Twyfelfontein - A Survey into the Relationship between Animal-Engravings & Cupules



At Twyfelfontein, the Bushman rock engravings are best understood not as 2-dimensional copies of 3-dimensional real animals that are copied onto a rock surface. Rather, the Bushmen believed that one of the places the Spirit World was located behind the rock. Thus, the act of engraving may be understood not as putting an image onto the rock, but bringing out a Spirit World animal from behind the rock. This is a radically different but critically important way in which to understand Bushman rock ‘art’.
Spoor imagery: Twyfelfontein is remarkable for the vast number and variety of animal tracks and human footprints (referred to as ‘spoor’) engraved at its many sites. Spoor is an archetypal human metaphor, simultaneously presenting two dominant concerns – identity and journey. A knowledgeable tracker can use spoor to precisely identify an animal – even to its sex and emotional state. Spoor also contains information about travelling animals: their number, speed, intended destination and so forth. The abundance and variety of real spoor in the surrounding landscape make it unlikely that these spoor were engraved in order to teach young hunters how to identify different animals or how to track. Rather, the engraved spoor (Figure 96) are exclusive and signify the physically and spiritually pre-eminent animals, such as large antelope, giraffe, rhino and such like. Where, for example, are the engravings of rock hyrax, small game, tortoises and other animals that would have also been around in Bushman times?
Why do so many of the spoor have extra digits (see for instance Figure 20) – even up to 8 toes? This site complex must have been an important spiritual and social locus that was visited and re-visited by many generations of Bushman. The nature of these visits is elevated to another level by the engraved spoor, which may be understood as part of a track, or pathway that continues directly into, behind the rock to the Spirit World. Given the extra-ordinariness of Bushman rock-art, these spoor rock-paintings are unlikely to be documenting the journey of ordinary animals travelling across an ordinary landscape. Rather, these spoor more likely mark out a pathway from the outer Ordinary World to the inner Spirit World. In this Spirit World nothing is as it seems and it is easy to lose one’s way. The spoor of the potent and protective animals of potency thus act as pathways that guide people safely through the Sacred landscape. Perhaps these spoor were conceptually linked to other rock-art spoor sites in the region; forming a route that people could follow as part of a quest. Such quests were an important part of Bushman life as they allowed people to renew relationships with special places, re-affirm their Bushman-ness and fulfil their duties as custodians of the land.
The rain animal: Another place at which World connected were at waterholes. The watercourse that runs down through the main Twyfelfontein Site Complex will, in and just after the rain, have large pools of water collecting at certain places. These places, especially Sites 10 and 11, are often marked with rock engravings of large animals, especially rhinoceros. The juxtapositioning of these large powerful animals with waterholes may have been a deliberate attempt to visually represent the Bushman belief in the rain-animal. In this belief, the rain is believed not to be a natural chain of events, but to exist as a strange animal. This animal was believed to live in deep pools of water. The rain-making ritual was, on the one hand, an actual event in which the whole San group was involved in the context of a medicine dance where people sang, clapped, danced, talked and contributed to the texture and ambience of the occasion. On the other hand, the genesis, capture and slaughter of the rain-animal was an hallucination which was believed to occur in the spirit world and was thus an event in which only the rain-shamans could participate. The rain-shamans would pacify and capture the rain which was perceived in zoomorphic terms as an animal which the /Xam called !khwa-ka xoro or ‘rain-animal’, though they knew that rain was really !khwa //ki or ‘rain-liquid’. The rain-animal was further perceived as either an irascible ‘rain-bull’ (!khwa gwai) characterised by thunder and lightning, and harmful to life, or as a more desirable ‘rain-cow’ (!khwa /aiti) which provided the soft, soaking rains that renewed the veld. The shamans had to confront, subdue, capture and fetter the rain-animal with a thong and bring it out of the waterhole it was believed to inhabit. Once again, leading the rain-animal was an ambiguous construction of the real and non-real, seen and unseen. For example, the /Xam word #xamma can mean ‘to lead out [the rain-animal]’, ‘work magic’ and ‘conjure’, terms which allude to the hallucinatory labours of the rain-shamans. These rain-shamans would lead or ride the rain-animal across the sky or take it to the top of a hill where they would slaughter it. The milk and blood of the rain-animal would mix to form rain, which would either fall from the sky or flow from the hilltop onto the surrounding plain. The non-real rain-making ritual was thus believed to cause real precipitation. Rock paintings that nineteenth century /Xam identified as rain-animals suggest that the rain-animal was thought to have a large body not unlike a hippopotamus and was often horned. Thus, in some cases, rhinos were believed to be a model of the rain-animal.
