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  • Writer's picture Hendrik Maat

The Rock Art of Swebeswebe Nature Reserve

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

Dive into a captivating exploration of Northern South Africa's lesser-known treasures, where history, culture, and art intertwine.

In this article, we embark on a journey to one of the region's rare rock sites, a sanctuary of time where three distinct artistic traditions, the San, Herder, and Northern Sotho, converge. This is a land that demands respect and careful exploration, an enduring canvas where rock art echoes tales from over 200,000 years ago.

As we uncover the secrets of the Swebeswebe site, we'll appreciate not just the physical beauty of the art but also the rich cultural tapestry that these images reveal. We'll delve into the Middle Stone Age, the cradle of humanity, and discover the birthplace of culture as encapsulated by the oldest known evidence of art.

This article invites you to be more than just a passive reader. You become a guardian of these precious relics, understanding the responsibility of preserving their integrity. From the fine line paintings of the San to the white finger paintings of the Northern Sotho farmers, we'll explore the intriguing symbolism behind the artworks, unraveling the beliefs and rituals they signify.

Prepare for an enthralling journey that challenges our perceptions of history and underscores the richness and diversity of human creativity. Join us as we walk in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors, leaving behind only footprints and taking away a deeper appreciation of our shared past.

With immense pleasure, I present to you, Ken Maud, our esteemed guide through the fascinating enigma that awaits your exploration. Maud will navigate you through the entwined tales of history and artistry that unfold on this ancient canvas, found on the Swebeswebe Nature Reserve in Northern South Africa.

For those who find themselves entranced by the mystique and allure of these remarkable discoveries, allow me to delve deeper into this captivating realm. I shall illuminate our journey with insights drawn from the work of esteemed researchers - Dr. Benjamin W. Smith, Ms Ghilraen B. Laue, and Prof. Patty Bass. This distinguished trio from The Rock Art Research Institute were invited to survey the site on the 22nd and 23rd of June, 2000.

Their insightful analysis and thorough research serve as an enlightening beacon, illuminating the historical mysteries and cultural significance that seep from the ancient rock. As we journey through this lesser-explored tapestry of human history, their scholarly interpretations will enrich our understanding and appreciation of these timeless artistic narratives.

So, prepare yourself for a mesmerising journey that traverses the sands of time, unveiling the echoes of our shared past etched into the age-old stones of Northern South Africa.

But first: Ken Maud:


Maria 1 – a guide for visitors

If you are a visitor to this place, welcome, you have just entered one of the lesser known but most special of places in Northern South Africa. Of all the rock sites in the region, this is one of the rare sites with three different traditions of paintings: San, herder and Northern Sotho. You are requested to treat the site with the greatest of respect. Rock art is damaged far more easily than one realises. Damage is forever; ancient rock art cannot be replaced.

Please be careful never to touch the art or to let anything get onto painted surfaces. Parents, please keep an eye on your children. Leave only your footsteps and take away only thoughts and photographs. The area around this site is of special archaeological importance, it has been inhabited for more than 200,000 years. As you walk through the site you may see objects left by these old inhabitants. Please leave everything exactly as and where you find it.

The inhabitants of this place 200,000 year ago were people of the Middle Stone Age. Even such a long time ago, these people were already anatomically modern; they had exactly the same physical and mental capacities as us. We do not know whether they had language, we suspect they did. We know them mainly from the complex range of stone tools that they left behind. Alas these hold only very limited clues as to how they thought and behaved. New evidence from Blombos Cave indicates that the Middle Stone Age people had art. Recent excavations, by Chris Henshilwood, have uncovered a piece of ochre with engraved lines, dating to between 70 and 100 000 years before present. This is the earliest evidence for art in the world. The earliest art in Europe dates to less that 40 000 years ago. Southern Africa, therefore, is not only the cradle of humanity, but also the birthplace of culture as we know it.

