Rock Paintings In The Rooi Cederberg Karoo Park

People have lived intermittently in the RooiCederbergKarooPark for at least a million years and their stone artefacts are found both in the open and in rock shelters, yet it is the rock paintings that are the most powerful visual reminder of their long association with the land. The paintings are found mostly on smooth rock surfaces in the rugged terrain of the RooiCederbergKarooPark where quartzites and sandstones have weathered in valleys and on tablelands to create shelters, overhangs and boulders. The images illustrate essentially religious experiences and beliefs important to the artists and their society.

Rock paintings in the Cederberg are the work of various people who have lived there over a period of thousands of years. Made with natural pigments from ochre, white clay and charcoal or manganese oxide, and mixed with binders such as blood, fat and plant juices, they are usually painted in one colour (monochrome), or more rarely in two colours (bichrome) and more than two colours (polychrome).

The paintings include a wide range of images, techniques, motifs and themes. This diversity can be reduced to a few broad rock art traditions generally referred to as fine-line, finger and colonial paintings that have in some cases been over-painted by recent graffiti:

1. Fine-line images, mainly painted with a brush

Figure 01: Bakkrans

Figure 1. This large, densely painted panel is typical of the fine-line tradition in the Rooi Cederberg. There are individual human figures, groups of people and animals, in this case elephants. All the paintings were made with a brush and may have been painted at different times. Some are clearer than others.

2. Images painted with a finger include dots, circles and lines; handprints, both plain and patterned, are probably part of this tradition that is more recent than the fine-line paintings

Figure 2. Top row: finger dots, circles and a pattern of vertical and horizontal strokes; Middle row: plain hand prints (left); and patterned handprints (right) made by painting nested u-shapes onto the hand before pressing it against the rock wall. Bottom row left: a handprint placed on top of a painting of a man with a bow showing that the painting of the man was made first. Bottom right: Vertical lines, usually thinner than a finger, are common in the Rooi Cederberg but the authorship, purpose and meaning are unknown.

3. 'Crude' images of colonial people, wagons, horses and other domesticated animals

Figure 3. Men with hands on their hips and women in crinoline dresses illustrate European settlers. It is not always clear who made these paintings, but they must be more recent than the 18th century AD.

4. Graffiti usually comprise writing and the names of people

Figure 04: Bakkrans

Figure 4. Names of property owners and their families in the Rooi Cederberg date to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Figure 05

Figure 5. This panel shows three painting episodes. The large red rectangle at bottom right is the torso of an eland, originally painted with white neck, head and legs that have faded away. A second, smaller torso can be seen at top left. Finger paintings of dots and strokes partially overlie the eland, and colonial writing was placed over the eland torso. The date, 1898, marks the time of European land ownership.

Who made the paintings?

The value of this art is that it forms part of a complex historical record spanning at least five thousand years and possibly longer. The four traditions listed above broadly correlate with four groups of people: hunter-gatherer San were responsible for the fine-line images; Khoekhoe herders probably made most of the finger-paintings; early colonial farmers made their own images of people and domestic animals ; and recent visitors and land owners wrote their names.

The finger-paintings are thought to be associated mainly with Khoekhoe herders who first migrated into the Western Cape about two thousand years ago. The paintings are therefore likely to be less than 2000 years old. A finger-painting in the Cederberg near the PakhuisPass has been dated to 500 years ago.

Figure 06

Figure 6. Several men in this group of hunters carry bows and quivers of arrows, and others have sticks.

Figure 07: Cedar Rock (Oct 2010 Helen)

Figure 7.A woman accompanied by a child carries a digging stick for gathering plant food.

Each group had a very different way of living and held different beliefs that are evident in the subject matter chosen for their rock art.

Decisions about where paintings were placed in the landscape might also have been significant to these four groups so it is important to record where they are located.

When were the paintings made?

A major problem with much of this art is that it is difficult to date so it can only be fitted into a general sequence on the basis of the choice of images and how they are associated with other types of archaeological evidence.

