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27 November 2006
S.African rock art offers picture of harmony

In the caves of South Africa's Cederberg mountains, an ancient people left a legacy of rock art that could teach modern man a valuable lesson about living in harmony with nature. That is the view of John Parkington, professor of archaeology at the University of Cape Town, who has spent 40 years in the Cederberg and neighboring areas researching rock paintings and other artifacts left by the pre-colonial hunter-gatherers who once roamed southern Africa. The Bushmen, or San, left tens of thousands of paintings in ochre and clay, most depicting humans or three or four key animal species, and some showing men with the heads of animals.
     Parkington launched the Living Landscape Project in the Cederberg town of Clanwilliam, about 250 km (155 miles) north of Cape Town, five years ago to increase understanding of the region's archaeological assets and use them to attract tourists. The project has trained local people to work as guides to the rock art sites. Parkington believes the pictures - some painted as recently as 200 years ago, others up to 10,000 years old - reflect the way the hunter-gatherers saw nature and their place in it, and include elements of shamanism.
     Parkington says the hunter-gatherers placed themselves inside the ecosystem, rather than outside looking in.
"So they see animals as other beings who know the world in a different way ... and sometimes in a very valuable way, and sometimes they want to take on that knowledge." The animal that occurs most often in Cederberg rock paintings is the eland, a large antelope that Parkington said was revered by the Bushmen as "a beautiful sentient being". He said they developed rules for hunting, "a guiding ethos", as a way of justifying their pursuit of eland and of behaving "sustainably and responsibly in the world ... as a species that actually shares the landscape and vegetation with other beings".
     The hunter-gatherers went into decline after the arrival of white settlers in the Western Cape from the 1650s and with the encroachment of black pastoralists from the north. Persecuted by armed commandos, decimated by disease and driven from their territory by farmers, most of the survivors ended up as laborers or servants. Rock art researchers learned much about hunter-gatherer culture from groups of Bushmen who continued to follow their traditional lifestyle until relatively recently in remote areas of Botswana and Namibia. Their descendants still live in the Kalahari desert.
Another important source of information is an archive left by 19th century linguist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, who recorded the stories and myths of Bushmen who were jailed in Cape Town by British colonial authorities.
"All archaeologists now recognize that this is the way in -- these prisoners and the Kalahari hunter-gatherers have unlocked the meanings of the paintings by explaining how they saw the world ... you have to interpret the paintings from that perspective," Parkington said.

Sources: CNN, Reuters (22 November 2006), Iol.co.za (23 November 2006)

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