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Rock paintings in Tsodilo Hills, Botswana.

The Louvre of the Desert: The Impressive Rock Paintings of Tsodilo, Botswana

Tsodilo (also referred to as the Tsodilo Hills) is a site in Botswana that contains one of the highest concentrations of rock art in the world. It has been claimed that in an area of just 10 square km (6.21 square miles), more than 4000 or 4500 individual paintings (scattered over 400 rock art sites) have been found. As a result, Tsodilo has been referred to as the ‘Louvre of the Desert’.

The archaeological record of Tsodilo provides a chronological account of human activities and changes in the environment over at least 100,000 years, though not continuously. Thus, the rock paintings at this site span from the Stone Age all the way until the 19th century AD. It has, however, been pointed out that these paintings have not always been dated accurately.

The “Family” of Tsodilo

Tsodilo is situated in the Okavango Sub-District, Ngamiland District, northwestern Botswana, and is close to the country’s border with Namibia. This site lies in the Kalahari Desert, and is made up of huge quartzite rock formations. To the east of Tsodilo are ancient sand dunes, whilst to its west is a dry fossil lake bed. The Tsodilo range is made up of four main outcrops, and is revered as a sacred site in the landscape by the indigenous peoples who live in the area.

Map of Botswana.

Map of Botswana. ( Public Domain )

For some indigenous groups, such as the Hambukushu, the outcrops of Tsodilo are believed to have once been a family. The highest on these is commonly referred to as ‘Male’. Apart from its height, which measures at 410 m (1345.14 ft.), this outcrop can also be distinguished by its barren look and its steepness.

The second highest hill is known as ‘Female’, which measures at 300 m (984.252 ft.). Unlike ‘Male’, this outcrop has a gentler slope. Additionally, ‘Female’ may be said to be more ‘fertile’, as it contains the most vegetation, including fruit trees, tubers, edible roots, and timber. Furthermore, it is here that one can find the most water springs and rock paintings.

The two smallest hills are known as ‘Child’ and ‘Grandchild’. In another version of the story, ‘Grandchild’ is called ‘First Wife’, who was left by ‘Male’ for a taller woman, i.e. ‘Female’.

Tsodilo Hills in Northwestern Botswana.

Tsodilo Hills in Northwestern Botswana. (CC BY-SA 2.0 )

With regards to the over 4,000 or 4,500 rock paintings at Tsodilo, it is believed that the majority of them were most made by the San people, whilst others were made by the Khoe people. Others have speculated that the San people made some of the paintings, whilst the Khoe and later Bantu immigrants, including the Hambukushu, made the majority of them.

As mentioned earlier on, the paintings at Tsodilo have not been dated accurately. This is due to the fact that the pigments (which contain organic material suitable for dating) used to produce many of the paintings have disappeared over time, leaving behind stains which indicate original motifs on the rock.

The Division of Tsodilo

The rock paintings of Tsodilo may be divided into three groups – red paintings, white paintings and polychrome paintings. The bulk of the rock paintings in Tsodilo are red paintings. One source claims that of the over 4,000 known paintings, over 3,800 of them are red paintings. Another source claims that the red paintings were produced using “a red ochre mix made from local red hematite, blood, and fat”. It has been found that about half of all the red paintings depict animals, about a third depict geometric designs, and the remainder human figures and a few handprints.

Faded red paintings at Tsodilo.

Faded red paintings at Tsodilo. (CC BY-SA 2.0 )

As for the white paintings, they were produced using a “powdery or greasy white pigment”. Most of these paintings can be found in sheltered areas such as caves. For example, 97 of the 200 white paintings are found in the White Paintings Shelter, whilst another 60 can be found in other caves and shelters. The remaining 43 can be found in unsheltered sites. Unlike the red paintings, the white paintings are dominated by geometric designs, which make up 50% of the motifs. Human figures and animals each make up a quarter of the motifs.

Comparison of Red and White Rock Art at Tsodilo

Comparison of Red and White Rock Art at Tsodilo. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The last group of paintings – polychrome paintings, seem to not fit into the general scheme of paintings at Tsodilo. The only known example of this painting is a panel depicting a pair of rhinos, which are shown with a red-painted baby rhino. It may be possible that the artist was trying to depict a family of these animals. Apart from these creatures, red paintings of other animals can be seen on this panel, some of which are superimposed by white geometric designs.

Rhinos and a cow-like figure

Rhinos and a cow-like figure (CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Purpose of the Paintings

As the original purpose(s) of these paintings are now lost, we can only speculate on their meaning and their uses. One common suggestion is that they had symbolic value, and were used to represent desired values such as fertility, health, and protection against evil.

It has also been proposed that the white paintings which were drawn over the red ones may have been intended to draw power from them. The idea that the red paintings were used for individual or small group rituals, whilst the white ones were used for larger, community-based group rituals has also been put forward.

It has also been pointed out that the rock paintings were still in use during the early 20th century by local people. For instance, the Hambukushu are recorded to have used the White Paintings Shelter for community healing rituals.   

Featured image: Rock paintings in Tsodilo Hills, Botswana.  Photo source: ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Wu Mingren

References

Botswana Tourism Organisation, 2013. Tsodilo Hills. [Online]
Available at: http://www.botswanatourism.co.bw/destination/tsodilo-hills

Campbell, A. & Robbins, L., 2009. Tsodilo Hill, Botswana. [Online]
Available at: http://www.rockartscandinavia.com/images/articles/tsodiloa9.pdf

Livingstone, J., 2013. Cave Paintings of Botswana: An Ancient History of the Sacred & the Self in the African Hills. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/botswanan-cave-paintings

Michler, I., 2016. Botswana Travel Guide to Tsodilo Hills. [Online]
Available at: http://www.botswana.co.za/Area_Guides-travel/tsodilo-hills-guide.html

Segadika, P., 2006. Managing Intangible Heritage at Tsodilo. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sonoma.edu/users/p/purser/anth590/tsodilo%20intangible.pdf

Trust for African Rock Art, 2016. Rock Art of Botswana. [Online]
Available at: http://africanrockart.org/tara-african-rock-art-photo-gallery/botswana/

UNESCO, 2016. Tsodilo. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1021

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