Cave Paintings of Botswana: An Ancient History of the Sacred & the Self in the African Hills - Atlas Obscura
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Cave Paintings of Botswana: An Ancient History of the Sacred & the Self in the African Hills

The Tsodilo Hills loom over a very large, flat area of the Kalahari, in northwest Botswana. Their names are Male, Female, Child, and First Wife. They look like they’re made out of a big pile of rocks, balanced nervously on top of each other and streaked with unnaturally vivid mineral deposits. In fact, they look kind of fake, like those artificial rock formations you find in amusement parks. 

article-imageAll photographs by the author

Which isn’t totally inaccurate, actually. You show up in your car, shake hands with a guide, and go on one of several specific tours. The hills are so big and the surrounding land so flat that you have a lot of time to stare at them on the drive over, sedimenting up your own weird expectations of what they are going to be like.

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The consensus is that the hills are sacred. Local spiritual narratives have characterized the area that way for hundreds of years, but Christians and believers of all stripes come here, too. The Male hill is 410 meters (1,345 feet) tall, Female is 300 meters (984 feet), Child 40 meters (131 feet). A little way off, First Wife is the smallest. According to the stories my guide told me, she was married to Male, but he left her for a taller woman. The dead are believed to rest in Female, and the gods to live up there. There are water springs that never dry up, and caves that look like they were put there just for you to live in. There is evidence of a human presence here that goes back a hundred thousand years. There are barbed bone points from fishing spears that are 40,000 years old. Fishing spears — in what is now driest bush.

In the Later Stone Age, fishing and stone artifacts get overtaken by ostrich egg remains. People found something new to eat and make things out of. At some stage, Later Stone Age foragers had some dealings with the early Iron Age farmers. Settlements based around domestic cattle herding in the area are very ancient, especially at Divuyu and Nqoma.

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There are also nearly 5,000 cave paintings in the ten square kilometers containing the hills.

The people who made the paintings aren’t around anymore. The N/hae used to live at Tsodilo, but left in the mid-19th century. The two local communities are the Hambukushu and !Kung, who arrived a few decades later. They have incorporated Tsodilo into their creation myths and religious traditions. For example, there are grooves in some stones that look like the smeared imprint of a cloven hoof. According to the creation stories, they were made when the animals came down to inhabit the earth in an ancient time when the stone was still soft. 

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One of the paintings — characteristically painted in a red ochre mix made from local red hematite, blood, and fat — is of a whale and a penguin. Tsodilo is a thousand kilometers from the sea. 

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These paintings are hard to date, but some are about 2,000 years old. They are of people, animals, and geometric forms, which my guide told me came from visions. Since cattle were introduced to Tsodilo then, cattle pictures are dated after 600 AD. There are similar rock paintings in Zambia and Angola. The geometric stuff is newer, only about a thousand years old.

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There’s this rock (pictured below) with a lot of little holes in it inside one of the most hospitable caves, where people would go to rest (there’s a further, smaller cave inside, in which you could hide if an animal that was absolutely bent on killing you showed up): 

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See the little chips all together? This is a game. You have to throw one pebble up, and move a pebble into the next hole over before catching the first one. You do it a second time, moving two. Then you move three, and so on until you mess up. There are different holes for men and women. I think the men’s version is a little bit harder — the holes are deeper, maybe. I can tell you first-hand that this game is very hard.

Of the many animal paintings, I think these rhinos are my favorite:

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I like the way their bodies look stationary, as if they are not charging into that crack but just staring right into it — facing down the crevice. They’re not even looking at each other.

I couldn’t quite glean the explanation behind these human figures and their phalluses, hidden away on the underside of a rock face, but the image relates to a spiritual ceremony that evidently had something to do with masculinity:

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At one of the stops on the walking tour on Female, there is a wooden panel with a European name on it. “Laurens van der Post,” it reads. Van der Post wrote The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958), which was also a popular six-parter for the BBC. He claimed to have discovered the rock paintings in the 1950s, although they were known to Europeans for at least fifty years prior to his book. His description of the Kalahai as a “lost world” is strange if you devote more than a couple of thoughts to trying to figure out where it got lost to, or who lost it. The !Kung didn’t, certainly. It was right there the whole time.

This is one of the quotations blown up huge and hung on the wall of the little museum at the foot of the hills:

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“Are you kidding me?” I said, out loud, to the wall.

Van der Post was one of those bearded mid-century anthropologists who got Europeans interested in foreign people by making them sound like characters in one of their own fairytales. But Van der Post helped protect Tsodilo from the colonial government, and the area became a game reserve because of him. But the way he wrote about the people who lived there was nasty. He called them humanity’s “lost soul.” 

Tsodilo first appeared on a map in 1857, after David Livingstone’s explorations (1849-56) brought him through the area. Van der Post came to the hills pretty much a century later. On his way, he killed a guinea fowl for no reason, which isn’t very cool behavior for somebody who understood the holiness of the place. He took photographs of a rock painting, but his equipment malfunctioned and he had to repent his crime by burying a bottle containing an apology to the gods. That’s how he’s featured on the tour — for the anecdote that relates to the cave. Perhaps it is supposed to prove the gods’ power. 

Anthropology is a bit like linguistics. Its research may proceed outward from prior assumptions, or work from data to hypothesis, but basically always has to idealize its object of study. Humankind cannot be studied all at once and therefore the object of study must be limited. Anthropological writing is in a sense pure representation, of humans and by humans. As post-colonial theorist Edward Said wrote in Representing the Colonized, the anthropologist is “an authoritative, explorative, elegant, learned voice, which speaks and analyzes, amasses evidence, theorizes, speculates about everything — except itself.”

Like anthropology, travel writing is often terrible. It is very difficult to describe something out there in the world, far away, while pretending that you are not dead in the center of whatever you are depicting, imagining that you don’t secretly think all this is about you. Travel writing can sometimes carry a kernel of conceited self-loathing inside itself. I came to find some kind of inspiration at the Hills, and instead found a European researcher’s name on a sign, in fact my name written on a sign not so very far away.

My grandfather, Arthur Livingstone, is buried 12 hours drive from the Hills. He dropped dead in his forties. Below is a photograph of his grave, which I found on the same trip. The trip to Tsodilo and the trip to the grave were both quests, in their own ways.

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As you walk around the rock-painting tour at Tsodilo, you’ll probably pass this rock that looks like the outline of Africa:

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But the people who lived here thousands of years ago didn’t know that. It just looks that way to you now, because you’re used to looking at Africa on a map. Was this continental outline there when the rocks were still soft? Perhaps nobody ever gave it a second thought. Maybe the texture of the stone itself changed when people came to measure, record, photograph. I imagine it crunching up hard, wrinkling into shapes. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you’re not going to go to Tsodilo and see what the people who painted the stone saw: you’re going to bump up against yourself. Even if you’re a heavenly beast setting hoof on the earth for the first time, I guess it’s impossible to put your feet anywhere without eventually having to see the evidence. 

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All photographs by the author.