The rock art that you are about to see is thought to date to the last two thousand years. Art on exposed rocks such as these cannot survive much longer than this. From excavated remains we know that the painting technique has been around for at least 27,000 years. A painted rock was found buried in Namibia in a layer of soil that was dated by the radiocarbon method to 27,000 years ago.

The art at Swebeswebe was made by three different groups of people. The fine line paintings were made by the ancestors of the San (people also known as the Bushmen); the finger dots and finger paintings on the left hand side of the shelter were made by herders who passed through the area; the white finger paintings on the right of the shelter were made by Iron Age (Northern Sotho) farmers. Some of the paintings may be as young as 300 years old. We are able to gain an understanding of the meanings of the paintings by relating them to our knowledge of the beliefs and rituals of the three different groups. Thankfully, we don’t have to guess at the meaning, if we did we would certainly be proven wrong.

For convenience of description we have divided the art into three sections: San art, herder art and Northern Sotho art. Where possible, we will try and move from left to right across the shelter. We will not discuss every image, only those of particular interest.

The Rock Art of the San

The majority of the art in the Maria 1 Shelter was made by San hunter-gatherers. There are three main panels of San paintings, the largest being the extreme left panel. The central section of the shelter contains a few San paintings, the majority of which are painted high up on the shelter walls. The third section is on the extreme right of the shelter (beyond the Northern Sotho white finger paintings).

One of the first ‘scenes’ on the far left hand side of the shelter, is one depicting a group of fat-tailed sheep and their herder (Plate 1). Fat-tailed sheep occur relatively frequently in the rock art of the Waterberg. What makes this particular group of paintings of special interest is that the sheep are accompanied by a human figure carrying a stick, who is most likely the sheep herder. We know of no other such depiction in the Waterberg.

The San were hunter-gatherers who had no domesticated animals. Sheep were first brought into South Africa by herder groups about 2000 years ago. On the basis of archaeological and linguistic evidence, it is thought that these herder groups came from northern Namibia or southern Angola. They got sheep from interaction with early Bantu farmer groups in that area. The herder groups seem to have come into South Africa by two different routes. One group came in along the west coast of Namibia and South Africa, while the other group came down through Botswana and the Northern Province. Cattle were brought into the country a few hundred years later by Bantu-speaking farmers

Plate 1: A painting of a herder holding a stick standing behind two fat-tailed sheep. The sheep were more than just depictions of new animals moving into the landscape. They were symbols of spiritual power for the San.

The paintings of sheep are clearly in the ‘style’ of the San art. The San were representing the new intruders and their livestock. Although these paintings indicate a herder presence on the landscape, they were not painted as a simple depiction of what was going on at that time. There was a deeper symbolic reason for painting sheep. Fat-tailed sheep have a very high fat content. Fat is related to San notions of potency (power), and it is often animals with much fat who were seen as animals from which to draw on as a source of spiritual power. These paintings are also important evidence for the way beliefs get borrowed. The San cosmology is not static and unchanging, but dynamic.

Above the panel of white finger dots (discussed below) is a beautiful painting of a rhinoceros. This image is one of only six depictions of rhinoceros known in the Waterberg. The position of the head and the shape of the mouth suggest that it is a black rhinoceros.

The work of Sven Ouzman has shown us that rhinoceros were associated with rainmaking. Their shape, in the paintings, is similar to the amorphous quadrupeds interpreted as rain animals in other parts of the country. We do not see ‘typical’ depictions of rain animals in this area, rather the San of the Waterberg conceived of the rain-animal in the form of a rhinoceros.

One of the San shamans’ most important tasks was to make rain. The San thought of the rain as an animal. A male rain animal or rain-bull was associated with the frightening thunderstorms that bellowed, stirred up the dust, and sometimes killed people with lightening. The female rain-animal or rain-cow was associated with soft soaking rains. Ouzman’s research has indicated that the white rhinoceros, a docile grazer was associated with the female rain, while the more aggressive black rhinoceros was associated with the male rain. Columns of rain falling from a storm cloud were called ‘the rains legs’ and the soft wisps under the clouds were ‘the rains hair’. We should not however suppose that the San thought the cloud was an animal. Like the English ‘raining cats and dogs’, it was simply, in some usages, a way of speaking.

