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The fascination of San rock art

This is a fascination and passion I developed as a small girl growing up in Bulawayo and visiting the Matobo National Park practically every weekend, to hike, climb, explore, enjoy the wildlife, bird watch, look for interesting rocks, and visit many amazing San rock painting sites.

The Matobo hills are absolutely full of these paintings, some of them, marked on the ordnance survey maps, some of them not even documented, some, within easy access of roads, well-known and oft visited. With a child’s vivid imagination, I was transported by these many paintings that I visited, into the world of the San, and would imagine myself living among them, and dream of a wandering life in these hills that I adored, living close to the wildlife that I already loved so much.

The accuracy and beauty of many of the paintings of the animals with which the San lived side by side in days so long gone, speaks to their full appreciation of what nature provided for their welfare and enjoyment.  Like other tribes of early people living a nomadic lifestyle off the land, it would perhaps be more accurate to have named them “gatherer-hunters”, not the other way around, for their diet consisted of daily intakes of vegetarian fare in the form of fruits, roots, berries, nuts, mostly gathered by the women, and only occasional feasts of meat following a hunt.

This must in fact have been a pretty healthy diet, one which in modern times has led to the scripting of such books as The Stone Age Health Programme and The Primal Blueprint which advocate for a return to eating habits much like these early human ancestors, balanced as it was, with the very wide variety of foods ingested, in season, and containing plenty of roughage to aid the digestive tract and lots of natural goodness in the form of vitamins and minerals! Our modern diet by comparison, is far too refined, our food often stripped of all this goodness by modern processing.

Their paintings also demonstrate that given an availability of enough leisure time, which indeed the San did enjoy, human beings will invariably feel the need to create art, and that art does indeed reflect life!  While in the more mythical, spiritual depictions found at rock art sites, it’s also abundantly clear that it has always been part of the human condition to question where we came from, why we are here, and what happens after we die.

The San paintings of Zimbabwe have been studied by various scholarly people and many theories have been posited as to what exactly some of the more mysterious and outlandish of paintings depict.  But that is what these are — theories.  We cannot ask the people who painted them exactly what inspired them or what their beliefs at the time were. Some paintings are believed to date back at least as far as 30 000 years, and onwards from then, right up to around 2 000 years old, and even this is just theory, because carbon dating of these paintings is not in fact possible.

What is clear, though, is that they painted about their everyday lives and their spiritual beliefs, whatever those were.  Many, many paintings are of wildlife and it’s clear they held these animals in reverence — and of course, they also hunted some for meat, and paintings depict that too.  Others depict day to day life and while there are many paintings of men hunting, and a few of them fighting battles, there are also those that show women’s lives.

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