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Changing fortunes of Southern African archaeology: comment on A.D. Mazel's 'history.' (response to A.D. Mazel, Antiquity, vol. 66, p. 710, 1992)

Histories of research provide insight into the prevailing attitudes within a discipline at a given time and, often, lingering survivals of outdated methods. Mazel's 'history' (1992: 758--67), part of a special section on 'archaeology, history and the uttermost ends of the earth' (ANTIQUITY 66: 710--83), provides both of these.

Mazel's history documents 150 years of Bushman(+) hunter-gatherer occupation in the Natal Drakensberg of South Africa and their changing fortunes at the hands of historians and archaeologists. Mazel rehearses points discussed more fully by Wright (1971) and Vinnicombe (1976), major studies that challenged prevailing constructions of the Drakensberg's past far more than Mazel allows. And there is in Mazel's piece something sorely missing, perhaps not missed but certainly summarily dismissed. The Drakensberg has some of the most complex rock art in the world; it was produced by Bushman hunter-gatherers. Further, as Mazel points out (1992: 758), its interpretation has contributed to the understanding of rock art worldwide. Yet he provides no further comment on the rock art, its study, or why it is missing from his history.

The exclusion of rock art research from archaeological practice in Southern Africa is commonplace, even today. A new pamphlet entitled A career in archaeology, produced by the Southern African Association of Archaeologists, Department of Archaeology, University of Stellenbosch, ignores the study of rock art made by indigenous peoples of Southern Africa. Together, this pamphlet and Mazel's history demonstrate the marginal role rock art is accorded by Southern African archaeologists, with very few exceptions (Manhire et al. 1986; Parkington et al. 1986; Hall 1986; 1990; Kinahan 1989; 1991; Parkington 1989).

In Mazel's history of the Natal Drakensberg the absence of rock art and its study is inexplicable. It has been the focus of numerous rock art researchers in Southern Africa, from Breuil (1949) to Lewis-Williams (1981). Indeed, Mazel (1982; 1983; see also Manhire et al. 1986) himself has worked on rock art in this region. Further, the Drakensberg rock art provided the material for each major conceptual shift in research on Bushman art in Southern Africa. And it was the study of rock art, not archaeology as it is presently perceived in South Africa, that finally, in 1992, led custodians of art galleries and cultural museums to incorporate rock art in their displays, where it will finally appear alongside other Southern African cultural materials and not just juxtaposed with stuffed animals and geological specimens in natural history museums. The sensitive study of rock art has done much to change attitudes towards the Bushman people of Southern Africa.

The ignoring of rock art by archaeologists, historians and art historians comes from the misconception that the art merely depicts, albeit in a complex manner, Bushman religious beliefs. Yet Lewis-Williams (1982) demonstrated that beliefs associated with painting in the Drakensberg were part of the social and economic fabric of hunter-gatherer existence. This paper provided the first explicit, socially theoretical approach to Later Stone Age life in Southern Africa. Campbell (1986; 1987), continuing this approach, demonstrated how changing social conditions in the Drakensberg, brought about by the arrival of new people, transformed Bushman social formations. Yet, because Lewis-Williams and Campbell dealt with religious beliefs associated with the production of rock paintings, their work has been ignored by the majority of Later Stone Age archaeologists; their approach to Bushman history is not even cited by Mazel.

Rather, Mazel concentrates on early European colonial reports about the Bushmen and on the results of excavations by white archaeologists. Barham (1992), challenging archaeologists' use of occupational debris in their quest for social interpretations, suggests that rock art is more suited to this line of enquiry. But nowhere are the Bushmen's complex images of changing social conditions over the last 2000 years allowed to enter Mazel's history.

Despite deconstructionist jargon (e.g. 1992: 766), Mazel's Drakensberg history effectively remains colonial in character (see Trigger 1984). As Trigger (1984: 360) points out, colonialist archaeology was practised by colonists who had no historical connections with the indigenous people they investigated. Consequently, what the early colonists did was to glorify their own past and emphasise the primitiveness of the indigenous people. By ignoring the Bushman people's major artistic accomplishments, and failing to recognize these as integrally involved in daily social practice, Mazel's 'archaeological' construction continues to negotiate a 'primitive' stereotype of the Bushmen.

Our constructions of the past can go beyond a colonialist approach, with its abhorrent stereotypes, only if we are sensitive to the creativity of indigenous people. For the Bushmen, this involves turning to their rock art. Some Southern African archaeologists still feel this is an impossible, if not unnecessary, approach to the past. But as Hodder (1989: 16) suggests, 'As much as we need to develop critical theories, experiment with new writings, and otherwise engage in the present, we also need to contribute to contemporary thought by thinking through new archaeological data'. This, more than anything, is what is needed in Southern African archaeology today. Rock art can supply 'new archaeological data'.

Indeed, 'history' is a Western construct that privileges events that can, more or less, be pinpointed in time. Mazel takes 'history' as a given and therefore writes a Western history (that pinpoints certain kinds of events and ignores or marginalizes others) of colonial times in Southern Africa. What is needed is a new concept of 'history' that breaks from emphasising a chronology of only certain kinds of events, one which accepts other evidence and other kinds of statements and constructions. It is through a new history in the specific Southern African context, not the unquestioning reproduction of the old, valueladen Western construct of history that Mazel presents, that the past will, contrary to Mazel's assertion (1992: 766), benefit the Bushmen, and that people like them will be able to take their rightful place in a truly new Southern African history.

