History Recorded on Rocks

Pictures define people. As much as they tell stories about what they portray, they also reveal a lot about the people that created them. Historians are especially fond of pictures. In the Kruger National Park (KNP) a surprising number of ancient rock art sites have been found scattered throughout the park and adjacent areas.

To date, over 400 rock art sites have been recorded in the lowveld region, the majority located in the overhangs and shallow caves south of the Sabie River.

"We are skirting the tip of an ice berg," says Conraad de Rosner, a team member involved in the most recent study and recording of Kruger's rock art.

Before joining the Mdluli consession in the Numbi Gate region, Conraad was the ranger for the Mthethamusha Game Reserve, a 10km by 15km area bordering the south western corner of Kruger. Here he recorded more than 250 rock art sites over 13 years. In six months working at Jock Safari concession 27 sites were located.

The most recent rock art recording project was initiated and sponsored by the Anglo American chairman's fund. In about 40 full days, spent intermittently over two and a half years in the field, Conraad, former Kruger section ranger Mike English and field ranger Aaron Nkuna meticulously revisited and recorded 120 of the known sites locating 60 previously unknown rock art sites.

Other unknown archaeological sites were also recorded throughout the park. While the highest concentration of rock art sites are found in the southern section, the granite boulder outcrops in the central region have revealed a significant number of new sites. Conraad also suspects there are "far more sites to be found in the northern and southern areas respectively."

Collecting the data requires painstaking attention to detail and the team "soon developed an eye for possible unrecorded sites." Sites were located, GPS coordinates recorded, site record forms filled in and selected panels were traced. All relevant information was documented.

Glimpse into the Past

These images give us a glimpse into the past. They are frozen panels depicting the natural environment and the things that shaped that environment from up to 10 000 years ago." Having a special interest in the interpretation of the art, Conraad, although in agreement as to the spiritual significance of the art, believes that there are also narrative scenes often intermingled which can be described from a naturalist point of view. He appreciates both the narrative and spiritual significance of the art.

The KNP's status over the last century has protected the integrity of most sites, keeping it clear from human interference and preserving the area in much the same state as it was a century earlier. Many of the painted rock shelters are found in the lower-lying areas and close to present permanent and temporary water sources. Sites found in the higher-lying areas often also show sign of Iron- Age Nguni people having also lived there. Much of the art is painted in red ochre, whilst other sites depict bi- and poly-chrome figures - two or more colours.

Red ochre is readily found in the lowveld and was used as one of the paint's main ingredients. Old ochre mines have been found and some are located near Letaba Camp and Nwanetsi picnic area, as well as on a farm outside the park, near Malelane. While animals feature most prominently in the art, hunting scenes are rare.

There are also a few battle scenes similar to those found in KwaZulu-Natal. More than 20 animal species are depicted on the rock walls in Kruger, with giraffe, roan antelope, sable antelope, reedbuck, kudu, impala and eland the more frequently featured.

Other species include white and black rhino, waterbuck, klipspringer, ostrich, zebra, one lion, wild dog, a hyena and mountain reedbuck. To date no domestic animals or men on horse-back have been identified in any of the painted panels suggesting that the art is of an older period. Two sites, one north of Skukuza and one near Pafuri show elephant, while one near Pafuri shows an antbear. Having a better understanding of past animal populations and movements provides conservationists with a useful guideline to determine present day specie translocations in Kruger.

The hunter-gatherer people depicted in the paintings are mostly in red ochre whilst a few are in black, beige and/or white. This does not describe the races of the people and they are shown mostly from a side view. Almost all the human figures show the typical features of the San hunter-gatherer people, while a couple of sites show figures reminiscent of the Nguni people from east Africa. This was not the first study of Kruger's stone art. As early as 1912, Kruger's first warden, colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton recorded his interest in the park's rock art in his diary.

Nevertheless, it was only in 1978 when the then warden of the park, Dr U de V Pienaar commissioned a full survey of the known painted sites, of which there were only eight at the time. Pretoria-based professor Murray Schoonraad conducted the survey with the assistance of Stolsnek section ranger, Mike English. Mike was soon hooked and his enthusiasm, interest and passion saw him add more than a hundred sites to the list in the next 10 years. Conraad says much more research is needed to record all Kruger's unknown sites.

He also believes Kruger guests should have the opportunity to visit some of these sites. Currently guests can do so by going on a walking trail in the southern region Bushman trails and Wolhuter trails areas with experienced guides. "It is of great importance that the guides are suitably trained. SANParks is identifying sites suitable for visitation and site management plans are being drawn up."

By Lynette Strauss

Learn more about Ancient Kruger Park History

Kruger National Park - South African Safari