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Exploring Drakensberg Caves
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By David Lewis-Williams Photographs by Kenneth Garrett

Ancient rock art sheds light on the trance experiences of Bushman shamans.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

When Europeans first encountered rock art of the San people, or Bushmen, in southern Africa some 350 years ago, they considered it primitive and crude, like the people who made it. They were just “Bushman paintings,” two-dimensional accounts of hunting and fighting and daily life. Twentieth-century scholars had much more respect for the aesthetics of the paintings—often finely detailed and exquisitely colored—but many also viewed them largely as narrative accounts of hunter-gatherer life. A closer look in recent years has yielded another picture altogether. For the San, rock paintings weren’t just representations of life; they were also repositories of it. When shamans painted an eland, they didn’t just pay homage to a sacred animal; they also harnessed its essence. They put paint to rock and opened portals to the spirit world. In 1993, in a shallow cave in South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains, my colleagues Geoff Blundell and Sven Ouzman found a painting unlike anything else I’ve seen in my 40 years studying San art—a densely layered, 20-foot-long [6-meter-long] mural that gives us fresh insight into the spirit world of the Bushmen.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Photographer Kenneth Garrett goes on a journey of the spirit.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the
Research Division.

When entering a trance, shamans often bleed from their nose and experience excruciating physical pain. The shamans’ arms stretch behind them as the transformation into the spirit world takes place. Scholars believe that the trance dance serves as the foundation for rock art, and clear corollaries between cave images and trance ceremonies appear in the Drakensberg cave paintings. These ancient images offer a record into ages past.

South African Rock Art
Discover some of the oldest and richest rock art in the world—Bushman cave paintings.

Prime Origins: Rock Art
From interviews conducted decades ago, anthropologists have learned more about rock art in South Africa than anywhere else. Glimpse into the past as researchers theorize how these paintings came to be.


Bushman Art of the Drakensberg. Art Publishers, Durban, R.S.A.

Chippindale, Christopher, and Paul S. C. Taçon, eds. The Archaeology of Rock-Art. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Deacon, Janette. Some Views on Rock Paintings in the Cederberg. National Monuments Council, 1994.

Lewis-Williams, David and Thomas Dowson. Images of Power: Understanding San Rock Art. Southern Book Publishers, 1989.


Lauber, Patricia. Painters of the Caves. National Geographic Books, 1998.

Fagan, Brian. Into the Unknown: Solving Ancient Mysteries. National Geographic Books, 1997.

Crosby, Harry. “Baja’s Murals of Mystery,” National Geographic (Nov. 1980) 692-702.

Long, Michael E. “Utah’s Rock Art: Wilderness Louvre,” National Geographic (Jan. 1980) 97-117.

Shor, Franc. “The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas,” National Geographic (Mar. 1951) 383-415.


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