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Reviewed by:
  • Alan Barnard
Patricia Vinnicombe, People of the Eland: rock paintings of the Drakensberg Bushmen as a reflection of their life and thought. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press (pb R650, $80–978 1 86814 497 6). 2009, 384 pp.
Peter Mitchell and Benjamin Smith (eds), The Eland's People: new perspectives in the rock art of the Maloti-Drakensberg Bushmen. Essays in memory of Patricia Vinnicombe. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press (pb R400, $60–978 1 86814 498 3). 2009, 216 pp.

Pat Vinnicombe's People of the Eland was one of the rarest of many rare and expensive books on southern African rock art. First published in 1976, it was issued in only 1,000 numbered copies. By the early 2000s, even students at the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand were forbidden access, because it was deemed too rare for students to examine. The original plates had been lost, so it was impossible to reprint it. Vinnicombe began to explore the possibility of a new edition in 2002, but sadly she died in 2003, before she could start work on the project. Finally, the book has been reissued, with new pagination, new formatting, and new colour reproductions of the rock art and other photographic material. Vinnicombe's text remains the same, but the companion volume edited by Peter Mitchell and Ben Smith fills in with extra material and especially the fresh interpretations of Maloti-Drakensberg rock art that have emerged since the 1970s.

Not only was People of the Eland one of the rarest of books on rock art, it was also one of the most influential. One way it became influential was in its attempt to relate rock art to narrative, including both historical accounts from the nineteenth century, when artists were painting scenes of cattle and of conquest, and mythological accounts. The latter were mainly from the myths of the/Xam Bushmen of the Northern Cape, whose folklore was wonderfully recorded by Wilhelm Bleek in the early 1870s and by his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd in the 1870s and 1880s. Another way Vinnicombe's book was influential was in its use of statistical analysis. It may seem obvious today, but the Bushman painters of the past were not merely recording what they saw. Otherwise, they would have been painting small antelope in proliferation, or lots of ordinary activities like food gathering, fire tending and so on. What is actually depicted in rock art to a much greater extent is the symbolically and ritually important eland, as well as ritual activity itself. Eland account for 43 per cent of the paintings, while smaller antelope account for only 18 percent. Although Vinnicombe had published on this before 1976, her book-length treatment brought her argument to a culmination and with superb illustration, both textual and visual. People of the Eland and Vinnicombe's earlier writings paved the way for subsequent work by David Lewis-Williams and others that focuses on relations between myth, ritual and art. It was among the first publications to argue that Bushmen do not particularly paint what they eat, and it did so with spectacular illustrations, supportive statistics and sound reasoning. What is more, Vinnicombe managed to move well beyond both the statistics and description of images and techniques to give her account vibrancy, with allusions to comparative ethnographic, historical and mythological material, as well as comments on anthropological theory and previous works on rock art. It is wonderful to have it available once again, so well produced and at an affordable price.

The Eland's People is equally splendid in its own way. There are ten chapters. The first, by the editors, presents an introduction to the volume, and the [End Page 663] second, by David Lewis-Williams, a memoir of Vinnicombe's life. The third, by Lynn Meskell, offers an interpretation of People of the Eland and rock art more generally in social context. For me, Chapter 4 is the most interesting. In it Nessa Leibhammer explores the phenomenological differences between rock art copies and the originals. Like other chapters in the book, this one is well illustrated, as indeed it needs to be. Photography is not neutral...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-0184
Print ISSN
0001-9720
Pages
pp. 663-664
Launched on MUSE
2010-11-14
Open Access
No
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