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Nsangwini Bird Men.

Trance Rock Art of Nsangwini - Communing With the Spirits

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The San, often known as Bushmen or Khoisan, are people with an ancient culture and they have been living in Southern Africa for millennia. In Swaziland, officially known as the Kingdom of Eswatini, the Nsangwini rock art site has some of the finest San rock art in the region, with examples of Bushman art dating from 5000 to 500 years ago. These paintings allow us to understand the world of the ancient people and their worldview.

The History of the People with the Click

The San are a collection of hunter-gathers who have lived in Swaziland and other parts of southern Africa since the Stone Age, generally in extended kinship groups. They have a distinctive language that is noted for the use of clicks and are renowned for their hunting and tracking abilities.

In recent centuries many San were either killed or enslaved by both white colonist and African pastoralists. Colonialism led to a collapse in their numbers and many were forced to abandon their lifestyle. They have been increasingly marginalized in recent years, but still they continue to practice their ancient ways in remote areas.

Nsangwini Rock Art Hidden For Millennia

It was only in the 1950s that archaeologists discovered the paintings in a cave. These images were created by chipping away at the rock and applying paint to the engraving, a technique which has allowed them to survive for centuries, if not thousands of years. In recent years there has been much debate as to the age of the paintings and it is believed that some are 5,000 years old while, others date to five centuries ago.  At one time there was a series of ochre dots and shapes in one area of the cave, but these have since faded. 

Human and animal figures (Forrester, B / Swaziland National Trust Commission)

Human and animal figures (Forrester, B / Swaziland National Trust Commission)

The images are varied, but frequently include elephants, giraffes, antelopes, and lions. Many of the animals are amazingly life-like and not only are they rendered realistically, but also shown behaving as they do in the wild. The quality of the paintings is remarkable and the sunlight that flows into the cave has been used to great effect by the artists.

Perhaps the most intriguing images from the location are those of human figures. Many are of hunters holding spears. They are portrayed walking in a line during a hunt, which is a common San technique.

The images of farmers and pastoralists are believed to be the representation of the arrival of the Bantu-speaking groups in the area at the start of the Christian era because it was so important to the San’s history.

The Fascinating San Religion Exposed by Nsangwini Art

Many experts believe that the site played a significant part in the local Nsangwini San religion and culture. In the past they practiced a shamanic religion and it is believed they painted the images on the caves while in a trance, communing with spirits or the beings that they were representing in their art.

Many of the animals have symbolic meanings, such as the elephant which is associated with water - a vital commodity in the semi-arid regions of Swaziland.

The fissure in the cave was used by the artists to divide the world of humans from the world of spirts. Realistic images of men and animals are to the right of the fissure but to the left, bizarre and elongated figures that belong to the world of the supernatural were painted in the hopes of garnering their support or power. They are shown to be floating or flying through the air and are hybrids of humans and birds. One striking painting has the body of a person and the head of a praying mantis, while the tall figures in dark colors are thought to represent deities. 

The Journey To Nsangwini Rock Art Site

The remarkable cave is located in the Nkomati valley, between Maguga & Piggs peaks. There is plenty of accommodation near the Nsangwini rock art site, which is located in a mountainous region of Swaziland and is not far from the capital, Mbabane. The destination is clearly sign-posted and is about 5 miles off the road and accessed by a steep path. Any person who is relatively fit can make the trek to the cave.

Top image: Nsangwini Bird Men. Source: Swaziland National Trust Commission

By Ed Whelan

Edited 8 Oct 2021: The article incorrected stated the Nsangwini Rock Art Site was in Matopos National Park. It is in fact located in the Nkomati valley, between Maguga & Piggs peak, Swaziland


Forrester, B. (2009). Swaziland. Mbabane, Swaziland: Kamhlaba Publications

Available at:

Masson, J. R. (1961). Rock-Paintings in Swaziland. The South African Archaeological Bulletin, 16(64), 128-133

Available at:

Unwin, M. (2012). Swaziland. Bradt Travel Guides

Available at:,+Swaziland&ots=SWqwxpy8Oe&sig=R_7khrUvXT5Gj7-4Dm4RY4jhTLE&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Nsangwini%20rock%20art%2C%20Swaziland&f=false

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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