A tale of three caves
Exquisite Bushman rock art adorns the caves of the Natal Drakensberg. The fascinating story behind the ‘images of power’ found in three spectacular shelters in the Giant’s Castle area is revealed.
Before setting off to discover the tale of three of the most spectacular of these caves it is important to discuss in somewhat more detail the relationship between trance dances, Shamans and Bushman paintings. Shaman healers performed their work in a state of deep trance and rituals similar to those of the Bushman have been recorded elsewhere in Africa, Asia and Australasia. Although not all Bushman rock paintings were painted by Shamans (Healers), they were probably responsible for the most interesting and obscure works. In order to understand them we need to examine Bushman beliefs and the various aspects of hallucinogenic experiences that are common to all people regardless of their background.
Bushmen believed that animals have potency which could be harnessed by the shaman while in a trance and who could, in turn, use this power to heal the sick, bring rain, and place curses on their enemies. Anyone could become a shaman: all that was needed was the ability to enter a trance and the correct frame of mind to use this power constructively.
In the few remaining Kalahari Bushman communities in Botswana and Namibia more than half the clan are Shamans. The combined effects of hyperventilation, chanting, dancing, drums and dagga and possibly other hallucinogenic plants can induce hallucination in most people. The visual experiences of the early stages are widely documented and will be well known to anyone who has suffered from a migraine. They encompass flashes of light or small dots, which are called entopic phenomena. Bushman Shamans not only saw and drew these shapes but also gave them living attributes. In the final stages of the trance images were blended and the half-animal, half-person figures or transformed Shamans (therianthropes) were created.
This may be similar to the phenomena experienced by people who have taken LSD. One experimental subject was recorded as saying; “I feel like a fox,” during the early stages of a trance and later in deeper state, “I am a fox.”
Therianthropes and entopic phenomena are found in all three caves discussed in this study and are common themes throughout the Drakensberg’s sandstone caves.
Of course there are no longer Bushmen in the Drakensberg to explain the precise meaning of their art and the ideas outlined here are largely the result of interpretations and analyses by Professor David Lewis-Williams, head of the rock-art unit at the University of the Witwatersrand and his co-worker Thomas Dowson.
Much of the research has been made possible by the meticulous records kept in the 1870s by the likes of Joseph Orpen, Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, who made contact with Bushman communities at a time when most believed they were unclean, evil ‘animals’ with no spiritual dimension. We now know that Bushmen were complex, sensitive people and that rock-art embodies much of their spiritual beliefs.
Prof. Lewis-Williams, Thomas Dowson and the late Harald Pager, among others, have made meticulous rock-art tracings of rock paintings. These rock-art scholars have concentrated on the area of the Drakensberg between Giant’s Castle and Ndedema Gorge where some 40 per cent of South Africa’s rock art is located. While most of these sites are inaccessible shelters hidden deep in the sandstone cliffs, three of the finest rock-art sites are open to the public and are maintained in excellent condition by the Natal Parks Board. These are Main Caves at Giant’s Castle, Battle Cave near Injasuti and Game Pass Shelter at Kamberg.
The best known and most easily accessible of the three is at Main Caves. If you visit just one site in the Drakensberg, this is the one it should be. Not only does it contain magnificent rock art but also its museum recalls in great detail the Bushman way of life.
Tours are conducted on the hour and you should allow yourself about 20 minutes getting there. It’s a fairly easy stroll up the Bushman’s River Valley and the path follows the smooth-contoured grassy hills overlooking the winding course of the river. The last few hundred metres are steep and although there is an excellent path expect your pulse to be thumping by the time you reach the gate.
A guide who answers questions and points out the features that are being discussed explains the paintings. It is an excellent commentary about the Bushmen’s way of life, their hunting and gathering practices, and highlights notable paintings and features in the cave. It does not, however, discuss the important relationship between the shaman, the trance dance and rock art which is so thoroughly explored by David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson in several books, including Images of Power (Southern Book Publishers, Johannesburg) and Rock Paintings of the Natal Drakensberg (University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg).
The shallow cave is large and there are numerous tumbled-down boulders strewn about the floor. Some of these were fashioned into a rough stone enclosure (visible in the left section of the cave) by the British Army under Colonel Durnford who used the cave to house Zulu labourersin 1874. Their mission was to blow up passes in the region to avoid a repetition of the Langalibelele Rebellion during which British soldiers had been outwitted in the mountains by the chief-turned-renegade, losing not only men but a great deal of dignity.
To the right of the stonewall, is a beautiful multi-coloured (polychrome) painting of Eland. The shaded paintings seen here are typical of those found in the Drakensberg area.
There are more than 500 paintings in the cave and the earliest of these date back approximately 800 years. It is difficult to establish the precise age of the works because in most cases all traces of blood, albumin and protein have been leached and only the pigment remains absorbed into the porous rock.
Most of the paintings do not display a great degree of shamanistic influence, but if you move to the back of the cave and to the right of the Eland panel, you will find a frieze of cloaked figures, which are examples of therianthropes. Other therianthropes may be seen on the overhanging bulge further to the right.