Earliest in this sequence is the fine-line art, which is also the most common in the Rooi Cederberg. Later Stone Age San / Bushman hunter-gatherers have a long cultural history in the region and a much older evolutionary history that goes back at least 120,000 years. Rock paintings were made relatively recently, probably within the last 7000 years. The oldest dated fine-line images in the region are around 3600 years old near to LambertsBay, but this simply indicates the oldest paintings that it has been possible to date. Many older ones may not have survived, or have not been found in a datable context.

The finger-paintings are thought to be associated mainly with Khoekhoe herders who first migrated into the Western Cape and are likely to be less than 2000 years old. A finger-painting in the Cederberg near the PakhuisPass has been dated to 500 years ago.

At the more recent end of the time scale, paintings made in colonial times can be dated by the style of dress and wagons to the mid-19th century, while names and dates written on the walls of rock shelters range from the 1880s to the 20th century.

Fine-line hunter-gatherer art

As the name implies, this is a delicate art made with powdered red, maroon, yellow, orange, white and black pigments from ochre, clay, charcoal and manganese oxide mixed with binders like blood, fat, egg and plant juices. The paint was applied with fine brushes made of animal hair, or with feathers and even reeds or porcupine quills. Most paintings were made with one colour (monochrome) but some are painted with two colours (bichrome) or with several colours (polychrome). Where the paint is blended from one colour to another, it is referred to as ‘shaded polychrome’, but no shaded polychromes have been found in the Rooi Cederberg.

Figure 8. Maroon fine-line monochrome painting of a man (left) and red human figures wearing karosses (leather cloaks) (right). Faces were often painted in white which does not bond well with the rock and fades away leaving only the red ‘hook head’ behind.

Figure 9. Fine line painting of a zebra (left) where only the red stripes remain; and a white monochrome painting of a small antelope (right).

Figure 10

Figure 10. Fine-line bichrome paintings of eland with red torsos and faint remnants of white necks and legs. The eland is the most commonly painted antelope in the Cederberg because it was particularly important in the belief system of San hunter-gatherers.

Figure 11

Figure 11. Fine-line bichrome painting of a person with red legs and head wearing a cloak that was painted in yellow, but has faded over time. He or she carries a bag over the shoulder that is painted in red.

Figure 12: Cedar Rock

Figure 12. An unusual fine-line bichrome painting of dancing human figures outlined in white and with white decorations on the upper body.

Figure 13: Cedar Rock

Figure 13. Fine-line monochrome paintings of elephants in orange.

Figure 14: Tuinkloof

Figure 14. Clusters of black and red finger-painted dots.

Figure 15: Cedar Rock

Figure 15. Fine-line monochrome paintings in black. Sometimes images originally painted in red contained an ingredient in the paint that encouraged the growth of algae or lichen that gradually replaces the paint, creating a characteristic dotted effect.

Human figures dominate the fine-line images. Men, some women and many figures of indeterminate gender were painted in different social situations. These include single figures and small groups carrying hunting or gathering equipment; groups in dancing and clapping postures; larger ‘processions’ of up to 20 people apparently moving in the same direction; and therianthropes, which are combinations of human and animal forms, for example a human figure with an animal head. Children are rarely included. Some human figures seem to have a hook for a head, while others seem to have no head at all. This is because the white or yellow paint used for the face has not lasted as well as the red and is no longer visible.

Figure 16

Figure 16. Fine-line paintings of tall karossed figures with hook heads, some of which retain faded yellow paint on the face. Note the seated figure in their midst in black paint made from manganese oxide.

The postures in which people are painted give an indication of their activity. For example, some paintings show medicine men going into a controlled trance to obtain power from the spirit world. They bend forward at the waist, bleed from the nose, put their arms back, or are shown with lines of power above the head or with exaggerated elongated bodies.

