Bushmen Paintings

Report on the Bushmen rock paintings of Tohlong, Malealea

by Sven Ouzman – Rock Art Department

Tohlong I

This is a multi-component, cross-temporal site characterised by many superimpositions. The paintings are executed in the classic manner – that is, they have muted hues and a rounded, three-dimensional appearance. This is the tradition that extends back 27 000 years, though the paintings we see in shelters today will be considerably younger. The imagery is painted in monochrome, bichrome, polychrome and shaded polychrome techniques.
The eland (Taurotragus oryx) are present in up to 11 individual paintings. The eland represents the most spiritually potent animal to Bushman people. The eland, it was believed, was an animal of immense supernatural potency. This supernatural potency – what the !King San call n/um, is present in fat. The more the fat – and the eland has much fat; interestingly it is the male eland and not the female, that has the most fat.
Tohlong 1 is notable for the many finely detailed depictions of rhebuck (Pelea capreolus); an animal important to Bushmen in that its social organisation – it aggregates in large family groups as well as disperses in smaller groups, is a natural analogue for Bushman social organisation.
The site is also notable for the three human figures that utilise natural nodule hollows for heads – something found at very, very few sites.
There are at least 3 felines depicted and these symbolise the malevolent, anti-social forces, often personified by evil medicine people or shamans. The entire 3m x 1,4 m panel has strong shamanistic referents, for example, the human figures with dancing sticks – used when the n/um or supernatural potency boiled so painfully in the stomachs of the trance-dancers that they had to bend over and support their weight on dancing sticks.

Tohlong II (Upside-down eland shelter)

This shelter has imagery depicted in quite bright pigments and is characteristic of sites painted within the last 400 years or so. The site does not seem to have had many episodes of painting, but what it does have, is a strong thematic unity.
The 2m x 0,7m main panel of the 14 hunters and 6 eland is in a good state of preservation. The hunt is unlikely to be a literal hunt as archaeologically we find mismatch between excavated animal remains from shelters – dassie, rhebuck, grysbok and so on. Those found painted, large antelope, were seldom eaten.
For the Bushmen, the eland was spiritually their most important animal – much like the lamb is in Christianity. Eland were ambiguous animals because the male had more fat than the female – the opposite to all other animals and humans. It was believed that fat contained supernatural potency and thus the fatter the animal, the more potent it was. When eland were killed – they were hunted on occasion – this supernatural potency was released and people could dance well and heal people. In order to heal, however, you had to become the animal of potency. This altered state of consciousness experience meant people felt themselves transform into animals and the part-human, part-animal small black creatures painted at Tohlong II are almost certainly these therianthropes or part-animal human beings. The detail on the three-part arrows is also noteworthy.

Tohlong III (Daddy long-legs shelter)

This shelter, just north of Tohlong I has a most remarkable running human figure; the legs of this figure are 1,2m long. Also, this figure is infibulated – it has a bar across its penis. This was not a real practice but relates to a hunting belief wherein the new hunter was not allowed to follow the first large buck he shot. He had to stay in camp while other hunters tracked his prey. During this time it was believed that the hunter and prey shared a strong bond and that actions on the part of one would affect actions on the part of the other. Thus, while the poison from the Bushman’s arrow coursed through the animal’s body, the hunter could not urinate, lest the prey do so too and expel the poison from its body.
This shelter also has 7 cyprinid fish painted, metaphor for underwater or being in trance. Though all the figures in this shelter appear as monochrome red, each would have had various white painted bits, but the white has since faded.

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