Website Category: Rock-art and Pre-history
Area: 0.6 km2
Criteria: (iii) cultural tradition (v) interaction with the environment
Location and Values: Twyfelfontein is located close to a freshwater spring in a remote semi-arid area at the head of a valley in Damaraland, a region of north-central Namibia. The nearest small town, Khorixas, lies 80 km to the east. The world heritage site is small (less than 1 km2), but includes some remarkable galleries of rock engravings (pteroglyphs) depicting an extraordinary diversity of wild animals – rhino, elephant, giraffe, oryx, ostrich, flamingo, zebra and many more - and footprints. The engravings are often superimposed on one another, and are engraved on the massive rock faces of free-standing boulders in completely exposed positions. They were probably made over a period of 2,000 years by local San hunter-gatherer peoples, and represent an important aspect of San ritual and belief systems (see further details below).
Slideshow of Twyfelfontein (for description see below) :
Slideshow Description: The comprehensive slideshow (76 photos) starts with some general landscape views of the site, the valley and surrounding sandstone cliffs, with great chunks of rock broken away and lying where they fell. Many are sculpted by the wind into a variety of impressive forms, and some serve as a canvas for the age-old engavings that feature here. One of the rock engravings on a self-guided section of the trail is shown, then the derelict walls of a colonial farmstead which stands in the middle of the site. From here the tour follows the 'Lion Man' guided route and shows the variety of rock art panels that can be seen along this route. The most impressive single engraving depicts the 'Lion Man', a lion depicted with prey in its mouth and five toes on each foot and the tip of its tail (see below for explanation of its meaning and interpretation). Giraffe, rhino, various species of antelope and a few elephants are amongst the engravings, as well as numerous human and animal footprints. There are also noteworthy pictures of seals and flamingoes - which indicate that the artists knew these animals from far-away places. The main panels are viewed from specially-constructed steel viewing platforms, which provide an excellent viewing angle, ideal for photography. The slideshow then illustrates the main features of the 'Dancing kudu' guided trail, including the dancing kudu panel itself, as well as the only rock paintings found at Twfelfontein, under the overhanging Schneider shelter. Nearby, there is an extraordiunary natural sandstone 'sculpture' looking like a sabre-toothed cat pouncing on its prey. Following a few photos of the superb visitor interpretation centre, the slideshow moves to another location in the 'buffer zone' of the site, where the Twyfelfontein Country Lodge has been build behind the prominent 'Ceremony Rock' with its own rather special panel of engravings (featuring mainly giraffe, dancing ostrich and footprints). Sadly, a few modern items of graffiti appear here – illustrating one of the threats facing this invaluable heritage.
Google Earth View: To view satellite imagery of Twyfelfontein on Google Earth, click here. This opens a new window, so when you are finished, just close the Google Earth page and you will be straight back here to continue browsing.
UNDERSTANDING THE ARTISTS AND THEIR BELIEFS
(the following descriptions are adapted from material displayed in the superb visitor centre at Twyfelfontein):
Rock art played an important role in ritual practice among southern African hunter-gatherer communities. Painting and engraving traditions developed over the last 20,000 years into a highly sophisticated way of expressing complex beliefs about the supernatural world. Rock art was the preserve of medicine people, or shamans, and had two functions: as a means to enter the natural world and to record the shamans experiences in that world.
Travel to the spirit world. The shaman prepared to enter the realm of the spirits by achieving a state of trance or altered consciousness. This could be done by dancing to rhythmic clapping or chanting or hyperventilation, dehydration, sensory deprivation or intense concentration. There is no evidence that shamans used drugs or other artificial means to induce trance, although this is possible. The shaman carried out important tasks while in the natural realm, such as healing the sick, making rain and communicating with powerful spirit forces.
Geometric riddles. The shaman’s vision became disturbed at the start of trance, and he would ‘see’ patterned flashes of light. Produced in the brain, these flashes are also known as entoptic images or images ‘in the eye’. They are depicted in the seemingly abstract geometric images in the rock art. Meanders, dots, lines, grids, spirals and whorls resemble entoptic or inner-eye images recorded in neurophysiological experiments. Although entoptic images are similar for all people in the world, the associations formed in a state of trance are contextual. The shaman fuses his hallucinatory visions with images of animals and other potent spiritual symbols. It is likely that making the engravings helped to prepare the shaman for a state of trance. The repetitive chipping at the rock and the monotonous sound could have contributed to mental concentration.
