x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

National pride rooted in rock art

South Africa taps Mexican expertise on the preservation and promotion of prehistoric paintings.

Rock art in South Africa is smaller and more detailed than that found in Mexico, such as this painting in Cueva Boca de San Julio.
Rock art in South Africa is smaller and more detailed than that found in Mexico, such as this painting in Cueva Boca de San Julio.

JOHANNESBURG // If a nation's culture and its relics are essential to its identity, then in the case of South Africa, rock art is its foundation. The oldest evidence of humanity's artistic instincts was discovered in the Blombos cave in the Western Cape province, a piece of ochre marked with fine lines and estimated to be 100,000 years old. At the centre of the country's coat of arms, adopted in 2000, is a depiction of two men clasping hands in friendship, taken from the Linton Stone, a cave painting now in the South African Museum in Cape Town.

The country is dotted with thousands of rock art sites, as is the surrounding region, with its oldest known paintings, dating from 27,000 years ago, found in the Apollo 11 site in Namibia. The most recent rock paintings are in South Africa's Drakensberg mountains, depicting groups of red-coated British soldiers invading less than 150 years ago. The motto on the coat of arms is in /Xam, the language of the Khoisan people whose ancestors were responsible for the pictures. Now spoken by only a few inhabitants of the Northern Cape and rapidly dying out, it was described by the former president Thabo Mbeki as "our Latin".

"It's a common identity for all of us now," said Graham Dominy, chief director of South Africa's national archives. "It goes back thousands of years and goes up to the late 19th century." Mr Dominy was speaking at the opening of an international rock art seminar at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, bringing together specialists from across southern Africa with their counterparts from Mexico.

The meeting is intended to share the two countries' strengths in the field, with Mexican expertise in management and conservation, particularly graffiti cleaning, complementing southern African experience in community involvement and rock art interpretation. "Rock art is one of the most fundamental forms of human expression," he said. "It tracks the expansion of [our] human ancestors north through Africa ... to the Sahel.

"It crosses the Middle East, it crosses the Mediterranean and the Europeans are very proud of the sites in the Pyrenees, and it crosses the oceans to the Americas. The Americas were the last continents to be colonised by humans, as the species completed its millennia-long journey out of Africa, through Europe and Asia to cross the Bering Straits and then travel south from Alaska. Homo sapiens is believed to have reached South America only around 11,000 years ago.

Nonetheless Mexico's cultural heritage is one of the finest in the world, including the ruins of great Aztec and Mayan civilisations, as well as a centuries-old colonial legacy. There was no such thing as a Mexican identity before colonisation, pointed out Joaquin Garcia-Barcena, director of paleontology at the country's National Insitute of Anthropology and History. It was made up of competing regions, and the concept of nationhood had largely been created since independence in 1821.

Among developing countries, Mexico has been at the forefront of preserving its cultural heritage, banning the export of archaeological items as early as the 1820s. Leslie Zubieta, a Mexican PhD student at Witwatersrand University who organised the seminar, said that while there are parallels and similarilities between the two countries' rock artefacts, there are also "a lot of differences" - Mexican paintings and carvings are much larger, sometimes three to four metres across and big enough to be seen "from the other side of the canyon".

By contrast the San paintings of southern Africa are much finer and more detailed. According to specialists in the field, rock art is part of the ritual and religion of the hunter-gatherers who created it, and Francis Thackeray, director of the Institute for Human Evolution, described the geometric patterns on the very earliest examples as a "neuro- physiological phenomenon". Shapes are among the most common images perceived in altered states of consciousness, he pointed out, with even some modern migraine sufferers seeing them. In early societies those who saw them would have considered them real, he said, and asked themselves, "What is it I'm seeing here? It might be God".

"What's exciting about this idea is it can occur in South Africa, Mexico, Aboriginal art in Australia," he said. "It relates more to the human brain rather than representation." sberger@thenational.ae