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Mapungubwe National Park
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History of the Park
The rock art in and around Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site might appear less detailed than some complex panels in the Drakensberg – but it is in many ways unique, outstanding and undiscovered by the general public. A few selected sites will soon be opened for guided tours.
A small share of the rock art in the confluence area of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers is created by Khoenkhoen herders but most of it is done by San hunter-gatherers. Their work throughout Southern Africa is between 10.000 and 100 years of age. The San art in the Mapungubwe area is estimated to be between 3000 and 1000 years old.
Iron age farmers and traders, like the famous civilization of Mapungubwe (1200-1270 AD), have mostly displaced and marginalised the hunter-gatherer culture. However, the last decendants of the San only moved away in the 1950s when white farmers took over the area. They now live along the Shashe river in Botswana, but they have lost many apsects of their culture and customs.
The material that the indigenous hunter gatherers used for their paint was mainly ochre, a soft rock that originates as clay that is rich in iron oxide. Colors vary from yellow to brown to red, the most commonly used color. Black paint was made of charcoal or manganese oxide, white paint of kaolin or coarser white clay. To get a liquid paint, artists used mixers like blood, oil, egg, water and plant juices. Fat was used for cosmetic paint, but most probably not for rock art.
The rock art around Mapungubwe was rediscovered in the late 19th century and recording began around 1970 by the late Harald Pager. Most work was done in the 1990s by Edward B. Eastwood and his Paleo-Art Field Services. Their research raised the number of documented sites in the confluence area (including Zimbabwe) from 40 to 120. Currently the number of documented sites is over 150. Most information on this webpage is borrowed from publications by Eastwood and his colleagues.
The rock art in the Mapungubwe area is mainly found in the parallel series of Karroo sandstone ridges that shape the landscape and give it an ancient and mysterious feel. Shelters are formed by erosion in the cream coloured sandstones of the Tshipise Member of the Clarens formation. Engravings are also found on exposed sandstone surfaces.
Almost all (98%) of the rock paintings in the confluence area are typical hunter-gatherer fine line paintings. Major themes are animals, human figures, Y-shapes and animal skin motives.
Antelope are dominant amongst the animals – most of them indeterminate. Identifiable animals that occur the most are (greater) kudu, elephant and giraffe. The high occurence of the kudu is unique for South African rock shelters and is more common in Zimbabwe. In other South African rock art areas the eland is generally the most depicted animal. The importance of the (fermale) kudu is underlined by the fact that the artists generally depicted the animal larger and took more time to create elaborate polychromes. Many animals are depicted with a red dorsal line (over the back). Elephants, for example, are mostly painted in black pigments with red dorsal stripes.
Another unique feature of the paintings in the confluence area is the exceptionally high proportion of depicted women. About 31 percent of the painted human figures are women, only 22 percent are men – the rest is indeterminate. In other areas in South Africa men are always depicted more than women and the female component can be as low as 2 percent. Significant is also that women are seldom depicted together with men, who in turn are seldom depicted with weapons.
Explanation of rock art is tough, because no records of the meaning of the paintings exist. Scientists nowadays believe the art should be read as a bible rather than a menu. Researchers use knowledge of existing Kalahari hunter-gatherers and historical records of the extinct Southern San for their interpretations. This has lead to a mostly ‘shamanistic’ explanation of rock art – linking most paintings to the role of medicinepeople (shamans) and their trance dance. The pictures might also have played an important role in initiation rites for both girls and boys.
It seems that in the Mapungubwe area the kudu plays the role that the eland plays in most other shelters in the country. Scientists suggest multiple meanings for the frequent and elaborate (female) kudu depiction. It symbolises the supernatural potency that San shamans acquire in trance, it signals puberty rituals and it can be depicted for rainmaking or good fortune in hunting. Elephants and giraffes are also considered to be especially ‘potent’. Another interesting feature is animals (like kudus and impalas) depicted in a pre-mating posture. This may symbolise a girl becoming a young woman who is ready to marry. Red dorsal lines indicate supernatural potency as acquired by shivering shamans in their trance dance.
Still mysterious are the many Y-shapes that are painted in the shelters in the Limpopo/Shashe confluence area. Earlier researchers recognized fishing nets, but nowadays the Y is are regarded as an apron – a piece of San clothing.
The occurence of paintings and engravings in the same shelter is also unique. Little is known about the meaning or practical use of various engravings, like cupules and cut marks. The cupules that are found on the sandstone surface in four lines of eight cups are of younger age and were used for playing the game of mafuvha (Venda) or ncuba (Tsonga) by iron age people.
Besides these more abstract engravings there are examples of engraved animal tracks and depictions of animals. There are several engraved giraffe in the area, one of which is the famous Mtetengwe petroglyph portraying a 2,3 meter giraffe (in Zimbabwe). Other engraved animals include rhinoceros, zebra and an antelope.
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