The 80,000-plus individual rock art images known in Namibia testify to the wishes of early societies to express themselves pictorially. These desires go back a long time. The oldest images, which in the broadest sense might be called rock art, were drawn on small, portable stone slabs found embedded in debris in the Apollo 11 Cave near the Huns Mountains, in southern Namibia.7 The deposits of debris are estimated to be about 30,000 years old.
Unlike those slabs, rock art typically refers to representations made on immovable rocks, often in terrain where dating of the images is difficult. However, lucky circumstances that do allow dating suggest that some Namibian rock art is as old as the beginning of the Holocene, which was about 12,000 years ago, but most images are more likely to have been made in the last 5,000 years.
Images on rocks are divided between paintings, with various pigments applied on the stone surface, and engravings (known also as petroglyphs) which are carved, scored, chiselled or scratched into the stone. Their motifs generally differ. Painted art is dominated by depictions of humans and large animals, often characteristically in delicate, fine forms. By contrast, rock engravings depict mainly large animals and animal footprints, as well as abstract, non-figurative and geometric forms.
Paintings and engravings may have had different purposes. For example, they may have served to signify the presence and rights over an area by different groups of people, each group having its own tradition and style. Or perhaps they reflected the differing norms and behaviour of the groups.
Photo: P Breunig
Photo: P Breunig
9.02 Distribution of engravings and paintings on rocks8
The highest concentrations of rock art per square kilometre have been found at three centres – the Brandberg, the Erongo Mountains and the Tywfelfontein area – where there are extraordinary numbers of paintings and engravings.
In southern Africa, paintings and engravings are usually not found together in the same location. This is true for the 6,000-plus images in central Namibia where paintings are concentrated around the western escarpment and petroglyphs dominate rock art in the eastern areas between Windhoek and Gobabis. However, paintings and engravings are not separated in southern Namibia where 3,500 individual images have been documented, or in the northwest where there are 73,000 images. Mixes of paintings and engravings are most striking at the Twyfelfontein, Brandberg and Erongo sites. All three sites offered sources of water, shelter and other vital resources to people living close to the inhospitable Namib Desert. The overlap of paintings and engravings raises several questions. Did residents of the area change their preferred styles and motifs? Or did groups of people favouring different motifs come and go from these areas? How did newcomers to these areas react to the presence of images made by other people? Did competing groups use rock art to stake their claims over water sources or hunting grounds?