Uncovering Africa’s Unique & Ancient Art History

by Sandy Salle on January 26, 2012

While much of the artwork produced in Africa today can be purchased and taken home as a commemoration of your travel, some of Africa’s art is much more fixed in its location. One prominent example is the rock art created by the San people, members of a tribe that lived in present-day South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola.

In the Drakensberg region of South Africa, visitors can visit these fascinating rock paintings, some of which date back thousands of years.

The Spiritual Importance of San Rock Art

Because members of the San tribe created some of these paintings as recently as 200 years ago, anthropologists have a unique understanding of what the images signified for the San people—and how they connect to other cave paintings around the world.

San rock art often depicts beings that are half-human and half-animal. According to anthropologists, these pictures represent the spiritual journeys undertaken by the medicine men of San tribes. Similar to shamans in Native American cultures, these medicine men would plunge themselves into trances in order to commune with the spirit world on behalf of their tribes.

The depicted transformation into a partially animal state is thought to represent the intense psychic struggle these medicine men underwent on behalf of their tribes as they attempted to affect rains, animal migration patterns, and other important natural forces.

History Captured on Rocks

Another fascinating element of this South African rock art is its ability to capture the changes the San people experienced as white settlers first came to their homeland. While older depictions contain a single color and show large predatory animals in “enemy” roles, newer art includes multiple hues and, eventually, guns in place of big predators.

Image above taken from PBS.org.


Scholars believe these changes reflect the increasing complexity the San people faced when their culture encountered those of Europeans for the first time.

If you’re interested in the history of art, be sure to schedule time to visit some San rock art during your next trip to Africa!


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