An eland falls to its knees, dying from wounds inflict­ed by hunters. A man leans for­ward, his arms held taut behind him as if in sup­pli­ca­tion. A thin red line care­ful­ly traced, almost thread­ed through the con­tours of a rock, is high­light­ed by care­ful­ly placed dots of white.

Even if you know noth­ing about the sig­nif­i­cance of the sym­bols, there is still some­thing arrest­ing about the frag­ile beau­ty of rock art. Per­haps it’s know­ing that thou­sands of years stretch between artist and audi­ence. Or per­haps it’s know­ing that you don’t real­ly have the visu­al vocab­u­lary to under­stand what you’re look­ing at.

Don’t feel bad. Very few peo­ple do.

That’s why I feel very for­tu­nate to meet and inter­view Pro­fes­sor David Lewis-Williams, one of the world’s fore­most experts on rock art.

Prof Lewis Williams

Pro­fes­sor David Lewis-Williams at the Ori­gins Cen­tre at Wits University.

For Lewis-Williams, who has copied some 4 000 paint­ings in the Drak­ens­berg (one of the rich­est rock art sites in South­ern Africa and the world), the key to under­stand­ing rock art lies in putting aside all your pre­con­ceived notions about art itself.

I think it’s wrong to think that San rock art is like West­ern art where you can make pic­tures to enter­tain peo­ple, for beau­ty or to tell a sto­ry. Among the San, it was essen­tial­ly to do with con­tact­ing the spir­it world,” Lewis-Williams says when we meet at the Rock Art Research Insti­tute (RARI) at Wits University.

Lewis-Williams was recent­ly at the open­ing of a world-famous exhi­bi­tion of repli­cas of French cave paint­ings in Johan­nes­burg. Won­ders of Rock Art: Las­caux Cave and Africa opened at the Sci-Bono Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre in New­town last month. It show­cas­es paint­ings dis­cov­ered in a cave in France that are 17 000 years old.

As impres­sive as the Las­caux paint­ings are, Lewis-Williams can’t help but stress that the exam­ples of rock art that have been dis­cov­ered in South­ern Africa are not only more numer­ous and var­ied than any­thing that’s been dis­cov­ered in Europe, but our paint­ings are also much older.

The ear­li­est image that we’ve got in South­ern Africa is from the Apol­lo 11 cave in south­ern Namib­ia, in pieces of stone that fell and were buried. That is dat­ed at 27 000 years old. Las­caux is 17 000 years old. So we’ve got 10 000 years on them!” he laughs.

Lewis-Williams esti­mates that there are about 14 000 rock art sites across South Africa. He says the most dense­ly paint­ed areas include the Ceder­berg in the West­ern Cape, as well as parts of the East­ern Cape, KwaZu­lu-Natal and the Free State. And, he says, new” paint­ings are con­stant­ly being dis­cov­ered, often by farm­ers and hik­ers who stum­ble upon them. In fact, RARI used to have a ded­i­cat­ed 911” team that would respond to alerts about new find­ings – but this team was dis­band­ed because of a lack of funding.

Screen Shot 2018 06 01 At 09 05 30

The African Rock Art Dig­i­tal Archive con­tains pho­tographs of rock paint­ings from all over the coun­try tak­en by RARI.

Lewis-Williams is sad­dened by the lack of fund­ing to this kind of research, because rock art rep­re­sents frag­ile pieces of the past that haven’t yet been ful­ly explored or understood.

It’s incred­i­bly impor­tant: it’s a her­itage that is irre­place­able; it’s a non-renew­able resource. And com­pared with rock art else­where in the world, we real­ly are num­ber one – there has been inter­na­tion­al inter­est in what’s been found here,” he says.

One of the biggest con­tri­bu­tions that South Africa has made to the field of study, Lewis-Williams says, is get­ting inter­na­tion­al researchers to change their research meth­ods and con­sid­er ethnog­ra­phy when inter­pret­ing paint­ings. Ethnog­ra­phy is a field of study that exam­ines cul­tures, rit­u­als and beliefs. It is a sub­ject that has been an endur­ing thread in his work.

My prin­ci­pal inter­est is in why did the San peo­ple paint, and what did the paint­ings mean to them? That means you’ve got to find out what San peo­ple believed and did, and so on.”

This approach has led Lewis-Williams through an exten­sive study of the extinct /​Xam lan­guage, and exten­sive work with the sur­viv­ing descen­dants of the Khoisan com­mu­ni­ty, who now live in remote parts of the North­ern Cape. This com­mu­ni­ty has been described as the old­est peo­ple on Earth”, as they’re descen­dants of the San people.

Lewis-Williams has found, through his own work and work done by researchers before him, that at its core, rock art was not, as many believe, about cap­tur­ing day-to-day life such as hunt­ing scenes. It was, in most instances, a deeply spir­i­tu­al exercise.

It’s about con­tact­ing the spir­it world. The ani­mal that they paint­ed most was the eland, and the eland is the biggest of the ante­lope, but is the ani­mal they believed to have the most spir­i­tu­al pow­er. So they try to cap­ture the pow­er of the eland in tra­di­tion­al cer­e­monies to take them into this spir­it world. And there they make it rain, or heal the sick, and then come back and tell peo­ple what they expe­ri­enced in the spir­it world.”

When South Africa designed a new coat of arms in 2000, RARI was invit­ed by then Pres­i­dent Thabo Mbe­ki to pro­pose rock art that could be used on the emblem. Lewis-Williams was also invit­ed to trans­late South Africa’s mot­to into the now extinct /​Xam lan­guage. Lewis-Williams says they delib­er­ate­ly chose a fig­ure from of a piece of rock art that was being kept in a muse­um, in order to ensure the piece that was the orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tion for the coat of arms was pre­served for future generations.

If it’s still out in the open, it’s going to fade. A hun­dred years from now, it’s not going to be there. Even in 20 years you can see decay. It’s alarm­ing. That’s why they’ve got to be record­ed. So, there’s a big slab that was tak­en out of the East­ern Cape in 1917 in the Iziko Muse­um in Cape Town. We took a human fig­ure out of that.” He says the image was dupli­cat­ed and flipped to form the two fig­ures we see on the coat of arms today.

In the orig­i­nal slab, he is stand­ing on a red line with white dots all along it. This is a mys­ti­cal sym­bol. So he is a med­i­cine man, a shaman, or an igqirha.”

The red line was left out of the coat of arms, and instead, below the fig­ures, is South Africa’s mot­to in the /​Xam lan­guage: !ke e: /​xarra /​/​ke direct­ly trans­lates to Peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent, come togeth­er”, accord­ing to Lewis-Williams.

15010155629 0C16Bd9526 O

The coat of arms on a South African 5c coin. (Image: Flickr)

The del­i­cate nature of rock art is of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance to Lewis-Williams, who says pre­serv­ing these pieces of the past is an incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult task, because even though they have sur­vived thou­sands of years, they fade due to the nat­ur­al ele­ments. He’s urged vis­i­tors to such sites to bear this in mind.

Don’t touch them. Don’t wet them. Respect them. If you go to an art gallery, you don’t go up to a paint­ing and touch it. Don’t touch these either,” he says simply.