San Rock Art and the Royal Society of South Africa

By Jane Carruthers

Believing and seeing (1981), the first book on San rock art by David Lewis-Williams

Believing and seeing (1981), the first book on San rock art by David Lewis-Williams

Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Painting (London, 1981), a book based on J.D. (David) Lewis-Williams’s Ph.D. thesis, combined with his continuing research and publications in the field of San rock art, have made an extremely significant contribution to science in twentieth century South Africa. In his adventurous and exciting explanation of the purpose of South Africa’s rock art, based on years of meticulous observations in the field and on re-interpreting the Bleek and Lloyd Collection at the University of Cape Town, Lewis-Williams unlocked the equivalent of a ‘Rosetta stone’ to understanding the system of beliefs and symbols underlying every aspect of San (Bushman) life. Before Lewis-Williams’s research, South African rock paintings and engravings were sought out, carefully recorded by locality, copied or photographed, and aesthetically appreciated, but their underlying motivation was a topic replete with speculation and conjecture.
In over-turning previous thinking, Lewis-Williams revealed a critically important symbolic and spiritual dimension of pre-colonial San life, he initiated strong sub-disciplines within archaeology and anthropology, and he catapulted South African rock art research into the forefront of international cognitive archaeology, shamanism and neuropsychology. Lewis-Williams, who enjoyed a career as a school teacher before completing his Ph.D. under Professor John Argyle at the University of Natal in 1977, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, an A-Rated scientist of the National Research Foundation, founder and previous Director of the Rock Art Research Institute, and Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand. An internet search on his name elicits his interesting biography together with many hundreds of further references and links. Currently there is an increasing body of work on San studies, much of it based on the Bleek and Lloyd archive (digitised as: lloydbleekcollection.cs.uct.ac.za), that can be attributed to the richness of the field that Lewis-Williams established.
The Royal Society of South Africa has a record of more than a century of involvement in rock art conservation and research. The efforts of a number of people associated with the Society in its early days resulted in South Africa’s first law for the preservation of historical material, The Bushman Relics Protection Act 22 of 1911, passed by Parliament during its first sitting after the Union of South Africa came about in 1910. In particular, the work of Dorothea Bleek and Maria Wilman, whose travel expenses to copy and record rock art were supported by the Society, needs to be recalled as does that of Louis Péringuey (1855-1924), President of the Society in 1912, who encouraged and assisted them and others from his base at the South African Museum in Cape Town.

The Society generally had an annual budget of about £300 available for distribution for research and in 1913 subsidised the cost of Dorothea Bleek’s trip into the Kalahari in June that year with her companion Margarethe Vollmer. In her three-page report to the Society dated 31 December 1913, Dorothea described their researches, their anthropological and linguistic findings and observations, and their visit to Kokong and Khakhea where they met the Masarwa. Her detailed journal and photographs of this expedition form part of the Bleek-Lloyd collection. Born in Cape Town, Dorothea Bleek (1873-1948) was the daughter of German linguist Dr Wilhelm Bleek and his wife

Dorothea Bleek (Wikipedia)

Dorothea Bleek (Wikipedia)

Jemima Lloyd. After her father’s death (which occurred when Dorothea was two years old) she lived in Germany for twenty years and was educated there. On her return to South Africa in 1904 she became a school teacher in Cradock and, just as did Lewis-Williams when he taught at Kearsney College in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1960s and 1970s, Dorothea undertook many excursions in search of local rock art often accompanied by her pupils. In 1908 she gave up teaching, returned to Cape Town and joined her aunt, Lucy Lloyd, in continuing the study of San culture and philology begun by Wilhelm Bleek.

