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Southern Drakensberg: Rock Art of the San People

Dr Aldo Berruti
Most visitors to the Southern Drakensberg are surprised to learn that the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Park was proclaimed as a World Heritage Site not only because it meets natural criteria defining its universal value, but because of two cultural criteria.
Secondly, the San people lived in the area for more than four millennia, leaving behind the legacy of rock art which throws much light on their way of life and their beliefs.
Firstly, the rock art of the San people 1  who formerly lived in the Drakensberg is the largest and most concentrated group of rock paintings in Africa south of the Sahara; outstanding both in quality and diversity of subject.
In fact, the park has more than 600 rock art sites, and it is now known that the San lived in the Drakensberg on and off for at least 25 000 years. The oldest paintings have been dated as nearly 3 000 years old. Sadly, the last of the San people disappeared from the southern Drakensberg around the 1870s.
The People of the Eland
Some of the San paintings are certainly exceptional works of art, the more remarkable because of the relatively crude nature of materials available to them. Whilst human figures make up the majority of images in number, it is often the pictures of the animals and the eland in particular that are most striking.
‘The People of the Eland’ is a term used to describe the San people who formerly lived here, because of the central role that these iconic animals are thought to have played in their lives, and the many images of eland they painted.
The interpretation of San paintings has evolved with time, and it is now accepted that paintings carry symbolic meanings and depth well beyond the recording of daily life.
Such interpretations have been documented by many authors, including Patricia Vinnicombe, a former local resident who grew up on a farm near Underberg, and who, fascinated by the rock art on her farm, devoted her life to their study. Her book ‘People of the Eland’2 remains one of the finest insights into the lives and culture of these vanished people.
Rock Art Guided Tour

Access to paintings in the Maloti-Drakensberg Park is now restricted to prevent damage to paintings through deliberate senseless vandalism and accidental ignorance. However, there are sites in the Underberg Himeville area in the Southern Drakensberg, where access is permitted in the company of trained rock art custodians.
One of the finest sites is the so-called ‘Marching Men’ site near the Sani valley, whilst there are also sites on private farms in this region. Further north, one of the finest group of paintings is accessible at Kamberg, where interpretation is provided.
For more information, contact Dr Aldo Berruti: Cell: 072 545 1753 Tel: 033 701 2311   Email: greywing@telkomsa.net.
1 Previously referred to as Bushman Paintings
2 Vinnicombe, Patricia. People of the Eland. Wits University Press, 1976