to 200,000 years.
The story of the Bushmen and their long journey through history ended rather sadly. They were confronted by Khoisan herders, settlers moving down upon them from central Africa, and European settlers landing at the Cape. Because of their nomadic life as hunter-gathers and their language of clicks they were seen as a pest, as a threat to settled agricultural life and were exterminated.
Yet they were our ancestors, people who thought metaphorically and symbolically like us. What is more they were the first artists and a people with a culture of dance.
We have an insight into their customs and beliefs because of one Wilhelm Bleek, a renowned linguist, who came to live at Mowbray at the Cape in the 1850s. Together with his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, who relocated from then Natal, they created an archive of ǀXam and !Kung texts. This is housed at the University of Cape Town. Together they interviewed a number of Bushmen who were imprisoned at the Cape for stock theft. Key among them were Diä! kwain, !Kweten-ta=//ken /A!kunta /Han≠kass’o and //Kabbo.
There was a fear that the archive of documents was destroyed in the April 2021 fires at U.C.T. but fortunately they survived.
What is happening in these paintings and what are they about – why are they there?
The boys hazard their guesses as to why the paintings are there – mark the space, tell stories, pass on their culture, teach others. But more than their suggestions, they seem to be sacred spaces, the thin space between this world and the spiritual world. Only certain animals were painted and chief among them the Eland.
How did they achieve the paintings staying on the rock for so many years? They used ochre, iron oxide from the rock as pigment, added animal fat, blood, crushed bone, dassie droppings. A cave was discovered at Blombos, near Stilbaai where it appears they mixed paint in perlemoen shells and kept a record of their stock. There are stones with diagonal and criss-cross marks on them that suggest that a tally was being taken. The cave seems to be a store house for the paint.
In a poem by Stephen Watson based on the Wilhelm Bleek archives we read:
The Nature of /Kaggen
/Kaggen, old trickster, magician, also called Mantis,
Maker of the moon, of the eland, and also of trouble,
You can still change the world by dreaming the world.
/Kaggen or Mantis is the creator of the world, of people and animals. His favourite creature is the eland. Indeed, it is said that /Kaggen lives on the forehead of the eland to protect this beautiful creature. He will not give over the eland as food lightly.
The eland was the symbol that bound their society together, not only through providing food for the tribe but as part of their rites of passage. A boy became a man when he killed his first eland and later around the fire was scarified with blood and fat from the eland. When a girl menstruated and came through the first cycle, she too was said to have shot an eland. When a couple were married, the young man gave his bride a kaross of eland skin.
The early bushmen were not only aware of the bounty of the world and their place in it, they were also aware of evil in the form of sickness that came upon them, of famine and hunger, of the lack of rain, of the danger of some animals such as lions that might harass and kill them. As they shot poisonous arrows at the animals to feed the tribe, so evil people and shamans who did not have the good of their tribe at heart, shot invisible arrows at them to poison them.
To save them from all these dangers they needed the art of healers or shamans to enter the spiritual world and bring back medicine to heal them.
The healing of the tribe and individuals took place through the collective healing dance.
The women sit around the fire,
the men dance around them in a circle,
moving one way then another.
Through their clapping and singing,
the women build the tension
until they reach a trance state.
The n/um or power is stored in the pit
of the stomach or the base of the spine.
In the prolonged dancing and singing,
the n/um boils and ascends up the body and into the head.
There is sweating, shivering and trembling
and nasal bleeding.
The peak of the trance is full visionary consciousness,
an out of the body experience.
To enter this state is likened to dying.
Through this experience the shaman was able to enter the spiritual world and to bring back both physical and spiritual healing for individuals and the community.
The shamans were the key to the well-being of their communities and may well have been the painters of the rock art.
On the South African national Coat of Arms two Khoisan figures reach out to each other in a hand-clasp. Below them are the words,!ke e: /xarra //ke, meaning
Unity in Diversity. It calls for our nations to unite in a common sense of belonging and national pride.