In this endeavour Dorothea Bleek travelled extensively, visiting the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga, Angola, Namibia, Botswana and even Tanganyika. She was an exceptionally adventurous woman for her time, often journeying alone or with one or two companions, braving raging rivers, deserts, disease and considerable discomfort. In addition to noting and copying San art, she recorded the languages of remote San communities on wax cylinders and took many hundreds of photographs of what was then thought to be a society on the brink of extinction. Working closely with Lucy Lloyd, who had purchased the rock art paintings of nineteenth-century Cape ethnographer George Stow, Dorothea rediscovered many of Stow’s original sites and published very many of the paintings in 1930. From 1923 to 1948 Bleek (who had studied African languages while she lived in Europe) was Honorary Reader in Bushman Languages at the University of Cape Town and in 1932 she was President of Section E of the South African Academy for the Advancement of Science, being awarded its medal in 1941. Her book, The Naron: A Bushman Tribe of the Central Kalahari (1928) was the first full-length treatment of an individual hunter-gatherer community, and in the 1920s and 1930s she published many articles in Bantu Studies and elsewhere on San language, customs and beliefs.
The second enterprising and pioneering woman whose travels in search of rock art were supported by the Royal Society of South Africa was Maria Wilman (1867-1957). In 1914, by which time she was the first Director of the Alexander McGregor Memorial Museum in Kimberley, Wilman was allocated the sum of £50 by the Society ‘for copying Bushman paintings and engravings’. Without this and other financial assistance her book on the Rock Engravings of Griqualand West and Bechuanaland South Africa (1933) would not have appeared. This remained a standard text for many decades and was reprinted in facsimile in 1968. The long life of Maria Wilman began in Beaufort West where her father was the Member of Parliament. In 1885 Maria went to the University of Cambridge (apparently the second South African woman to do so) obtaining her natural science degree at Newnham College in 1888 and her M.A. in botany in 1895. (As women were not eligible for graduation at the time, Wilman formally received her degree only in 1931.) When she returned to South Africa in the late 1890s she worked as a volunteer (her father did not approve of her earning a salary) in the Geology Department at the South African Museum in Cape Town, eventually, in 1902, becoming an official assistant. Influenced by the interest in San rock art of Louis Péringuey, her colleague at the Museum, in 1906 Wilman journeyed to Kimberley and the northern Cape Colony to collect data on rock engravings. This brought her in contact with the McGregor Museum and she was its Director from 1908 to 1947.

Rock engraving of an elephant, Kinderdam, photographed by Arthur Elliott (1870-1938), South African Museum, collection. Plate 29 in Maria Wilman, The Rock Engravings of Griqualand West and Bechuanaland South Africa (facs. ed. 1968). Note partly obliterated hunter on the right.

Rock engraving of an elephant, Kinderdam, photographed by Arthur Elliott (1870-1938), South African Museum, collection. Plate 29 in Maria Wilman, The Rock Engravings of Griqualand West and Bechuanaland South Africa (facs. ed. 1968). Note partly obliterated hunter on the right.

Having abandoned his original career as a French language teacher, Louis Péringuey actively pursued his interests in entomology, archaeology and rock art, joining the South African Museum and becoming its Director in 1906. Recognising the inherent value of San art and culture, he encouraged the staff at the South African Museum to collect stone implements, to note localities in which there were engravings and paintings, giving instructions either to make reproductions or to secure actual specimens. In preparation for the 1905 visit to South Africa of the British Association for the Advancement of Science Péringuey organised Bushman Paintings Committees in all four colonies to report on San rock art sites. The inventories and maps of these Committees were eventually collated between 1909 and 1910 and one consequence of drawing the attention of the nation to this precolonial treasure was the Bushman Relics Protection Act of 1911. Deeply involved in the formation of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908, Péringuey was elected the Society’s first Secretary and was its President in 1912. Appropriately, his Presidential Address was entitled ‘The Bushman as a Palaeolithic Man’ and this was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1913.
The pioneering labour of researchers, collectors and recorders such as those mentioned above, together with the integrative and creative scholarship of Lewis-Williams and those who have later expanded upon his studies – whether professional or citizen scientists – have provided us with vital insights into a remarkable southern African culture. Their combined efforts in reconceptualising rock art and to providing it with rich meaning and coherence are of inestimable value.

Further reading:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lewis-Williams
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Wilman
Bank, A., ‘Anthropology and fieldwork photography: Dorothea Bleek’s expedition to the northern Cape and the Kalahari, July to December, 1911’, Kronos: Journal of Cape History, 32, 2006:.77-113.
Bleek, D.F., ‘A survey of our present knowledge of rock-paintings in South Africa’, South African Journal of Science, 29, 1932: 72-83.
Bleek, D.F., Rock-Paintings in South Africa from Parts of the Eastern Province and Orange Free State. Copied by George William Stow with an introduction and descriptive notes by Dorothea Bleek (London: 1930).
Bleek, D.F., More Rock-Paintings in South Africa from the Coastal Belt between Albany and Piquetberg. Mainly copied by Joyce and Mollie van der Riet with notes by the same and an introduction and explanatory remarks by Dorothea Bleek (London: 1940).
Lewis-Williams, J.D. &. Pearce, D.G., San Spirituality: Roots, Expressions and Social Consequences. (Cape Town & Lanham MD: 2004).
Lewis-Williams, J.D. &. Challis, S., Deciphering Ancient Minds: The Mystery of San Bushman Rock Art. (London: 2011).
Lewis-Williams, J.D., Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Painting. (London: 1981).
Weintraub, J., By Small Wagon with Full Tent: Dorothea Bleek’s Journey to Kakia, June to August 1913. (Cape Town: n.d.)
Wilman, M., The Rock Engravings of Griqualand West and Bechuanaland South Africa. (Cambridge & Kimberley, 1933; facs. ed. Cape Town, 1968).