The changing fortunes to which Mazel alludes are not those of the Bushmen at the hands of archaeologists or historians with their increasingly complicated and self-reflexive theoretical frameworks or increasingly sophisticated excavation and analytical techniques, for the Bushmen have painted their history. Indeed, the rock art negotiates their history more than occupational debris and early colonial reports (cf. Barham 1992). The Bushmen were amongst the first producers of their history, and indirectly and unknowingly they are still involved in its continued production. The changing fortunes, then, will remain essentially those of the archaeologists and historians, until their constructions of the past are informed by the insights painted by the Bushmen themselves.

It may seem that my comments are unjustifiable because they are directed at a single paper by Mazel. But Mazel's paper, and the special section it is in, are intended to make a profound comment on the future of archaeology at the uttermost ends of the earth. In South Africa, as anywhere, rock art cannot be excluded from that long-overdue statement. I therefore feel it necessary to reiterate a point made by Gamble (1992: 718) in his introductory contribution to the special section: 'it is about time ... to chart a new course for the practice of [Southern African] archaeology'; a course that includes, and upfronts, rock art. Archaeology in South Africa still has a significant step to take before it will burst 'the historical bubble'.

A 'history' of the Drakensberg, or of any part of Southern Africa for that matter, that ignores the artistic tradition of the Bushmen, thus silencing the only significant Bushman voice we have left in some areas, is merely perpetuating the prejudices of the past. Through such emotionally charged images of Bushmen being killed by Europeans (FIGURE 1), rock art continues to challenge the prejudices of the past. Rock art can contribute to the making of history, despite and, simultaneously, because of the genocide that brought the tradition to an end. Like the German soldier whom Wilfred Owen encountered when he escaped from battle, each rock art image cries out, paradoxically, 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend'.



BREUIL, H. 1949. Some foreigners in the frescoes on rocks in Southern Africa, South African Archaeological Bulletin 4:39--50.

BARHAM, L.S. 1992. Let's walk before we run: an appraisal of historical materialist approaches to the Later Stone Age, South African Archaeological Bulletin 47: 44--51.

CAMPBELL, C. 1986. Images of war: a problem in San rock art research, World Archaeology 18: 255--68. 1987. Art in crisis: contact period rock art in the south-eastern mountains. MSc. thesis, University of the Witwatersrand.

GAMBLE, C. 1992. Archaeology, history and the uttermost ends of the earth -- Tasmania, Tierra del Fuego and the Cape, Antiquity 66: 712--20.

HALL, S.L. 1986. Pastoral adaptations and forager reactions in the eastern Cape, South African Archaeological Society, Goodwin Series 5: 42--9. 1990. Hunter-gatherer-fishers of the Fish River Basin: a contribution to the Holocene prehistory of the Eastern Cape. Ph.D thesis, University of Stellenbosch.

HODDER, I. 1989. Comments on archaeology into the 1990s, Norwegian Archaeological Review 22: 15--18.

KINAHAN, J. 1989. Pastoral nomads of the central Namib Desert. Ph.D thesis, University of the Witwatersrand. 1991. Pastoral nomads of the Central Namib Desert: the people history forgot. Windhoek: Namibia Archaeological Trust & new Namibia Books.

LEWIS-WILLIAMS, J.D. 1981. Believing and seeing: symbolic meanings in southern San rock paintings. London: Academic Press. 1982. The economic and social context of southern San rock art, Current Anthropology 23: 429--49.

MANHIRE, A.H., J.E. PARKINGTON, A.D. MAZEL & T.M.O'C. MAGGS. 1986. Cattle, sheep and horses: a review of domestic animals in the rock art of southern Africa, South African Archaeological Society, Goodwin Series 5: 22--30.

MAZEL, A.D. 1982. Distribution of painting themes in the Natal Drakensberg, Annals of the Natal Museum 25: 67--82. 1983. Eland, rhebuck and cranes: identifying seasonality in the paintings of the Drakensberg, South African Archaeological Society, Goodwin Series 4: 34--7. 1992. Changing fortunes: 150 years of San hunter-gather history in the Natal Drakensberg, South Africa, Antiquity 66: 758--67.

PARKINGTON, J. 1989. Interpreting paintings without a commentary, Antiquity 63: 13--26.

PARKINGTON, J.E., R. YATES, A.H. MANHIRE & D. HALKETT. 1986. The social impact of pastoralism on prehistoric settlement patterns, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 5: 313--29.

TRIGGER, B.G. 1984. Alternative archaeologies: nationalist, colonialist, imperialist, Man 19: 355--70.

VINNICOMBE, P. 1976. People of the eland: rock paintings of the Drakensberg Bushmen as a reflection of their life and thought. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

WRIGHT, J.B. 1971. Bushman raiders of the Drakensberg 1840--1870. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

([dagger])There is still much debate over the use of the words 'Bushman' and 'San'. Neither is unproblematic. I have, however, chosen to follow the lead of certain anthropologists, who, after discussing this issue with the people in the Kalahari, have found the word 'Bushman' to be more acceptable than 'San'.
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Author:Dowson, Thomas A.
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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