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The settlement of Riemvasmaak is located in a spectacular corner of the arid Northern Cape Province, close to the Namibian border and Augrabies Falls. This harsh region was inhabited by San hunter-gatherers for millennia, and from about 2000 years ago until historical times also by Khoekhoen (Khoikhoi) herders of fat-tailed sheep and cattle. Both these groups left a legacy of their belief systems on the landscape in the form of rock engravings that are hundreds or even thousands of years old.

During the colonial era people of Xhosa, Damara, Herero, Nama and mixed-race heritage settled here and named the region Riemvasmaak, an Afrikaans word meaning “tying with thongs”. In the early 1970s these Riemvasmakers were forced out of their homes and had to settle in their respective former homelands. This was because the apartheid government claimed the land as a military testing site as a result of the Border War in South West Africa (now Namibia). The latter war was fought along the southern border of Angola from 1966 to 1989. In 1994, under the new democratically elected government, a process of land restitution began and was finalised in 1997 as the first successful land claim in South Africa. The Riemvasmakers are now once again the custodians of this ancient landscape.

South of the main settlement at Riemvasmaak the seasonal Molopo River has cut out a magnificent 100 metre-deep canyon through the brick-red granite. At the bottom of the gorge is a hot spring with soothing warm water that is supplied to three pools. As part of a locally controlled tourism initiative, several comfortable chalets and campsites offer accommodation to guests. All accommodation offers breathtaking views of the canyon where breeding pairs of black eagle are often sighted. Along a rewarding 4×4 track is an exciting rock art site with both San and Khoekhoen imagery.

San rock art is more representational than the abstract geometrics of the Khoekhoen. Some of the oldest imagery at this site include a lion (photo 1) and an extinct quagga (photo 2). These images are weathered and heavily patinated. Patina, also called desert varnish, is a mineral layer or film that forms over the exposed rock over many years. Engravings that are heavily patinated to almost the same colour as the rock face from which they were etched tend to be significantly older than the much lighter imagery generally depicted in a cruder style.

Lions feature significantly in the folklore of the San. It is believed that a malevolent medicinal healer or shaman can transform him/herself into a lion in order to do evil deeds. At least two engravings of lion pugmarks or spoor can be seen at this site (photo 3). The three lobes at the base of the cushion are diagnostic of feline paws, and the large sizes suggest that they were meant to portray the tracks of a big cat. The tracking skills of the San are world renowned since skilled trackers can determine the species, sex and health of the animal. In this case it is likely that the pugmarks were made by a San shaman wishing to make a stern statement to contemporaneous and future community members.

In photo 4 a human figure can be seen beside a small animal with a prominent tail. This is a San representation of a Khoekhoen herder and a fat-tailed sheep. As a result of San and Khoekhoen contact, trade and acculturation (the mutual transfer of cultural elements between different cultures) occurred between these two ethnic groups. The Khoekhoen obtained commodities such as venison and wild animal skins from the San. The San were also employed for their rainmaking skills. Similarly, the San obtained items such as skin aprons, beads and livestock from the Khoekhoen. Such trans-cultural diffusion influenced the belief systems and inevitably the rock art of both groups. In photo 5 an angular, almost crudely depicted, giraffe can be seen below the smaller of the two lion pugmarks. It is lightly patinated, suggesting its age is perhaps several centuries rather than millennia old. This is a typical style of San imagery dating from well into the contact period with the Khoekhoen.

Photo 6 depicts a strange bovid with widely spaced horns, an arched back and a prominent straight tail pointing horizontally. This enigmatic image is common to several rock engraving sites across the Northern Cape Province, and the animals’ features do not correspond to any single existing species. It appears as a hybrid of a buffalo or cow and a hyena. This creature is a spiritual being existing in the belief system of San communities that roamed the vast Northern Cape region. Here, rain and other seasonal resources are often scarce and the distribution of this motif indicates that the San sometimes needed to cross great distances in order to ensure survival. Knowledge about this creature and its significance could only have been passed on through oral tradition and its subsequent depiction in the form of rock art.

The abstract Khoekhoen geometrics depicted in photo 7 are typical of recurrent symbols found at Khoekhoen rock art sites throughout much of southern Africa. Khoekhoen rock art is often found at sites also displaying San rock art, the latter often older but sometimes contemporaneous or even younger than some Khoekhoen imagery. This can be determined partly by superimposition (images depicted over others); images overlaying others are obviously younger. To the Khoekhoen, successful completion of certain rites of passage was instrumental in determining the social status of a person. Achievement of higher social status was showcased by different attire (usually decorated leather aprons) and body decorations. The decorations adorning aprons is often seen in Khoekhoen rock art,  thereby affirming the assumption that the rock art was imbued with powerful ritual symbolism.

The possessions of the Khoekhoen (e.g. livestock, clothing and bodily ornaments) invoked a degree of economic realisation and personal prestige among individuals, in contrast to the egalitarian societies of the traditional San. Since possessions are quantifiable, it is understandable that certain recurring abstract symbols in Khoekhoen rock art may have economic or numerical meaning.

While traditional San communities still exist in Botswana and Namibia, they no longer practice rock painting or engraving. Elements of the traditional Khoekhoen herder lifestyle is still practiced by their descendants such as the Nama who inhabit Namaqualand (Northern Cape Province) and southern Namibia.

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). Only qualified heritage officials with the said permit may develop or alter features of a rock art site.

Visit rock art sites with a trained guide or informed person; it adds greatly to the experience.

Report vandalism or new sites at: shiona@nasmus.co.za

For more information about directions, accommodation and guides, please visit www.riemvasmaak.co.za or www.experiencenortherncape.com.

References

Biesele, M. 1993. Women like meat: The folklore and foraging ideology of the Kalahari Ju/’hoan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Eastwood, E.B. & Eastwood, C. 2006. Capturing the spoor: An exploration of southern African Rock Art. Cape Town: David Philip.  

Lewis-Williams, J.D. & Dowson, T.A. 1989. Images of power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art. Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers.

Molopo-Gorge-with-chalet

Molopo Gorge with chalet. Use as background photo (Photo: National Museum)

Heavily weathered lion

Heavily weathered lion, digitally outlined in red for clearer visibility. (Photo: National Museum)

Possibly the extinct quagga

Possibly the extinct quagga — note stripes. (Photo: National Museum)

Lion spoor

Lion spoor, note three lobes at base of cushion. (Photo: National Museum)

Human figure and fat-tailed sheep

Human figure and fat-tailed sheep. (Photo: National Museum)

Giraffe depicted in a later, cruder style

Giraffe depicted in a later, cruder style. (Photo: National Museum)

Enigmatic bovid

Enigmatic bovid. (Photo: National Museum)

Later Khoekhoen geometrics

Later Khoekhoen geometrics. (Photo: National Museum)

Jens Kriek
Author

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