Twyfelfontein's Supernatural Canvases
Guide at Twyfelfontein showing a much used 'canvas'
Part of our Damara Elephant Safari is a visit to one of Namibia’s World Heritage Sites - the Twyfelfontein rock engravings. The word ‘Twyfel’ is loosely translated as ‘doubtful’ from the Afrikaans language, but mere words do not do justice to the anguish the nomadic hunter-gathers might have felt when the one spring they relied upon in dry times, was itself dry.
Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2007, /Ui-//ais or ‘jumping waterhole’ in the local Nama/Damara dialect, is the largest concentration of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Southern Africa. World Heritage 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 edge of habitation in a dry, unforgiving landscape. Years of drought meant confinement to water sources - no matter how doubtful. The confinement often led to social tension and possibly resultant ill-health so the medicine people, or shamans, would have been much in demand and Twyfelfontein seems to have been a place of great amount of 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, apparently, to heal the sick and appease the spirits.
The depictions seem to represent the means by which the shamans entered altered states of consciousness. Often the significance is not in the image itself, but in the placement of the physical qualities of the terrain. Some surfaces were used many times over and over while other, seemingly more suitable surfaces, were not used at all. Image above.
Footprints and animal tracks often occur near rock fissures on inaccessible surfaces as if indicating difficult ‘entrances’ into another world, a state in which there is an expansion of consciousness perhaps.
To the shaman/artist 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 above showing detail of the engraving.
Seemingly abstract geometric images - meanders, dots, lines, grids, spirals and whorls - appear to resemble entroptic 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 close to the land, to their gods…