Dangerous felines: The Löwenplatte (Figure 97) is perhaps Twyfelfontein’s most famous engraving. Clearly, the lion depicted is not a normal one as its tail is impossibly long and ends in a 6-toed pug mark. Such ‘non-real’ visual elements were intended by the shaman-artists to alert the viewer to the extra-ordinary Spirit World importance of the imagery. In many Bushman societies, the feline was used as a metaphor and physical manifestation of evil influences and evil shamans. At several locations in the Twyfelfontein Valley, there are feline pug marks or spoor depicted in which the claws are shown – suggesting an aggressive and dangerous message (see for instance Figure 89, the “Springbockplatte”).
Enigmas: Twyfelfontein has so much imagery that it is not possible to understand it all and there are many images we do not yet understand. There are, for example, antelope-like animals that have impossibly long snouts. Similar such animals occur as rock engravings in the central interior of South Africa, indicating that there was a widespread Bushman belief about such animals. Also, how do the various engraved images, image clusters and sites relate to each other? Why at Twyfelfontein do we have 4 rare instances of abraded and polished engravings? How do the Bushman rock paintings and rock engravings relate to each other? Which are older and younger or are they of similar ages? And so the list goes on. Perhaps we must each find a rock-art enigma and make it a life’s work to unravel the meaning of that enigma.
Khoekhoen rock engravings and rock paintings
Until recently, it was not commonly recognised that the Khoekhoen herder peoples who moved into Southern Africa a little more than 2000 years ago also made rock-art. Recent research suggests, however, that these people formerly called ‘Khoi’ or ‘Hottentot’ also made rock engravings and rock paintings. These rock engravings and rock paintings differ from those made by the Bushmen in three ways.
First, the Khoekhoen rock-art is visually different, being dominated by apparently non-representational geometric imagery such as circles, internally divided circles, dots, rows of dots, lines, dumbbells, ‘starburst’ and sun-like motifs and so on. There is very little representational imagery – sometimes rudimentary animal and human figures and also handprints. This geometric imagery is not the same as the visual hallucinations known as ‘entoptic phenomena’ that are encountered in Bushman rock-art. Bushman entoptics – a small but critical component of Bushman art – are usually integrated into larger ‘compositions’ that have representational elements. In addition, these entoptics are made up of dominantly a different range of geometric imagery than is encountered in Khoekhoen geometrics.
Secondly, there is a difference in technique between Khoekhoen and Bushman rock-art. Khoekhoen rock engravings are typically made with a large, coarse peck mark while Bushman rock engravings tend to be pecked finer and with smaller, more controlled peck marks. Similarly, Khoekhoen rock paintings are made by means of large, finger-painted lines and dots while Bushman rock paintings tend to be very fine and made with brushes.
Thirdly, Khoekhoen rock-art sites tend to be distributed close to water sources – because they had to water their stock – while Bushman rock-art sites occur almost everywhere. The Khoekhoen also seemed to like more cave-like spaces that the Bushmen tended to ignore.  At places like Twyfelfontein, the two people and their rock-arts came together. They may even have lived together simultaneously and linguistic, genetic, archaeological and other evidence shows that these two groups of people had a great deal of interaction; hence today some people refer to the KhoiSan as though they are a single group.
The meaning of this Khoekhoen rock-art is not as yet clear, but it may relate to the desire to mark and display both a personal and a group identity. It may also be that elements of this Khoekhoen rock-art relate to initiation rituals and similar rites of passage.
‘Cupules’ are small, semi-hemispherical hollows about the dimensions of half a ping-pong ball and smaller, that have been engraved into the rock surface. Cupules are an unusual rock-art as they do not constitute obvious images but consist of small semi-hemispherical hollows, 20mm - 150mm in diameter and 10mm - 70mm deep, engraved on a rock support. Cupules most often occur in clusters of between approximately half a dozen to several dozen and are placed on horizontal, sloping and vertical surfaces. Cupules differ from grinding hollows, peck marks and pits in terms of appearance, distribution, size and do not appear to have been involved in utilitarian activities. Though visually ingenuous, cupules are articulated with a variety of ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ places and spaces in a complex nexus of cultural marks that seem to relate to Indigenous ideas of place and space. The structured nature and widespread distribution of cupules across Southern Africa suggest that cupules were a rock-art concerned with journeying and the marking of places by indigenous people, though it is not entirely sure who made them. Also, cupules seem to have extra-ordinary longevity and have been made by different cultures at different times. Thus some are ancient while others are very recent and the meaning of cupules is likely to be multiple.
A Survey into the Relationship between Animal-Engravings & Cupules
The Rock Art of Twyfelfontein
The Rock Art of Namibia
The African Rock Art Archive
Bradshaw Foundation
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