Human-Made Wonders: San Rock Art at Kamberg

“It is a privilege to be here, an honor to be in this place.” Selby, our guide to the San rock art at Game Pass Shelter in the Kamberg Nature Reserve said these words several times on our journey. We felt the same way.

School is over for the year, so Joe and I decided to explore the Kamberg Nature Reserve, part of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park UNESCO World Heritage Site, and site of the Game Pass Shelter San rock art.

To protect and preserve these ancient art works and important cultural artifacts, the painting site is fenced and locked and you need to be accompanied by a community guide to see them. We were happy to go with our guide, Selby, who lives in the nearby village. On the 2 mile hike to get up to the paintings, Selby told us about the area and advised that we keep a good pace in case the clouds gathering overhead brought rain. We stopped a few times along the way to enjoy the view.

We were heading to that mountain. You can see the overhangs that have helped protect the rock art for millennia.
There aren’t many trees in the area, but there were some blooming proteas near a stream we crossed.

After about an hour, we reached our destination. We were amazed by what we saw.

Part of the first scene at Game Pass Shelter

The images have been dated to about 4,000-6,000 years old. They were painted by San shamans as part of a ritual in which the shaman connected with the eland (the largest antelope in southern Africa), believed to have important spiritual powers which could be given to the shaman. Many elands are portrayed, as well as therianthropes—figures who are part-human, part-animal, that is, people who have metamorphosed into animals.

In this scene, the tail of dying eland is being grasped by the shaman. The powers of the eland are being transferred to the shaman.
The figure in the middle is the shaman who has received the eland’s powers. The shaman is bent over and has his arms flung out. On the right hand side is the same shaman who has now been transformed into the eland. Now he has horns and hooves and the white hairs that were on the eland now cover him.

There are several layers of pictures. Our guide explained that images were drawn on top of one another over several visits as a way to increase power or connect with power over time. The paintings don’t just record an event or tell a story; they’re meant to enable the connection between the person and the animal’s spirit. Scholars believe the rock art was made while the shamans were in a trance. Shamans would enter the spirit world to try to heal the sick, control the weather, or direct the movements of animals.

Another picture of the metamorphosed shaman
A picture of an eland facing forward
An eland we saw in Graaff-Reinet. A male eland can weigh between 900 and 2000 pounds.
Hunters running with their spears
This image shows a shaman wearing a karross (cloak made of an eland skin). The white dots show a belt that the shaman is wearing across his body.

Materials used in the paintings include red ochre, yellow ochre, bird dung, and eland blood. Eland fat, believed to be a source of the eland’s power, was rubbed on top of the painting and is one of the reasons the paintings are so well preserved.

Joe and Selby
Looking out from the painting site (which is to our left).

The San people were nomads who lived in the area before the arrival of European settlers. The San were killed and driven away by the settlers, although some assimilated with different people in the area. As the San traveled, they erased all trace of having been in an area, except these paintings, which have survived for so long and give a glimpse into their lives and beliefs.

5 thoughts on “Human-Made Wonders: San Rock Art at Kamberg

  1. Wow! What incredible pictures and story. Mankind’s story is so very long. Thank you for keeping up with us so faithfully. I love hearing about all you see and do. We are in Argentina and this tour will take us around Cape Horn. Love,
    Madeleine

    Liked by 1 person

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