But the rain-animal also appeared in the San shamans hallucinations and in this case the rain-animal was probably more ‘real’ and not just a manner of speech. When rain was needed the people would approach the shamans and ask them to cause it to rain. The shamans then entered trance, probably through a trance dance, although shamans could also make rain by ‘dreaming’. In the spirit world, the shamans would try to capture a rain-animal. When they had captured it, they led it across the parched veld and killed it. Its blood and milk became the rain.

To the right of the rhinoceros is an antelope, probably a tsessebe (Plate 2). The most commonly depicted antelope in the Waterberg is either a hartebeest or a tsessebe. The two animals are hard to tell apart. The principal distinguishing feature is their horns, but this feature is often omitted in rock art. In this case the horns are depicted (a rare instance), so this animal can be identified.

Plate 2: A depiction of a tsessebe from the Maria 1 shelter. This image is unusual in that the horns are depicted. In most other parts of the Waterberg these antelope are painted without horns, making it difficult to distinguish between hartebeest and tsessebe.

The dominance of the hartebeest/tsessebe in the Waterberg is particularly intriguing; this is the only area in which these animals are found painted in such numbers. In most other parts of South Africa the eland dominates, in Zimbabwe it is the kudu. The San of the Waterberg seem to have been people of the hartebeest/ tsessebe. It was on the potency of these animals, that the local healers and rainmakers drew most often. It was into these animals that many of the dancers believed that they transformed when travelling to the spirit world. Thus we see part human – part-hartebeest figures painted throughout the Waterberg.

To the left of and behind the tsessebe are two paintings of giraffe. These are difficult to make out at first. All that is noticeable at first is two sets of parallel dashes in red. These dashes are representations of the hair on the giraffe neck.

Notice how the tsessebe has been painted over one of the giraffe. This feature is called superpositioning. Sometimes one depiction overlaps another slightly; in other cases the second is done directly upon the first. It is unlikely that the artist who painted the image on top did not see the fist image; it seems rather that the second depiction was placed directly on top of the first image. Clearly the placing of one image over another was important to the artist. It is not known exactly why the painters chose to paint over previous images, but it seems that the paintings themselves had potency or supernatural power and by painting one image over another the potency of the painting was increased. These panels were communally produced, pooling revelations of the spirit world, new insights and new power being contributed by a long line of artists.

In the middle section of the shelter there are some large painted antelope. These are probably eland. The eland is the most commonly painted animal in both the Drakensberg and the Western Cape, but not the Waterberg. Maria 1 is one of a handful of sites in the Waterberg with paintings of eland. For the San the eland is chief amongst all the animals. It is thus not surprising that it is the eland that is god’s favourite animal. The eland is of course the largest of the southern African antelope and is much desired as a source of meat and fat. As a major symbol in San thought the eland appears in four important rituals: boys’ first kill, girls puberty, marriage and the trance or curing dance. All these associations add up to the eland’s exceptional potency.

There are also some paintings very high up in the shelter. These paintings are very faded and it is difficult to make out the subject matter. These high paintings are typical of the art tradition in the Matopos, Zimbabwe, but very rare in the Waterberg.

On the far right-hand side of the shelter, past the Northern Sotho white finger paintings are a few more very faded paintings. If you look carefully you will see some red stylised human figures (see plate 3).

Plate 3: Human figure in the Waterberg Posture from Maria 1 Shelter.

These figures are in a posture that is known as the ‘Waterberg Posture’. This posture is frequently painted throughout the Waterberg, but very seldom in other parts of the country. The human figures are considerably attenuated with an exaggerated thickness in the legs. The characteristic of these figures is that they are drawn in profile, only one leg is seen and one arm (very short) and the penis stick out in front (see Figure 1). Figures in this posture often occur in groups, sometimes of up to fourteen figures.