Perilous journey. Entering into the stare of trance, the shaman would experience a variety of physical sensations: he might feel as if his legs are growing unnaturally long, or that he is rising from the ground. He would shiver and struggle to control his movements, sometimes collapsing on the ground with a gushing nose-bleed. This second stage of trance was known as the ‘little death’, the moment of entering the spirit realm.
Transformation. Following the death-like stage, the shaman would take on the form of a supernatural creature. This might be a familiar animal, such as a giraffe, elephant or lion, one that has special powers such as to heal or make rain. This ability to enter the supernatural world and return alive was a rare gift not possessed by everyone. Shamans were extraordinary men and women, who left an exceptional artistic legacy.
UNDERSTANDING THE SYMBOLISM OF THE IMAGES
The rock art at Twyfelfontein was produced during the dry season of the year, when the shortage of water and food forced people to congregate near the spring. This was a time of intense ritual activity. Rituals helped to strengthen the values and cohesion of the group: they were performed during initiation into adulthood, to heal the sick, to ensure successful hunting and to make rain. The ritual traditions represented in the rock art of Twyfelfontein saw their greatest flowering during the last 5000 years; a period of increasing aridity during which hunter-gatherer communities developed and perfected a wide range of economic survival strategies.
A clear feature of the rock art at Twyfelfontein is its integration with the surroundings. Shamans deliberately placed their artworks at significant points in the terrain. Some are in cracks or fissures which served as entries to the supernatural world. Others are in dark places where shamans retreated to concentrate their energy. There are some engravings in high or inaccessible places and others near probable communal living spaces.
Multiple meanings. Each and every feature of an engraving is deliberate and holds a specific meaning. Sometimes the meaning is difficult to establish directly, but often an informed guess is possible. The ‘Dancing Kudu’ for example shows an obviously pregnant female. Kudu were valued as potent symbols of fertility and this may explain the choice of a kudu cow for the image. However we cannot know all the multiple meanings that the images held for the artists and viewers.
Leaving the body behind. Giraffe are very common in the Twyfelfontein rock art, and characteristically shown without hooves, their legs tapering away to long thin lines. This represents the sensation of rising up into the air, as felt by the shaman in trance. Sometimes the giraffe body is shown distorted or hollow, as the shaman feels his shape changing. A shaman who has changed into a giraffe is shown with five protrusions from the head, representing the five digits of the human foot.
Four, five, man alive….. The ‘Lion Man’ engraving (see photo below) shows five tows on each paw, whereas in real life a lion only has four toes. The deliberate combination of human and animal features shows that this is a shaman who has transformed into a lion.
Footprints and fissures. Engravings of human footprints and animal tracks are frequently placed next to or inside tunnels, deep fissures and inaccessible surfaces, as if these indicate paths and entrances into the spirit world. It was believed that a shaman could move through solid rock, using entrances not visible to the normal eye. To the artist the rock face was not merely a canvas but rather a veil serving as the threshold to a parallel spiritual world
HOW ROCK ART TRADITIONS DEVELOPED AND EVOLVED – A SHORT HISTORY
Early symbolic activity. (75,000 years ago). Long before people first engraved and painted on stones and rock faces, they invested the rituals and objects of their existence with symbolic meaning. We can see indications of care and thought that goes beyond mere functionality in the deftly reworked flaked stone tools from Middle and Late Stone Age sites. Ochre tablets bearing cross hatchings found at Blombos Cave in the southern Cape (South Africa) and dated to around 75,000 years ago are thought to be some of the earliest examples of abstract representation.