It’s quite easy to see why Raymond Dart suggested that these figures might have been the result of Babylonian and Phoenician influences in Southern Africa. This is highly unlikely, however, as are the other theories that these depict local Zulu tribesmen. As Lewis-Williams and others point out many of these figures have antelope heads and hooves and are almost certainly ‘examples of the shamanistic therianthropes created by artists after they had been in a trance-dance meditation’.
Beneath the overhang there are two large display cases where tracings of the therianthropes and more ‘real’ images may be studied in detail.
Many of the paintings seem to be much too high up the walls for the diminutive Bushmen to have reached, but this is explained by their having been a tree growing in the cave. It served, in fact, as a vantage point for a few more recent graffiti ‘artists’ as well. Further signs of vandalism are visible in the rock face where Durnford’s men practised their shooting by taking pot shots at the paintings. Some of the scars were repaired when the cave was turned into a museum.
High up in the Main Caves Museum there is a very well preserved Leopard or lion painting which is one of only a few felines visible in the Drakensberg (there is another at Battle Cave). Although it is not easily visible from ground level, there are spots along the ridge of the animal’s spine, which Lewis-Williams ascribes to a representation of the ‘boiling’ sensation experienced by Shamans during a trance.
On a large boulder at the right-hand end of the cave there are three snakes, one of which is very distinct. The clearest snake has an antelope head and bleeds from the nose. Bleeding from the nose is a recurring image in rock art and according to Lewis-Williams relates to the trance state where Shamans frequently experienced nasal haemorrhaging.
Once the tour of the Northern Shelter is complete the guide leads the way towards the Southern (east-facing) Shelter.
It is thought that for hundreds, or even thousands, of years Bushman clans made seasonal use of the Southern Shelter of the Main Caves at Giant’s Castle. Each summer they moved up from the midlands in pursuit of grey Rhebok, Eland and other game, which migrated up to the lush Montane grasslands.
Clayton Holliday, who was also responsible for the excavation of the hearth, has created a display of models depicting such a group at the site. It is an intriguing scene of Bushman day-to-day activities. In the front there are the hunters on whom the clan relied for meat. One is skinning a grey Rhebok with a stone blade and the other has just returned from the hunt and carries a bow and arrows. The arrowheads were made from bone and the tip could be detached from the shaft to prevent accidental poisoning. (Bushmen concocted virulent poisons from indigenous plants, snake venom and certain insect larvae.)
Bushmen were Late Stone Age people and the iron arrow tips and pottery scattered round the cave would almost certainly have been obtained through barter from the Zulu people living in the valleys below.
While the men were hunters, the women were responsible for gathering roots, seeds and berries. One of the women can be seen digging with a weighted stick while the other returns with a full bag of gleanings from the veld.
At the back of the cave the Shaman is painting the wall while a baby plays with a rattle (made from dried cocoons and seeds tied to a string) similar to those used by Bushmen Shamans in their trance-dance ceremonies.
One of the most interesting items on display is the bow case and quiver to the right of the artist which are copies of those found by JS Lombard in 1926 in a cave between Cathkin and Cathedral peak. These were wrapped in a Baboon skin and lay be side bedding which was so fresh that it could not have been more than a few years old. This came as a surprise at the time because it was thought that the last Bushman had bee killed in the 1890s. Clearly this was not the case.
During the 1930s interest in Bushman art was rekindled by the likes of Marion How, the wife of the magistrate at Quachasnek. In return for a pair of boots she commissioned an old Lesotho Bushman called Mapote to do her a drawing. Mapote did as she asked and informed her that he would have invited a few friends to come and watch but, as he told her with sadness, “They are all dead that I could think of.”
As can be seen from these interesting models, the Bushmen were generally less than five feet tall with agile bodies and protruding buttocks (a condition called steatopygia). The models were made by studying their Kalahari relations who are very similar in appearance with golden brown skin, flattened noses, mongoloid features and widely-spaced hair follicles. Studying the tranquil scene depicted in the display I could not help but recall the indignation these people must have felt last century when they were shipped to major centres and put in prison or in some cases, used as live ‘exhibits’ in certain museums.
The hearth in the shelter has been thoroughly excavated and there is an interpretive display to the left of the exhibit where soil profiles trace the cave’s ‘history’ from present to prehistoric times. The most recent deposits include bottle tops and cigarette butts and the oldest house chips of tools, bones and other implements indicative of the Late Stone Age life.
The Northern Shelter has fine paintings and the guide will point out a magnificent Eland as well as a spiral whorl and an oblong creature with spots and long hair connected by a series of white streamers. The latter are almost certainly entopic, trance-induced images.
A fallen rock in the left-hand section of the cave is covered with many paintings and behind it there is a tiny elephant painted in black, which is a rare sight in the Drakensberg
Battle Cave is in the northernmost section of Giant’s Castle Game Reserve near Injasuti Camp, which was featured in Getaway. Arrangements to visit the cave can be made with the camp superintendent. Guided tours leave every morning and you are advised to take lunch and refreshments for the journey, which is likely to take three to four hours.
