Twyfelfontein's Supernatural Canvases

Part of our Damara Elephant Safari riding safari is a visit one of Namibia’s World Heritage Sites - the Twyfelfontein rock engravings. ‘Twyfel’ is loosely translated as ‘doubtful’ from the Afrikaans, but mere words do not do justice to the anguish the nomadic hunter-gathers must have felt when the one spring they relied upon in dry times, was itself dry.

Declared a World Heritage site in 2007, /Ui-//Ais (jumping waterhole) in local Nama/Damara dialect - is the largest concentration of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in southern Africa. World Heritage Site status is granted when certain criteria are met and in the case of Twyfelfontein it is both its cultural tradition and the interaction with the environment. Rock art, and these in particular, are thought to express the complexity of belief systems of early hunter-gatherer people who lived here from about 5000 years ago.

These places where springs bubble out of the ground often supported people living on the edge of a famine state in a dry and unforgiving landscape.

Years of drought meant confinement to water sources - no matter how doubtful - often becaming places of social tension and possibly also ill-health. Medicine people, or shamans, would have been in demand and Twyfelfontein seems to have been a place of much ritual and exploration into the supernatural world. With food supplies low and the rains failing, the shaman would have carried out important tasks while in the supernatural realm. Healing rituals might have included dancing, clapping, hyperventilating, dehydration and sensory deprivation - all done to healing the sick, make rain, and appease the spirits.

The depictions almost certainly represent the means by which the shamans entered altered states of consciousness. Often the significance is not in the image itself, but in its placement and the physical qualities of the terrain. Some surfaces were used many times over over while other, seemingly more suitable surfaces, were not used as all.

Footprints and animal tracks often occur near rock fissures and on inaccessible surfaces as if indicating difficult ‘entrances’ into another world.

To the shaman/artists the rock surfaces are not merely canvases but rather serve as veils or thresholds to access a parallel spirit world. It was believed shamans could move through rock using entrances not visible to the normal eye.

Image left - riding safari guests visiting the petroglyphs

Seemingly abstract geometric images - meanders, dots, lines, grids, spirals and whorls - appear to resemble entoptic or ‘inner eye’ images often seen in ancient art elsewhere in the world. Particularly contextual in the animals depicted, there is evidence of long journey’s undertaken as seals occur among the figures.

Outer interpretations of individual figures aside, it is interesting to contemplate the significance of the rich inner life of these ancient people who lived closer than we ever could to the land, to their gods.

Artistic devices and significant figures will be discussed in future blogs

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