These figures seem to be related to the trance dance. The fact that the arm is stretched out in front, a posture employed in the dance and that these figures occur in large groups are some of the factors that lead us to this conclusion. These figures often seem to be closely associated with hartebeest.These hartebeest often have unusual features. They have thick hind legs and thinner and shorter forelegs. In many sites in the Waterberg, hartebeest drawn in this particular way are associated with the ‘Waterberg Posture’. These antelope seem to mirror this posture with their short front legs, thick hind legs and elongated bodies. This leads us to conclude that these antelope are likely to be ritual specialists or shamans who have taken on the potency of the hartebeest. There are no obvious hartebeest associated with the figures in the Waterberg Posture at Maria 1. There are some antelope, but they are too faded to make out the species.

Figure 1: A group of seven figures in the Waterberg Posture from another site in the Waterberg.

The Rock Art of Herders

The panel on the left-hand side of the shelter is covered in finger dots as well as some very faded geometric images. The pigment is white. These simple, but patterned rock markings are characteristic of herder paintings. To the left of this panel is a panel containing a painting of a herder and fat-tailed sheep (discussed above; Plate 1). The direct juxtaposition of herder art with San images of sheep and a herder were probably intentional. One wonders which set of artists made the first mark. Either the San depicted the sheep and this caused the herders to place their mark on the adjacent panel, or the San responded to the presence of the herder art by painting a panel of sheep. In either case the one set of paintings is a directly connected reaction by one group to the presence of the other. This is an exciting and important find. Only one other site is known with a similar scenario.

Herder art is a newly discovered art tradition in this area. Many aspects of it are still under active research. At this stage there is as much that we do not know about the art as we do. Preliminary indicators imply that this was an art of initiation. Many herder paintings, like these, are found in close proximity to water.

The Rock Art of the Northern Sotho farmers

The white paintings on the right-hand side of the shelter belong to an early phase of Northern Sotho rock art (see plate 4). The images are made by the application of white clay to the rock face. Maria 1 has many of these images, some in a fine state of preservation. Northern Sotho art is comparatively rare in the Waterberg, by comparison to the San art. Swebeswebe is unusually fortunate to have well-preserved Northern Sotho rock art.

Plate 4: Right-hand panel in the shelter Maria 1. As is typical of this tradition the images are executes by finger and in white. These images are associated with the secluded retreats of traditional initiation schools. Sites such as this were probably used early in this millennium up until around 1850 AD.

This type of Northern Sotho rock art was made as part of traditional initiation practices. The valley in which the shelter occurs is typical of the kind of secluded retreat chosen for initiation schools. The images were probably made as part of the instruction process of the initiation ceremony, each design acting as mnemonic devices to help the young initiates remember to the key teachings of the ceremony. Many Northern Sotho art sites are positioned very close to perennial (or near perennial) streams, just as Maria 1 is. This leads us to think that they may be connected particularly to the time and process of the circumcision section of the ceremony.

The crude manner of depiction at times makes subject recognition difficult in Northern Sotho art (even for the specialist!). At this site the bulk of the paintings seem to depict non-diagnostic quadrupeds, probably antelope, although some are redily identifiable as giraffe. The choice of giraffe is not surprising as this is the subject chosen in all earlier Northern Sotho art. Each animal carried an instructive message as a symbol for the initiate. Some of this animal symbolism is still used in initiation ceremonies today. The particulars of the symbolism are quite localised. One can also see that this was true in the past, from the paintings. The Northern Sotho paintings at Maria 1 are quite different from images found further south in the Waterberg, equally they are quite different from the images found in the hills north of the Waterberg. The closest parallels are found at a site near Elisras. It is expected that more work in the area between Elisras and Maria 1 will through up more of this local type of art.

Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

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