San Peoples Create Earliest African Art Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

More than thirty thousand examples of rock art by a people called the San have been identified in Namibia, including paintings in rock shelters and engravings on large boulders and open rock surfaces.

Summary of Event

The San, a Khoisan-speaking people also known as the Bushmen, were a Stone Age people who inhabited southern Africa in what is now modern Namibia and Botswana. As hunter-gatherers, they lived in groups within what was most likely an egalitarian society. Today the San occupy the Kalahari Desert and have no longer have a rock art tradition, but more than thirty thousand documented examples of their ancestors’ rock art have been identified in Namibia. This coastal country on the Atlantic Ocean has evidence of two basic types of rock art: paintings in rock shelters and engravings more commonly found on large boulders and open rock surfaces. Among the major sites of these images are the Apollo 11 Cave, the Brandberg monolith, Tweyfelfontein, and Piet Alberts Kopjes.

The earliest known examples of San rock art were discovered at a rock shelter known as the Apollo 11 Cave, located in the Huns Mountains of southern Namibia. There, eight painted stone fragments were excavated in organic debris. The debris associated with these fragments has been dated between approximately 27,000 and about 2,000 b.p. (before the present). This period, while not necessarily applicable to the rock paintings themselves, establishes the time in which the stones were introduced from another area. Nevertheless, these images are believed to represent the oldest art on the continent of Africa. Imagery on the stone surfaces at Apollo 11 (so called because it was excavated by Wolfgang E. Wendt in 1969, the same year in which the spacecraft of the same name landed on the Moon) represents animals painted in solid black or red, with some drawn in outline. One curious animal appears to be a composite of an antelope and a lion, while others represent single indigenous animals.

In the Namibian interior, on the edge of the Namib Desert, the granite outcropping known as Brandberg Mountain, approximately 2,600 meters (8,550 feet) high, houses approximately one thousand sites containing some fifty thousand rock art paintings. In the Tsisab Gorge in the Brandberg, archaeologists have found remarkable painted human figures dating to 2000 b.p. The figures are both standing and in motion, walking, in procession or possibly dancing. Surface detail appears on some figures possibly representing body painting or decorative ornamentation such as jewelry. Scholars have wondered about the meaning of white dots found on ankles, on knees, and in the hair. White ostrich-shell beads used in this region may be represented, or an abstract religious meaning could apply. One of these figures, the so-called White Lady (neither white nor a lady but more likely the image of a shaman), was described by its discoverer, Reinhard Maack, in 1918 as the most detailed rock painting he had ever seen.

Tweyfelfontein, in Damaraland, has more than twenty-five hundred images, predominantly engravings on sandstone boulders. This site was first recorded in 1921 and was made a national monument in 1952. It is home to both paintings and engravings, rare for a single site. Moreover, the engravings at this site are very dense.

The range of subject matter in San rock art includes animals, humans, animal tracks, and abstract shapes, with humans and animals predominant. In Namibian rock engravings, there is a ratio of 16 animals to 1 human; in rock paintings, humans dominate animals by a ratio of 2 to 1. Among animal types, the giraffe and oryx were the more frequently painted in the Brandberg. It is important to note the lack of landscape or physical settings within either painting sites or engraving sites. The compositional relationship of images to one another in any environment at any one moment in time is unclear, especially because some images are superimposed on others. In general, both humans and animals are depicted in the prime of life without injury or disease. Animals and humans were represented to be unmistakable to the viewer. Using a twisted perspective, the artists depicted the features of their subjects as they best understood them. Torsos, for example, were depicted frontally, while legs, hips, and heads were shown in profile.

Red, brown, and yellow ocher were the main colors employed. Usually pigments contained no organic carbon; most came from ground minerals. Black was acquired from manganese ores; whites from clays, calcite, or quartz; red from iron oxides. Application of pigments was intended to fill in flat areas with color to form images. While no modeling is evident, some forms are clearly distinguished by the use of outlines.


There has been no agreement among scholars as to the meaning or content of the large body of San rock art. Several possible reasons for these works may include documenting events, religious ceremonies, and hallucinatory or trance experiences. In addition, scholars have postulated the use of these images to teach or communicate, especially about animals and geographic resources. The controversy over the images’ use is ongoing, however. Images of repeated animal tracks, for example, were once thought to be instructional, helping adults to teach children about hunting. Today scholars have called this assumption into question, wondering, for example, why so many tracks of the same animal would be engraved if their purpose was merely to identify the animal. Today’s San, moreover, learn from watching other hunters, not from formal symbolic instruction. One hypothesis is that the images of the tracks really are associated with images of ancient shamans in animal form.

Questions regarding sex or gender distinctions in Namibian rock art have been addressed in the Brandberg paintings. This area appears to be distinct, especially when compared with other south African rock art, in that there is no apparent conventional division of gender roles by showing the majority of humans without any clear indication of sex, age, or status. It is significant that, at the Apollo 11 Cave for example, although a few of the images suggest different roles for women and men, the vast majority of these images suggest no distinction in gender roles.

Ethnographic studies combined with historic documentation of thousands of works of rock art currently indicate two significant facts. One dated fact is that the San peoples of Namibia were the first art-producing peoples in Africa. Second, San images reflect their surrounding animal environment as well as their ritual experiences.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnard, Alan. Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa: A Comparative Ethnography of the Khoisan Peoples. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A thorough anthropological overview of the Khoisan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dowson, T. A. Rock Engravings of Southern Africa. Johannesburg, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press, 1992. Good for numerous illustrations covering the breadth of engraved imagery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garlake, Peter. Early Art and Architecture of Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Chapter 2 offers an excellent overview of southern African rock art, including interpretive approaches by leading scholars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guenther, Mathias. Tricksters and Trancers: Bushman Religion and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Combines early historiography and recent ethnography to explain figurative forms that surface in Bushman rituals and religion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis-Williams, J. D. Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Paintings. London: Academic Press, 1981. Connects painting imagery with San beliefs and ritual practices.

Categories: History