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San Rock Art

J. D. Lewis-Williams

Publication Year: 2013

San rock paintings, scattered over the range of southern Africa, are considered by many to be the very earliest examples of representational art. There are as many as 15,000 known rock art sites, created over the course of thousands of years up until the nineteenth century. There are possibly just as many still awaiting discovery.

Taking as his starting point the magnificent Linton panel in the Iziko-South African Museum in Cape Town, J. D. Lewis-Williams examines the artistic and cultural significance of rock art and how this art sheds light on how San image-makers conceived their world. It also details the European encounter with rock art as well as the contentious European interaction with the artists’ descendants, the contemporary San people.

Published by: Ohio University Press

Series: Ohio Short Histories of Africa

Cover, Title Page

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p. 1-1


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pp. 2-5


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pp. 5-7

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1. An ancient tradition in today’s South Africa

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pp. 7-27

Many South Africans are unaware that the central image in their country’s coat of arms derives from a San rock painting (Fig. 1). In 1994 South Africa moved out of the dark decades of apartheid and set out on a new democratic path. It was a time of renewal, and new symbols of unity had...

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2. Conflicting perspectives and traditions

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pp. 28-48

The initiation, efflorescence and demise of research perspectives are always situated in specific social circumstances. A history of such perspectives should therefore try to identify the social, political and personal forces that created conditions for their acceptance and, in many instances, eventual...

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3. Keys to the past

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pp. 49-63

As I have pointed out, the image that appears in the centre of South Africa’s coat of arms (Fig. 1) is merely a small part of the large, crowded Linton panel (Fig. 2). At first glance, we may think that these apparently jumbled images are all independent of one another. But that idea must be abandoned when we notice that...

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4. Threads of light

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pp. 64-84

The duplicated and reversed figure that now stands in the centre of the South African coat of arms is in the lower centre of the Linton panel. That position, of course, results from the way the slab was chiselled from the rock face. The whole panel was but part of a much larger panorama of paintings across the wall...

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5. The mind in the brain

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pp. 85-103

I begin this chapter with some varied accounts that Kalahari San shamans have given about the ‘threads of light’ they see during a trance dance or in dreams. These personal testimonies give a vivid idea of what San religious experience was, and still is, like. As with all components of San religion...

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6. Capturing the rain

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pp. 104-117

In 1874 Wilhelm Bleek wrote: ‘A Bushman painting will frequently help us to unearth a myth, legend, or fable, which otherwise would have been forgotten, and might have remained unrecorded.’ More than that, he found a two-way pattern of illumination and wrote that what he called San ‘mythology’ and copies of their...

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7. Making an image

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pp. 118-136

Today it is still unfortunately easy for those who do not know much about San religious beliefs and rituals to revert to Arbousset and Daumas’s view that San rock paintings were simply ‘innocent playthings’. For some, the very phrase ‘Bushman paintings’ is dismissive. Even if modern viewers...


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pp. 139-140


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pp. 141-151


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pp. 153-154


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pp. 155-157

E-ISBN-13: 9780821444580
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821420454

Page Count: 158
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Ohio Short Histories of Africa