Rock Art

Brandberg and the White Lady

The Brandberg Mountain is 2 573 metres above sea level making it Namibia’s highest point. It derives its name from the glowing colours it reflects during sunsets. The main attraction is the White Lady, one of more than 45 000 rock painting in the area. A 1-hour hike will take you to what is widely agreed to be a bushman painting at least 2 000 years old. In 1955 it was described as a “white lady’’ by Henri Breuil, who made the connection to paintings he saw in Greece. Hellenistic influences have been excluded in its origin but the name stuck. The name is also misleading as the painting is that of a male hunter.

The White Lady archaeological site is located near Uis on the Brandberg massif, close to the road between Khorixas to Hentie’s Bay.

The Brandberg itself hosts over 1 000 bushmen paintings found in various rock shelters and caves. The “White Lady Group” is in a cave known as Maack Shelter and portrays several human figures and oryx on a rock panel measuring about 5.5m x 1.5m. The White Lady is the most detailed human figure in the group, and measures about 39.5cm x 29cm. To reach the White Lady you will need to hike for about 45-60 minutes over rough terrain, along the gorge of the normally dry Tsisab River.

It is generally assumed that the painting shows some sort of ritual dance and that the White Lady is actually a medicine man. The figure has white legs and arms, which may suggest that his body was painted or that he was wearing some sort of decorative attachments on his legs and arms. He holds a bow in one hand and perhaps a goblet in the other. Because of the bow and the oryx, the painting has also been interpreted as being a hunting scene. Apart from the shaman/lady, the other human figures have less detail, and are mostly completely black or completely white. One of the oryx has human legs. The painting was probably made of ochre, charcoal, manganese, hematite, with blood serum, egg white and casein used as binding agents.

The painting has undergone severe damage since it was first “discovered” in the early 20th century. For a few decades, tourists used to pour water on the painting to make the colours more visible in their pictures, thus causing the painting to fade rather quickly. The site is now a protected heritage site of Namibia, and may only be visited when accompanied by local, official guides. Bags and bottles are NOT allowed at the far end of the trail, for a better protection of the paintings.

Thanks to many tourists’ protests, the metal wire netting covering the site has been replaced by only two metal bars, providing a much better view.

Rock Art of the Brandberg

The Location

Namibia’s highest mountain (2 573m) is cut by about 20 gorges that drain from the mountain. The Khoegowab name as well as the European name mean “the burning mountain” since the granite of which the mountain mostly consists of may turn glowing red in the setting sun.

Climate and Ecology

The region receives about 100 mm precipitation per year which must be considered as desert climate. Yet vegetation in the mountain is much richer than this figure would suggest, partly due to the good retention of the unpredictable rainfalls by the rocky surface.

The Pictures

There are about 50 000 pictures in roughly 1 000 rock art sites, mainly between 2 000 and 4 000 years old. The motifs show mainly humans (70%) and animals (20% and only large game) and 10% other. Colours were derived from minerals, mainly haematite and ochre for red and yellow, and a variety of sources for black and white.

Meaning of the Art

Paintings were an important part of ritual and religious behaviour, also used in healing and social management. Moreover, it played a crucial role in memorizing and communicating the entire cultural knowledge (the encyclopaedic knowledge) from one generation to the next.

Pictures of humans deal with the ideals of ‘community, equality and mobility’ in which the model of a neutral person’, without status, rank, age and even sex, was emphasised (80% of human figures are painted this way). Less important, it seemed to differentiate between men and women but if this distinction turns up, men are rather linked to the material cultural goods. Women, by contrast, are shown in communication, linked to communal rites and ceremonies. A small number of pictures also show elements that may be understood as experiences from altered states of consciousness, such as trance experiences of shamans who were able to heal in this state of consciousness.

Pictures of animals show the profound ecological knowledge and were painted to invoke or celebrate the intactness of a rich environment. In some pictures giraffes seem to indicate a link to rain. Non-natural beings, such as mixed human-animal figures or mixed animals, are rare, only the eared serpent is a recurrent motif.

The Sites

Pictures are found under overhangs or on vertical walls. Normally at a rock art site one can also find other archaeological objects (stone tools, ostrich eggshell beads, pottery) since ordinary life took place in these sites. Sites vary – some with only one figure, others with more than 1 000. The functions of the sites also differ, from simple waymarks to large aggregation camps. Others were living sites and ritual sites or hidden places for initiations. Most sites in the mountain are found at between 1 800 and 2 300m.

The Painters

They were hunter-gatherers living in small groups of around 20 people who would seldom stay in one place for more than three weeks. Their social organisation was based on strict equality without formal political power. Property was restricted to that which one could carry alone. Cultural variety must have been enormous in prehistory as the family of the Khoisan languages, indigenous to southern Africa, is extremely rich and diverse. The San hunter-gatherers living in southern Africa until modern times are the heirs of the prehistoric inhabitants of the sub-continent, however, determining an ethnic continuity until today would belittle historical and cultural dynamics.

Research

First reports of rock art at the Daureb (Brandberg) were published in 1910 and in 1918 Reinhold Maack discovered the so-called White Lady. The famous Abbé Breuil and E.R.Scherz conducted rock art research at the mountain, but it was Harald Pager (assisted by locals from Uis) who endeavoured to fully record the mountain’s art. Pager’s untimely death prevented him from accomplishing this goal, but he had founded the basis for a publication of six sizeable volumes that were edited between 1989 and 2006 by the Heinrich-Barth-Institut, titled The Rock Paintings of the Upper Brandberg  .

 

Tilman Lenssen-Erz, 2010