There are some 750 paintings in Battle Cave and there is a pre-recorded commentary that lasts about 20 minutes. For the most part it includes the same generic details as that at Giant’s Castle but the paintings themselves are very different. The first group you will see is in the front left-hand section of the cave and includes three unusual depictions, namely a Snake, a Baboon and a Chameleon. Perhaps all animals had their significant role in the Bushman pantheon of gods and were important to the Shamanistic ritual, but we cannot discount that the meaning of this art may be more literal and painted by an enthusiastic Bushman ‘naturalist’. Nearby there is a hunting scene, which is rare in rock paintings. In fact, in Harald Pager’s weighty tome Ndedema Gorge Akademische Druck, Graz), he identified only 29 hunting scenes among the 3 909 paintings he recorded. This lends support to the theory that Bushman rock paintings are not simply narrative accounts of everyday life, but then again we should be careful not to try and separate the physical and the spiritual (metaphysical) so adamantly. They were probably one and the same to the Bushmen.
The guide will point out various other interesting paintings, ultimately stopping at the famous battle scene that has given this cave its name. It’s a fascinating depiction of what appears to be a battle between two groups of rival Bushmen.
Women are shown restraining men while other hunters run about shooting arrows, which lie scattered, like twigs. On the extreme right-hand side of the painting are two wounded figures that flank one of the best-preserved paintings of a human being in the Berg. This orange-haired figure with lines on its legs is seen running towards the battle scene. There is much action but you need to get up close to appreciate everything that is going on in the painting.
Although many critics suggest that this is a depiction of a territorial battle, Lewis-Williams argues that this is unlikely because Bushman groups were closely related to one another and were largely peaceful. Although he concedes that the painting is composed mainly of ‘real’ elements, he suggests that dots and lines and other entopic elements are evidence that this is a battle in the spiritual sense, between marauding evil Shamans who are shooting ‘arrows of sickness’ while good Shamans in their trance-state attempt to keep them at bay.
It is a dramatic and vivid scene that overshadows all others in the area. Despite its allure, do not neglect the panel to the left of the deep cleft in the shelter wall. Lewis-Williams has dubbed it the ‘spirit-world panel’ and for good reason. Two central human figures carrying fly-whisks (important trance-dance tools) approach a group of curious figures that appear to be wearing long, pointed hats. These, Lewis-Williams suggests, cannot be headgear as the Bushmen do not have any such articles but very likely represent attenuation or the feeling of light-headedness associated with the trance state.
The highest panel contains exceptional Eland paintings. Eland – which are the common element in virtually all Bushman caves – symbolise all that is good and perhaps it is for this reason that they are piled on top of each other so liberally in Berg shelters. It is interesting to note that while animals are often superimposed over other animals it is less common for humans to be superimposed over animals.
High up, slightly left of centre in the cave, are two elongated therianthropes with red bands on their ankles and necks. Next to them are two Rhinoceros with similar lines. It is argued that these are not ‘real’ Rhinoceros but are linked through the line details to the spiritual power of the transformed shaman.
Battle Cave has a dramatic leopard and star-like spider shapes (entotic phenomena), all of which are pointed out by the guide
Game Pass Shelter in Kamberg Nature Reserve, just south of Giant’s Castle Game Reserve, includes the best-preserved paintings of the three caves. Many are large and complex polychrome images.
Guided tours depart from the Kamberg Rest Camp. The walk follows a contour path through typical Little Berg grasslands, the last 300 metres of which is something of an uphill trek.
The first paintings you see after you enter the gate are imposing therianthropic figures clad in long black karosses. They have blood sweeping back from their noses suggesting the nasal bleeding of the trance, and hooves.
Still further to the left past a rock pillar are more therianthropes, one of which seems to be clutching an Eland’s tail to demonstrate control over the animal. Other human figures have little hairs all over their bodies, perhaps representing the transition from man to animal.
Situated in the left section of the cave as you enter is a particularly clear Eland and above this is a rare painting of a pair of Blue Crane pictured in white.
There is no tape-recorded commentary at Game Pass Shelter but its paintings are very clear and full of clues to their spiritual significance.
Interpretation can often be exhausted by over-analysis but, considering the entopic and therianthropic drawings and the Bushmen’s beliefs about ‘potency’, there is little doubt that many of their spiritual beliefs are represented in their art. It is doubtful that the interpretive approach will ever be spot-on since only second-hand theorising and much postulating can do it.
The truth behind Bushman paintings most probably lies somewhere between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’. The Bushmen themselves would be the last to want anyone to categorise their works fully. In the same way that an Eland could represent many things, the paintings that they created are equally full of symbolism and meaning.
The natural effects of weathering will eventually destroy all these paintings. And while it is vital to study them as close as possible to detect the most minute details, you should never touch them with anything since even the natural oils on your finger can do irreparable damage. It is a good idea to use your hand to shade the images as this makes their colours stand out.
Every one of these paintings is an irreplaceable treasure; they have all been declared national monuments and as such are protected by law. They are vivid reminders of a gentle civilisation that was wiped out before its worth was fully appreciated.