Figure 17. Fine-line bichrome painting of three men (left) with white hair and red lines coming from their foreheads. The lines probably represent blood from the nose that trance healers use to heal the sick. The monochrome figure on the right has his arms back, a posture often taken by trance healers when receiving power from the spirit world.<

Figure 18. Fine-line monochrome figures of men in trance postures. The one on the left has his arms back and has an animal head. The one in the centre has very long legs illustrating the feeling of elongation often felt by trancers. The main figure on the right has a zigzag line above his head, perhaps illustrating the power received from the spirit world that has been described as being ‘like electricity’.

Groups of women are sometimes shown with their arms in front and fingers splayed out indicating that they are clapping to encourage the medicine men and women to go into a trance.

Figure 19. Fine-line paintings of women. The example on the left shows a line of women dancing in unison. The three women in the centre are in a similar posture with clapping hands. The single bichrome painting on the right is a woman with body painting or possibly ornaments made with beads.

The equipment that people carry is important too. Women sometimes have a digging stick with a bored stone weight on it. Men often carry bows and quivers with arrows in them. Bags with tassles hanging down can be seen lying next to groups of people

Figure 20. Figure 20. Fine-line paintings of bags. On the left is a plain bag with a handle at the top. The one in the middle has long tassels and a handle on the side. The man in the painting on the right carries a quiver for his arrows and a smaller tasseled bag below it.

The animals chosen for painting had particular significance in the San belief system. Eland, for example, were believed to be the favourite antelope that helped people get close to the spirit world where they could obtain power for healing sick people, making rain and finding game animals.

Small antelope like rhebuck, klipspringer, steenbok and grysbok can also be recognised in the RooiCederbergKarooPark paintings.

Figure 21. Fine-line monochrome paintings of small antelope.

Elephants are more common in the rock art of the RooiCederbergKarooPark than in other regions of South Africa and were painted both singly and in family groups.

Figure 22: Voelvlei Ellies

Figure 22. Fine-line monochrome paintings of elephant in a family group.

There is also a category of ‘indeterminate’ animals in the paintings that are difficult to identify to species. In some cases they are simply damaged or faded, but in other cases it seems that the artist deliberately altered or combined physical characteristics of different animals in one painting.

Figure 23: Cedar Rock

Figure 23. Fine-line monochrome painting of an animal with very long legs surrounded by people with equally long legs.

Figure 24. Fine-line monochrome painting (left) of an animal that has partly faded and cannot be identified; and (right) of an animal of indeterminate species.

While the purpose and meaning of this art is known in broad terms, the precise meaning of individual paintings may be difficult to establish. For many years it was thought that the paintings were literal depictions of the landscape in which hunter-gatherers lived. It is now known that the art is more complex than this and was produced within a number of important ritual contexts, such as healing, rain-making and control over game animals. The art therefore is religious and relates to complex beliefs and practices.

Finger-painted herder art

Both sheep and cattle were domesticated in North Africa and the Near East about 8000 years ago and were gradually introduced to people in southern Africa after 3000 years ago together with pottery-making that was necessary for the storage of milk products. About 2000 years ago pottery and sheep were brought from the region of Botswana to the Western Cape by people who spoke a Khoekhoe language different from the San. Sheep bones and potsherds can be found in archaeological deposits in places where they lived along the west coast. By 500 AD, sheep herding was firmly established and cattle were introduced soon afterwards.

The herder art consists mainly of geometric patterns with relatively few human figures or animals. Fingers were used to apply thick lines in red, black and occasionally white paint. Patterns include circles, grids, finger dots and designs that had symbolic significance in their society. Comparison of these patterns with Griqua ethnography suggests that they were closely associated with girls’ initiation and occasionally boys’ initiation.

Figure 25. The finger-painted strokes on the left might have represented people. The pattern in the centre could represent beaded or leather aprons worn by girls during initiation. The longer strokes on the right seem to represent dancing people.

What is intriguing is that the sheep paintings in the Cederberg are in the fine-line tradition and there are no paintings of cattle.

Figure 26: Grootrivier East sheep

Figure 26. Fine-line paintings of sheep must be less than 2000 years old.

