Erindi Private Game Reserve, Namibia
Erindi Private Game Reserve lies along the eastern border of the Erongo Region on the Central Plateau of Namibia. Many species of game, including large predators, roam the over 70 000 hectares of savanna dotted with mountains of volcanic origin. Archaeological evidence suggests that the area encompassing the reserve was occupied by many prehistoric cultures over a long period of time. The oldest of these cultures was the San who were responsible for the magnificent rock art in the reserve.
The San were southern Africa’s original inhabitants and are referred to as hunter-gatherers because they subsisted by hunting game and gathering plant foods. The presence of Later Stone Age stone tools and flakes suggest that many San groups moved through the area during the last few millennia. The lack of large rock shelters on the reserve suggests that these San groups lived in temporary shelters that were made by utilising available resources. Some San communities still live on the reserve but they no longer create rock art. However, they still hold valuable information about their ancestors.
The rock art in the reserve consists of a vast number of exquisitely detailed San engravings. Rock engravings or petroglyphs are visual images that are etched onto a rock surface. These artists carefully pecked the surface of the rock with a harder stone, thereby creating great detail in their representations of animals such as folds of skin and even hair. The engravings in the reserve are found mostly on boulders located on rocky outcrops, and the largest site is located above a riverbed.
Animal figures dominate, with hundreds of individually-engraved animals. Animals assume symbolic associations in San cosmology. Therefore the engraved animals at Erindi are imbued with potent supernatural power. The variety of depicted animals includes ostrich, lizards, giraffe, elephant, eland, hyena, kudu, rhinoceros, cattle-like bovines, buffalo, gemsbok, hartebeest, zebra, unidentifiable antelope and spirit animals.
In order to understand the powerful symbolic role that animals play in San cosmology, it is important to begin with an understanding of the concept of ‘supernatural potency’. All San linguistic groups believe in the existence of supernatural potency and special people who can control it. The Kalahari San group, Ju/’hoansi, call potency n/om. This essence is a potency likened to electricity. When harnessed it can be beneficial to the whole community, but out of control and in intense concentrations it is extremely dangerous. Potency resides in the medicinal healer or shaman (n/omk’’au) in medicinal songs, in a girl entering puberty and in animal fat. The higher the content of fat, the more potency it has, which may account for the prevalence of large animals in rock art at Erindi.
Giraffe dominate the animal imagery in the reserve. Most often an engraved giraffe is the majestic central figure on a boulder containing more than one image. This alludes to the importance of this animal in San cosmology and its presence in large numbers in the Erindi region. Depiction of buffalo in San rock art is extremely rare throughout southern Africa. The mere presence of engraved buffalo at Erindi adds to the importance of this sacred landscape. The San believe in the mythical animal called !khwa:-ka xoro, in the /Xam language. This is the rain bull and is said to be a dangerous bovid-like animal that has to be lured out of the spirit world in order to make rain. The rain bull was originally depicted as a buffalo and suggests that this landscape witnessed many rain-making ceremonies.
Another significant animal representation depicts sanga cattle. Sanga is the collective name for the indigenous cattle of southern Africa. These cattle originated in western Ethiopia and spread west and south. The representation of this domesticated animal suggests that the San had contact with cultural groups that entered southern Africa in more recent times. Although the timeline for their history is the subject of extensive debate, it is most likely that sanga cattle were brought to southern Africa by the Khoekhoen herders around 1 600 years ago.
The depiction of a woman’s fringed back apron suggests that important puberty ceremonies were performed in this area. Aprons were usually made from small antelope skins and were elaborately decorated with beads and seashells. Aprons contain potency from the animal whose skin was used for their manufacture. The types of aprons worn by San women and girls were indicators of their status and played an important part in initiation ceremonies.
A further indicator of Erindi’s sacred landscape is the presence of rock gongs. The term rock gong refers to free standing boulders that have a natural resonance balanced on other rocks. The rock gong emits a harsh metallic sound rather like that produced by striking a blacksmith’s anvil with a hammer. When the boulder is touched after being struck, the vibration reverberates through the body. The audio and somatic (bodily) experience of striking a rock gong is comparable to the sensations experienced by the shaman when he or she enters a trance.
Another rare feature in rock art is the depiction of heavenly bodies like comets, meteors or fireballs. A heavenly body with human characteristics can be seen to the right of a comet. Among the Ju/’hoansi San group, moving heavenly bodies such as falling stars are associated with immense potency. Kaoxa, the powerful god associated with supernaturally potent animals, is said to have loosened a meteorite to fall upon lions that harmed his sons. To the /Xam San group, such phenomena were associated with the death of malevolent shamans. The shooting star was interpreted as the shaman’s potency falling back to earth as it leaves the shaman’s body. Some !Kung San believe that moving heavenly bodies are shamans returning from the spirit world. The potency of heavenly bodies can only be used by the most powerful shamans. The posture of the being in depicted at Erindi is commonly displayed during the trance dance, an important ceremony during which the shamans enter the spirit realm in order to make rain, heal the sick or to ensure success in hunting. It is likely that this figure represents a deity (holy being) or transformed shaman transcending the physical world.
The spiritual significance of its rock art makes Erindi a sacred landscape that not only tells us about the influence the San had on the landscape, but also explains certain aspects of human history. Some images here, like the sanga cattle, are several centuries old, while others may date back millennia. The variety of imagery represents a high point of creative achievement, and the aesthetic and artistic value of the rock art is immeasurable.
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. In Namibia the same rules apply under the National Heritage Act (no. 27 of 2004). Visits to these rock art sites can only be made under supervision of trained guides due to the sensitivity of the rock art and the presence of dangerous wildlife. For further information visit www.erindi.com.
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.
ewis-Williams, J.D. & Dowson, T.A. 1989. Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art. Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers.
Large spirit animal below smaller animals.
Giraffe dominating a panel.
Sanga bovid and elephant.
Women’s back apron.
San resident at Erindi striking a rock gong.
Heavenly body anthropomorphised on the right.