Art from the dawn of time


Graham Kennedy, General Manager of Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat, reveals the secrets of the world’s earliest works of art and gives a fascinating insight into their meaning.


03rd March 2010

Red Carnation Hotels
Graham Kennedy

Graham Kennedy

A funny thing always happens to me on the way to Bushmans Kloof.  It’s only 270 kilometres from Cape Town, but by the time I arrive I feel very small.  The dramatic landscape of wind-sculpted rocks and wide open bush, with the huge sky overhead, reminds me just how insignificant I am – a mere speck, not just in space, but in time.  It’s a hugely liberating sensation, because it takes me out of myself, to a place where I can’t help but feel connected to the powerful rhythms of nature and the limitless expanse of the universe. 

This feeling is intensified whenever I visit one of the ancient rock art sites on the reserve – of which there are more than 130.  Merely getting there, as you follow your guide along the ancient trails, heightens your awareness of the natural surroundings.  But the images themselves have an awe inspiring power of their own.

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Fallen Rock Shelter

For a start, many are startlingly graphic – the animals and the shapes are not only incredibly lifelike but sinuously beautiful.  Then the words of your guide start to sink in and a fascinating story unfolds.  The pictures were almost certainly first created thousands of years ago.  The San people (often referred to as Bushmen) who painted them have the longest continuous art tradition in the world and their earliest known rock paintings are approximately 27,000 years old – about six times older than the pyramids! 

Those paintings, however, are relatively recent in terms of the San peoples themselves.  It’s believed that they were the very first humans to roam the earth.  Research suggests that they have unique genetic traces that are not to be found in any other branches of the human tree – they are at the very root and can possibly be traced back a hundred and twenty million years!  These paintings therefore represent the cultural and spiritual legacy of these earliest peoples, and give us a direct insight into the lives and beliefs of our very first forebears. 

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San Rock Art

We’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to protect these sites, recently awarded South African Natural Heritage Status. The Bushmans Kloof Heritage Centre was opened in 2004, with a permanent exhibition of artefacts sourced by the late anthropologist, Jalmar Rudner.   In July 2005 Bushmans Kloof also appointed Siyakha Mguni, a dedicated and knowledgeable Rock Art Archaeologist, to the position of Resident Archaeologist and Curator. 

What else can the experienced guides tell you?  Years of research suggest that these images not only depict scenes from daily life but also reveal their deepest spiritual belief.  Many scenes relate to what has been termed “The Great Dance”, their most important ritual.  In this dance they attained a trance-like state where they believed they could harness and share a spiritual power for the purposes of healing, hunting and making rain.

A good example of this at Bushmans Kloof is the site at Bleeding Nose Shelter. This was probably a ceremonial site, and subjects include eland, small antelope, rare paintings of birds and a whole variety of humans standing, dancing and shooting with bows. This site takes its name from the image of a man in the shamanistic trance state, with blood pouring from his nose, joined to his companions by mystical lines of power.

I’d love to tell you more but the only way to truly appreciate the strange magnetic power of these images is to see them for yourself.   With our expert guides you’ll discover their unique beauty and mystery, hear the stories, connect with the ancient messages in the rock, plus come face to face with a living portrayal of stone-age culture that reveals our own origins in Africa.