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Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
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Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal

Travellers along the scenic R58 between Aliwal North and Burgersdorp in the Eastern Cape Province will notice the massive, flat-topped Kramberg Mountain to the south. It is an outlier of the magnificent Stormberg Mountain Range further south, itself part of the Drakensberg, South Africa’s longest and highest mountain range.

Kramberg is a sandstone colossus rising over six hundred metres above the surrounding Highveld plains and is currently part of a privately owned game reserve. Along its flanks and foothills are numerous rock shelters, some with magnificent pre-colonial rock art. Imagery varies from the San fine-line paintings characteristic of this region to later depictions of pastoralists with cattle and sheep.

Perhaps the most interesting rock art site in the reserve is a deep overhang with an inner cave, situated high up the side valley of the Langkloofspruit. The overhang is roughly 25-m wide and the associated archaeology include pieces of pottery. The talus slope is covered in crypto-crystalline silicate and hornfels lithics. The painted panels are continuous along the length of the shelter and represent both hunter-gatherer (San) and herder (Khoekhoen) imagery. The shelter shows signs of continuous use over hundreds of years. The older classical phase of the San paintings, dated to possibly a thousand years ago, are below the more recent contact phase San paintings that date to roughly 200 years ago.

Contact Imagery

The San were the first people to inhabit southern Africa and for thousands of years they lived unperturbed by other cultural groups. Roughly 2000 years ago other cultures began the gradual move south, displacing and/or merging with the San. These cultures include the Khoekhoen herders, agropastoralists who are the ancestors of Black South Africans, and within the last few hundred years, European settlers. Contact imagery refers to the San rock art that was made during contact with other cultures. As the San encountered herders and farmers, we see the presence of domesticated animals in their rock art.

Fat-tailed sheep

Fat-tailed sheep (Figure 2) had been acquired by hunter-herders before they entered southern Africa. The earliest dated sheep bones in southern Africa are from an approximately 2270-year-old site in the Erongo Mountains of Namibia (Pleurdeau et al. 2012).

Some San eventually acquired sheep from the herders, as a source of wealth and food. There is also evidence to suggest that they incorporated fat-tailed sheep into their spiritual life (Huffman 1983). The large amount of fat in the tails meant that this animal, like the eland, had supernatural potency. The San associated animal fat with power that can be harnessed by the spiritual healers to enter trance and perform duties to maintain the wellbeing of the community.

The agropastoralists moved from East Africa into southern Africa. They were mixed farmers, meaning that they had herds of domestic animals, and cultivated crops. The farmer in Figure 2 is holding a knobkerrie (short wooden club with a large knob at one end) and a hat that looks similar to European-style hats, suggesting contact with European settlers.

Changes in trade networks

The oldest San paintings are considered the Classic Phase and may, in some places, date to as far back as 25,000 years (Ouzman & Loubser 2000). These paintings are generally the most numerous and show exquisite fine-lined detail, with careful shading causing gradual shifts in colour. The contact period rock art in Kramberg is far more recent, and this is evident in the pigments used. Mixed farmers came to this area perhaps 600 years ago, while the white settlers arrived around 200 years ago.

These settlers disrupted the usual trade networks that existed among San groups for thousands of years. As a result, access to pigments became scarce and the San had to use what was available (Ouzman & Loubser 2000; Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2004). The paints became powdery, with the increased use of grey, black, bright orange and yellow (Figure 3). The San also started to use inferior bonding agents causing much of the paintings to appear smeared. The animal and human figures became blocked in appearance, and there is a sharp distinction between the colours.

Shields, Therianthropes and Potency

The white hourglass shaped motifs in Figure 4 are Sotho-Tswana shields used during the nineteenth century (Tylden 1946). This painting is extremely interesting because it shows two San men carrying shields and knobkerries, with arbitrary placements of spears and knobkerries. Both men have antelope heads, and the panel is covered in white dots. This panel is concerned with issues of supernatural potency and altered states of consciousness (trance). The white dots are n/om that is activated during a trance dance. The antelope-headed men are therianthropes—shamans who are partially transformed into animals. The San believed that the shaman harnessed the n/om of certain animals to enter trance (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1989). These therianthropic shamans are using Sotho-Tswana weapons to fight evil. This tells us that there was a prolonged contact between these two groups, and certain aspects of the Sotho-Tswana culture and symbolism was incorporated into the San cosmology (Loubser & Laurens 1994).

The rock art in Karmberg Private Game Reserve holds great social and spiritual significance because it tells us about the interaction between different groups of people over many years. It reminds us that cultures are not confined to strict boundaries but are fluid and are in constant flux.

Responsible visitor behaviour at rock art sites

According to the National Heritage Resources Act no. 25 of 1999 it is illegal to damage or alter a rock art site in any way without the necessary permit from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA).

  • Always ask permission before visiting rock art sites.
  • Never touch the rock art.
  • Never pour liquid on rock art.
  • Move carefully at rock art sites so as not to kick up dust.
  • Never make any markings on any surface of the rock art site.
  • Never remove any archaeological artefact from the rock art site.
  • Visit rock art sites with an informed person or tour guide – it adds greatly to the experience.

Excursions to the rock art sites in Kramberg Private Game Reserve are strictly by appointment only and accompanied by a guide.


Huffman, T.N. 1983. The trance hypothesis and the rock art of Zimbabwe. South African Archaeological Society Goodwin Series 4: 49–53.

Lewis-Williams, J.D. & Dowson, T. 1989. Images of Power. Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers.

Lewis-Williams, J.D. & Pearce, D.G. 2004. San spirituality: Roots, expressions and social consequences. Cape Town: Double Storey.

Loubser, J. & Laurens, G. 1994. Depictions of domestic ungulates and shields. In: Dowson, T.A. & Lewis-Williams, J.D. (Eds), Contested images: Diversity in southern African rock art research. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Ouzman, S & Loubser, J. 2000. Art of the Apocalypse: Southern Africa’s bushmen left the agony of their end time on rock walls. Discovering Archaeology, 2: 38–44.

National Heritage Resources Act no. 25 of 1999. Government Gazette, 406(19974): 2–89.

Pleurdeau, D., Imalwa, E., Détroit, F., Lesur, J., Veldman, A., Bahain, J.-J. & Marais, E. 2012. “Of Sheep and Men”: Earliest direct evidence of caprine domestication in Southern Africa at Leopard Cave (Erongo, Namibia). PLoS ONE, 7(7): e40340.

Tylden, G. 1946. Bantu shields. South African Archaeological Bulletin, 1: 33–37.

Captions for Photographs

Figure 1. Kamberg Rock Art Site.

Figure 2. Farmer herding fat-tailed sheep.

Figure 3. Pigments used during the contact period.

Figure 4. Shamans fighting evil spirits using shields, knobkerries and spears.

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