It is possible that the herder finger-paintings overlap in time with fine-line paintings because hunter-gatherers and herders both shared and competed over the Rooi Cederberg landscape. By the time written records were made by early Portuguese and Dutch sailors, the distinction between the hunter-gatherers and herders had become blurred and the historical observations often seem confused with the use of terms like ‘Bosjesman-Hottentots’. This suggests that over the more than 1000 years during which hunter-gatherers and herders lived alongside each other in the Cederberg before European farmers settled there, many of the hunter-gatherers gradually gave up their lifestyle and became herders.

Herders had different belief systems from the hunter-gatherers. Unlike hunter-gatherers, who generally painted their fine line images in rock shelters that were used domestically as camps, herders lived in larger camps out in the open. Finger painted images may therefore reflect the use of rock shelters in very different ways that emphasised initiation in seclusion and secrecy rather than the general communal openness and accessibility of the hunter-gatherer art. The numerous stone kraals that can be seen in the Rooi Cederberg reflect both the older herding tradition as well as that of the colonial farmers from the 18th century onwards because many farm labourers were descended from the original San and Khoekhoe inhabitants.

Colonial paintings and graffiti

The arrival of the Dutch imposed serious changes on the lifeways of indigenous hunter-gatherers and herders of the Rooi Cederberg. These identities rapidly broke down and by the second half of the 18th century ‘traditional’ lifestyles had been displaced and largely destroyed. Many of these people were incorporated as labour into the rural European farming economy. It is in this late 18th and 19th century context that colonial finger-paintings were made. These images depict men and women in European dress, often with guns, as well as goats, horses, mules and wagons. When compared to the fine-line art, colonial images are certainly cruder but nevertheless make important statements about the kinds of lives farmers and their workers lived. This is an important independent record from their point of view.

Lastly, painted rock art sites in the Western Cape sometimes include more recent historical graffiti comprising the names and dates of farm owners and their families, or visitors to these sites. Graffiti often damage older rock paintings and should not be encouraged, but some provide dates and names that are important at the local level as a record of a family’s relationship to their farm. Generally, however, graffiti is gratuitous and often obscures and negatively impacts upon the earlier painted record.  

How is rock art protected?

Most of the damage to rock paintings has been done in the last few hundred years by people who have thrown water or other liquids on them, covered them with graffiti or paint, or exposed them to dust, candles and fire. All visitors are urged to leave the rock paintings as they find them. Wetting them causes permanent damage that cannot be reversed. Avoid touching, rubbing or brushing against the paintings and do not stir up dust when you visit a site. Never camp, make a fire or light a candle in a painted rock shelter. The damage done by doing so cannot be reversed.

All rock art is protected by the National Heritage Resources Act (Act No. 25 of 1999) and no person may destroy, damage, alter or remove rock art without a permit from Heritage Western Cape. Anyone found guilty of damaging rock art is liable for a fine of up to R50 000.

Management of rock art sites

Most property owners will be aware that in order for the resources on their land to be managed, they must know what is there. Rock art conservation and management therefore starts with a survey that searches for and identifies places with paintings, records their location, takes photographs, and notes the type and number of paintings. Once the database for that property has been completed, the owners and other stakeholders identify the issues that need to be addressed in relation to their vision and mission for the property as a whole. For example, the need to remove unsightly graffiti from the paintings, the impact that raising the level of a farm dam might have on rock paintings upstream, or the impact that introducing tourists to rock art sites might have. Strategies to address these issues are then drafted for discussion and refinement. After the strategies have been implemented, it is advisable to have a monitoring programme to ensure that they are working or to change them if they are not.


Text by Dr Janette Deacon, author of Some Views on Rock Paintings in the Cederberg published by the National Monuments Council in 1999, and co-ordinator of training courses for rock art management in southern Africa. Photographs by members of the eastern Cederberg Rock Art Group, eCRAG, who have assisted with surveys of rock paintings in the Red Cederberg since 2007. Contact address: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.