Erindi San & Rock Petroglyph Conservation Project

The spiritual significance of the San rock art on Erindi makes the reserve a sacred landscape that tells us not only about the influence of the San on this area but also goes some way to explaining the course of human history here.

The variety of imagery represents a high point in humanity’s creative achievements, and the aesthetic and artistic value of the rock art is immeasurable. Archaeological evidence suggests that the area encompassing Erindi Private Game Reserve was occupied by many prehistoric cultures over a long period of time. The oldest of these are the San, who were responsible for all the rock art in the reserve.

The San, indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa, were (and are) hunter-gatherers, subsisting by hunting game and gathering plant foods. The presence of Later Stone Age stone tools and flakes suggest that many San groups have moved through the area during the last few thousand years. The lack of large rock shelters on the reserve suggests that they lived in temporary shelters made utilising available resources.

The rock art in Erindi Private Game Reserve consists of a vast number of exquisitely detailed engravings, or petroglyphs. The engravings are mostly found on boulders located on rocky outcrops, while the largest site is located above a riverbed. Animal figures are the dominant representation, with hundreds of individually engraved animals such as giraffe, elephant, eland, hyena, ostrich, kudu, rhinoceros, cattle-like bovines, lizards, buffalo, gemsbok, hartebeest and zebra, as well as spirit animals and indeterminable antelope. The engravings were made by finely hammering (or pecking) the surface of the rock, which allowed for great detail in animal representations, such as folds of skin, ears, eyes and even hairs.

Animals have symbolic associations in San cosmology, and the engraved animals at Erindi are imbued with potent supernatural power. All San groups believe in the existence of supernatural potency and special people who can control it. The Kalahari Ju/’hoansi call this potency n/om, a disseminated potency that is likened to electricity. When harnessed, it can be beneficial to the whole community, but out of control and in intense concentrations, it’s extremely dangerous.

N/om resides in the n/omk’’au (medicinal healer), in medicinal songs, in a girl entering puberty, and in animal fat – which may account for the prevalence of large animals depicted in the rock art at Erindi.

Giraffe dominate the animal imagery, most often as the majestic central figure on a boulder containing more than one image. This alludes to the importance of giraffe in San cosmology and their presence in large numbers in the Erindi region.

The San believe in a mythical animal, a rain bull or cow known as !khwa:-ka xoro in the /Xam language. It’s said that this dangerous animal must be lured out of the spirit world in order to make rain. The presence in the art of buffalo – the original animal referent to the rain bull – suggests that this landscape witnessed many rain-making ceremonies.

The depiction of buffalo in San rock art is extremely rare throughout southern Africa, so the mere presence of engraved buffalo at Erindi adds to the importance of this sacred landscape.

Another interesting animal representation is the sanga cattle. These domesticated indigenous southern African cattle originated in western Ethiopia and spread west and south. Although the timeline for their history is the subject of extensive debates, it is most likely that sanga cattle were brought to southern Africa by Khoekhoen herders around 1600 BP.

Their representation here suggests that the San had contact with cultural groups that entered southern Africa in more recent times.

The depiction of a woman’s fringed back apron suggests that important puberty ceremonies were performed in this area. The aprons were usually made from small antelope skins and contained the n/om of the animal used. Elaborately decorated with beads and seashells, the type of apron was an indicator of the wearer’s status and played an important part in initiation ceremonies.

A further indicator of this landscape’s sacred status is the presence of a very rare rock gong, freestanding boulders balanced on rocks that have a natural resonance, and which emit a harsh metallic sound when struck. When touched after being struck, the vibration reverberates through the body. These sound sand sensations are comparable to those experienced by a medicinal healer when he or she enters an altered state of consciousness.