The beginnings of a representational tradition (40,000 years ago). By 40,000 years ago stone and bone pendants, shell ornaments and ostrich shell beads were widely exchanged throughout Africa and included in grave goods, suggesting that by this time people consistently used apparently valueless objects to communicate identity, relationships and spiritual bonds – in other words, to signal social rank, establish regional and personal relations with others and elaborate the rites of passage. Then, around 30,000 to 20,000 years ago, people started leaving more illuminating signs of their presence on small portable stones and rock fragments, so-called ‘art mobilier’.
Apollo 11 Cave (27,000 years ago). The earliest examples of rock art in southern Africa are all small enough to be held in the hand. Seven small painted stones were discovered at a rock shelter (the Apollo 11 Cave) in southern Namibia, including one that depicts a feline form with human hind legs – clearly an animal that exists outside the realm of reality.
Belief in a marginal environment (5850 to 1000 years ago). The flowering of the rock art tradition in southern Africa appears to coincide with increases in local population densities around 14,000 years ago and reaching its height again around 4,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence from the Namib Desert confirms that concentrations of rock art in Namibia can be linked to prolonged periods of social aggregation. The rock art reflects heightened intensity of ritual activity in response to social stress arising from limited and diminishing food and water. A significant number of depictions are obviously related to rain-making and many others suggest similar events.
The time of the herders (from 1000 yrs ago to present). Nomadic pastoralists grazed their stock on seasonal pastures. As rainfall was patchy, these encampments might not have been used on successive years. The overlap between hunter-gatherer and pastoralist economies is shown by a small number of cattle depictions among the rock engravings
VISITING TWYFELFONTEIN - WHAT TO SEE
(the following descriptions are adapted from material displayed in the visitor centre at Twyfelfontein):
Twyfelfontein is an 'open-air gallery' with the largest single concentration of rock art engravings in southern Africa. There are over 2000 rock engravings and a few rock paintings at Twyfelfontein. More than 200 giraffe and 100 rhino are shown as well as ostrich, impala, elephant and zebra. Predators like lion are scarce, although one particular lion is exceptional. Kudu, wildebeest and baboons are also rare in the engravings. Although human figures are common in the rock paintings, they rarely occur in the engravings. Some engravings are fragile or difficult to reach and are thus not accessible to visitors. Four routes offer visitors the ‘cream of the crop’.
ROUTE 1. At the visitor centre. Within easy reach of the visitor centre are ten panels of well-preserved engravings. These are mostly geometric and schematic depictions that show some visual effects of trance. The images are related to the first stage of trance, or altered consciousness, and formed part of the rituals preparing for supernatural experience.
ROUTE 2. Self-guided route. You can see more than 20 engraved panels on a 30-minute self-guided route. It includes the Twyfelfontein spring and the ruins of a colonial-era homestead. The engravings include well-preserved examples of various antelope, birds and schematic depictions. Little climbing is needed and children can easily do this walk. Engravings on this route are signposted (although not described!).
ROUTE 3. Dancing kudu route – the famous highlight. For guided parties only this walk takes about 60 minutes. The approach includes the self-guided route to the spring. This route features the ‘Dancing kudu’, an unusual polished engraving that combines a female kudu and several geometric depictions. This can be viewed from a platform ideal for photography. A steep climb after the spring, the walk includes a shaded rest area and toilet. The return route includes the Zwei Schneider site which has a number of rock paintings, and an extraordinary natural stone ‘sculpture’.
ROUTE 4. Lion Man route – star of the show. Also only for guided groups and including the self-guided walk to the spring this route takes approximately 80 minutes. It covers some rough ground and is not suitable for less mobile people. However a shaded rest area and toilet allows some respite. The main attraction on this route is the ‘Lion Man’ panel in which elements of human and lion are combined. The Lion Man is an example of shaded relief engraving, a technique that is well developed at Twyfelfontein. The route also incorporates an array of other noteworthy engravings.
Further Information: An excellent illustrated article by John Kinahan explaining the rock art at Twyfelfontein can be viewed (or downloaded) by clicking here.
Links to other places in the rock-art and pre-history category: Tassili n’Ajjer I Tsodilo I Stone Circles I Tiya I Tadrart Acacus I Chongoni I Drakensberg I Kondoa
Other Links: Official UNESCO Site Details I Trust for African Rock Art