Northern Sotho rock art, South Africa

This SlideShowPro photo gallery requires the Flash Player plugin and a web browser with JavaScript enabled.

Alongside the celebrated hunter-gatherer San (or Bushmen) rock art, southern Africa has a number of later rock art traditions made by Bantu-speaking farmers. The most extensive of these is the rock art of the Northern Sotho. This art is spread across the hills of northern South Africa.

The style of Northern Sotho rock art

Northern Sotho rock art is always painted as opposed to engraved and is easily distinguished from San rock paintings both by its colour and by its form. It is predominantly executed in white, applied thickly onto the rock face by finger daubing. Occasionally, red and black pigments are used to add features to the dominantly white designs. The white pigment is made from a type of powdered clay that is found in riverbeds in the area. The choice of white as the dominant colour is a characteristic of rock art traditions belonging to African Bantu-speaking farmers. Reflecting this, these arts have become known as the ‘late whites’.

Northern Sotho art is found in its greatest concentration in Limpopo Province, South Africa’s northernmost province. In total nearly five hundred sites with this rock art tradition are known.

Dating Northern Sotho rock art

Archaeologists argue that the arrival of a particular type of pottery, called Moloko Pottery, marked the arrival of the ancestors of Northern Sotho groups into this area. The earliest dates for Moloko pottery therefore probably provide a maximum date for the arrival of this art tradition into South Africa. The oldest known Moloko sites are less than a 1000 years old, and so all of the art is likely to be younger than this.

The art divides into an earlier and a later period. In the early phase a range of wild animals are depicted including the elephant, zebra, lion, rhino, kudu, hyena and hippo, but the dominant subject is the giraffe.

Locating the rock art

Almost all of the art is concealed in large rock shelters, near water pools, in remote and secluded mountain areas. These places are the traditional venues for the secretive Northern Sotho boys’ initiation ceremonies. Confirming this link, immediately outside of many of the painted shelters one finds a type of stone cairns that is built only during initiation ceremonies. Elders in some areas acknowledge a link between the art and traditional initiation practices, but they state that, while some of the painted sites are still used for initiation ceremonies today, the tradition of making rock art has ceased.

Northern Sotho rock art and initiation ceremonies

It remains unclear how the art was used and in which part of the ceremony, but it seems likely that each painted animal carried a particular instructive and symbolic message for the boys. Tantalising indications as to how the symbolism may have operated survive in the continued use of animal symbolism within modern initiation practices. Within the initiation lodge, for example, the fire is sometimes referred to as the lion cub, the magic tree at the centre of the lodge is known as the giraffe, the cairn of stones just outside the lodge is called the hyena and the structure under which food is placed for the initiates is the elephant.

The animals that we see painted in the art are therefore the ones that still hold symbolic importance in modern ceremonies. Many of the instructive songs learnt by the initiates are also concerned with these same animals. The symbolism of the animals remains one of the most tightly guarded secrets of the ceremony. Just as with the ancient paintings, the animal symbols are open to view, but their meanings are hidden from all but the initiated. Indeed, even amongst the initiated, the process of learning the symbolism is progressive. The secret meanings of the animals are often unclear at the time of the first initiation, but through repeated ceremonies and regular ritual experiences within the group, the complex social meanings of the animals become recognised in ever greater detail as one gets older.

This ancient initiation art undergoes a radical transformation towards the end of the nineteenth century. This was caused by the intrusion of white settlers into the Northern Sotho landscape.

The impact of white settlers

The government of Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic removed whole communities from their ancestral lands so as to make way for the farms of white settlers. The government also imposed hut taxes across an ever greater stretch of land so as to create a cash economy and force Northern Sotho families into taking up employment at farms, in cities and in the mines. Most Northern Sotho chiefs resisted these moves, leading to a long series of small wars in which traditional leaders were subdued and communities were made homeless and destitute. At this time displaced communities fled to the remote hill areas where the older Northern Sotho rock art is found.

Many of the old initiation sites therefore became refuge settlements. A new form of rock art developed in this context, dominated by depictions of steam trains, soldiers, settlers and guns. The art is richly poignant in its imagery. White soldiers on horse-back cover the rock faces, as Kruger’s armies must have seemed to fill the Northern Sotho landscape. These soldiers are depicted as violent and cruel. They are often painted as firing their rifles at innocent Northern Sotho on oxen. Northern Sotho Cattle are shown being led away, stolen by white soldiers as war booty. Trains and wagons are depicted disgorging vast hoards of whites, each one bringing ever more settlers to usurp more Northern Sotho ancestral lands. White women were repeatedly painted juxtaposed with ostriches, both creatures characterised by their ferocious kicks. Another painting shows a camel, a bizarre new introduction by white people, congenitally grumpy, with a hump where the seat should go, badly suited to northern South Africa and with a kick second only to white women.

The social commentary of Northern Sotho rock art

The images capture a people’s tragedy, but they served a more important purpose. They poked fun at the troublesome new intruders and through this pointed humour they served to help to overcome some of the social trauma of the times.

In amongst these images is the baboon, a totem representing a famous freedom fighter, Chief Maleboho of the Hananwa. Maleboho held out against Kruger’s armies and was only imprisoned after many months of resistance, and much loss of life, in 1894. But, in 1900 he was released when the British overran Pretoria during the Anglo-Boer war. Maleboho and his people were given back their lands and the lands remain Hananwa property to this day. Maleboho therefore became a symbol of successful resistance. The chief who was willing to die for his rights, and who succeeded in his own armed struggle. The rock art captures this remarkable tale and marks the origins of protest art in northern South Africa - ordinary people protesting their right to land and self-determination, and fighting the destruction of their traditional structures and cultural values.

Search the database