A bushman pictograph, high in the Brandberg Mountains of Namibia.
(Click images to view larger)
On what was almost certainly a bright and warm Namibian morning two thousand years ago, give or take a few decades, a small group of Bushmen hunters left camp and headed out across the plains of southern Africa in what is now called Damaraland, Namibia, bows in hand, to find something to eat. Tall golden grass brushed against their legs as they walked, and their bare feet left temporary impressions in the sand. It may have been even drier then than it is now, but if you lived in the desert, you knew where to find water and you knew where to find animals to eat. Kudus, oryx, and springboks were plentiful, and, if you were particularly ambitious (reckless?), you might even try to bring down an elephant with your puny little bow.
Some animals knew how to find you, too. Maybe you were higher up the food chain than your ancestors, and your descendants would continue the ascent, finding clever ways to hunt and protect themselves, but you could still get eaten if you weren’t careful, and sometimes even if you were. Still, it was a nice morning to be out hunting with old friends, sharing stories under the bright desert sun.
That very same morning, a lioness waited in the tall grass for food to wander into her range. She watched for much of the same prey as the Bushmen—small to medium sized ungulates for the most part. Unlike the cocky Bushman, she knew better than to try to jump an elephant by herself, and she also knew that the Bushmen themselves could be either prey or predator, depending on circumstances. As the small group of Bushmen hunters came into range, her ears perked up and her tail twitched back and forth involuntarily. Her focus became absolute.
Two thousand years later, in May of 2014, on another bright and warm Namibian morning, I stood in front of a large granite boulder in the Brandberg Mountains, high above Damaraland, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the rock art before me. The red ochre paint on light orange rock depicted a Bushman, fully panicked, running for his life, the lioness close on his heels. His penis is fairly large in the picture (cultural vanity?), but his scrotum is nowhere to be seen; undoubtedly his balls had withdrawn deep into his abdomen for safe keeping. He had the presence of mind to try to protect the rest of himself as well, and in the painting he strains desperately to look over his shoulder, mouth open in horror, preparing to shoot an arrow back at the lioness even as he runs full speed into the fog of time.
We’ll never know how the story ends, but the humor suggests that it resolved well for the Bushman and perhaps not so well for the lioness. Or maybe not. Maybe Bushmen had a better sense of humor about carnivorous death than we do.
There are lots of reasons for making art, and scholars speculate at length about the meanings of prehistoric rock art. In the Brandberg, there are thousands of rock art sites, and archaeologists like Harald Pager, the German who collaborated with Angula, my Namibian guide on this recent trip to the Brandberg, have made careers of documenting and interpreting it. Much of the art was more serious or ritualistic than the image of the hunted hunter. With great skill, Bushmen painted images of African mammals, snakes and lizards, and other Bushmen, alone and in groups, men and women. Their work is dynamic, elegant, and beautiful, and I feel privileged to have seen some of it, guided by the man who discovered many sites.
The quirky filmmaker, Werner Herzog, explored 32,000-year-old art in his documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France. In an interview, Tom Keogh of the Seattle Times asked Herzog what it was like to stand before the charcoal drawings, deep in the darkness of the cave. “It’s just an overwhelming feeling of awe. You sense somehow this is the origin of the modern human soul; this is the origin of art.”
These days, most of us are hyper-connected to our circles of friends, obsessively informed about local and national politics, and at least aware of important global events. We are brilliant at connecting across space, and we like to brag: The world is small (!!).
We brag less, though, about the passage of time, and most of us, without thinking about it very much, are more ephemeral than our grandparents, who left us boxes of meticulously written cursive letters describing their lives and black and white photographic prints. We leave our grandchildren digital files in MS Outlook format and jpeg images stored on hard drives.
Two thousand years ago, high in an isolated mountain range in the Namib Desert, a Bushman left a picture of his panicked friend being chased by a lioness. He committed his memory of that sunny morning to stone, format be damned, and gained a measure of immortality.
Angula near the top of Amis Canyon. He originally discovered many of these rock art sites while working with German archaeologist, Harald Pager, who died in 1985. Angula is still guiding (with his son Thomas), almost 30 years later, and he knows the Brandberg like nobody else.
A less traumatic hunt. Pictograph in Gaasep Canyon (spelling different in different sources).
Giraffe with Bushmen. In cave I call the Wave Cave because it resembles a breaking wave of granite.
A typical rock shelter. Pictographs here are on the right-hand wall.
A Bushman carrying arrows and a bow.
Pictographs in the Waterfall Cave, named for the seep dripping off the lip of the cave.
Elaborate pictographs in the Snake Cave, one of the premier sites in the Brandberg. It's names for a big pictograph of a "eared snake" on the outside of the cave.
Snake Cave pictographs.
Unusual pictographs in the Snake Cave. I have no idea what they represent, but they are different than any others that I saw on the trip.
The Snake Cave.
Pictograph with rock damage, probably natural. Unlike in the U.S., I saw no obvious vandalism or graffiti at these sites, perhaps partly because they are difficult to access.
What could go wrong? Shooting an arrow at an elephant.
Thomas, son of Angula, at the Giant Man Cave, named for the obvious pictograph.
Giraffe pictographs in the Giant Man Cave.
Humans and giraffes in the Giant Man Cave.
Human figures in the Giant Man Cave.
Giant Man Cave.
Intricate running bowmen. Notice the strange arrowheads, which seem two-pronged. I saw this in a lot of pictographs, even though arrowheads found here are pointy like they are in most places.
The spectacular cave at the top of the Amis Gorge. We hung out in this wonderful spot for a couple of hours during the heat of the day.
Pictographs in the Amis Cave.
An "eared snake" and other animals in the Amis Cave.
Giraffes. Amis Cave.
The view from the Amis Cave at the top of the Amis Gorge, our descent route out of the Brandberg.
Rock art in the upper reaches of the Amis Gorge.
Similar events, different weapons, 2000 years apart. Brandberg pictograph on left with Robert Capa photograph of the Spanish Civil War.