Northern Cape – Carefully Carved in Stone

The petroglyphs of Wildebeest Kuil have been there for thousands of years, yet few people know about this unusual attraction close to Kimberley – and there are hundreds of these San carvings to see. By Keri Harvey

“Isn’t this sun beautiful,” says guide Petrus Wilson, pointing at a massive sun chiselled into a flat rock surface. He looks at it with wonder, as if seeing it for the first time, even though he has been a guide to the rock engravings of Wildebeest Kuil for 13 years. “And look at that eland,” he says, showing us an engraving a few rocks away. We had our doubts that the clamber across strewn rocks up a low hill would be worth the effort, but suddenly we are seeing animals in stone popping up everywhere. There’s a rhino, an elephant, more antelope, another sun and we are now surrounded by wildlife etched in stone. Further along, we see quagga, oryx, hartebeest and a vulture. And wildebeest of course.

“There are over 400 engravings here,” Petrus tells us, “and they’re officially dated between 1 000 and 2 000 years old, but some could be older – or younger.” The vast outdoor area is exposed to the year-round baking sun in the Northern Cape, about 15km from Kimberley. Paintings would not have survived this long exposed to the harsh elements; paintings are usually found in protected rock overhangs. “These are all San engravings,” Petrus explains, “but we can’t be sure exactly which group of San carved them.” Their tenacity in carving so many artworks across the area is commendable though, as the hard Andesite rock didn’t make their task an easy one.”
George Stow was the first to record the site back in 1876. He was in the area for the Kimberley diamond rush and likely stumbled upon the petroglyphs while walking in the veld. Little did he know, he had stumbled upon a San spiritual site. He copied many of the engravings, but the originals can still be seen strewn around Wildebeest Kuil. However, at least two original rock engravings we removed to the British Museum and remain in a collection there.

Petrus explains that the engravings were likely done by the San in a trance state. “This was deduced by researchers interviewing San people in the 1870s,” he says. Interestingly there are only about two engravings depicting people, as it’s not common for the San to engrave figures, the rest are all of the animals with eland and rhino featuring prominently.

It’s believed that the area was used by the San shamans or medicine men to enter the spirit world through trance. On their return, they would bring back the power to call rain, control wildlife, heal the sick and see into the future. However, Wildebeest Kuil particularly seems to be a rain calling place since there are plenty of rhino engravings, which are symbolic of the San rain animal. It’s possible that many of the engravings were inspired by visions in altered states of consciousness, and then depicted on rocks for fellow San to draw inspiration from. Near this sacred hill are also a series of ponds or ‘kuils’, that hold water for much longer than any others in the area – hence also the naming of Wildebeest Kuil.

“So this technique used by the San artists is called the ‘pecked’ method,” explains Petrus, as we look at an engraving depicting an eland, the sacred animal of the San. The San used hard stone tools, along with percussive force, to chip away the hard outer crust of rock to expose the lighter coloured rock underneath. En route to the site, Petrus showed us examples of rock tools strewn in the veld. They could just be interestingly shaped small rocks unless an expert eye spotted them for you.

Actually, there are a total of nine info stops around the site, all alluding to the ancient lives of the San. From the recent history of the area to an ash midden, examples of different kraals, engraving techniques, seeing evidence of enclosures denoted by circles of stones, as well as erosion evidence in the area – all of this is discussed en route to the petroglyphs. It’s about an 800 m walk and clamber over rocks to get there from the Visitors’ Centre, where a 20-minute video sets the scene for the San experience of Wildebeest Kuil. On the walk back from the site, the last info station is all about the San people’s links to the area. It seems to have been a comfortable place for them, with plenty of plant food and water – plus flat rock canvases to carve on and stone tools to create their magic.

We wander freely amongst the stone slabs adorned with carvings, in awe of the intricate spiritual lives of these ancient people – the original inhabitants of our land. Then we notice that some engravings are just outlines, while others are filled in. “We don’t know why that is,” says Petrus when we ask him. “An American researcher is currently busy studying engraving techniques and trying to figure it out. Hopefully, we will know the answer soon.”
As we make our way back to the Visitors’ Centre, keen to see the traditional San crafts for sale, Petrus chats with great respect for the! Xun and Khwe people who own the land surrounding the rock art site. “They are special people, and I love explaining the San history to visitors who come here. There are lots of preconceived ideas and stereotypes about these ancient people. We even have visitors who think the San were not fully human. So for me to explain to them the real story of the San is very important. I wish more South Africans would visit to learn about their heritage because about 80% of our visitors are from overseas. This is special work to me, plus it feeds my love of history and being outdoors. It’s the perfect job for me.”

053 839 2747. Travel 16km from the centre of Kimberley along the R31 towards Barkly West.

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