Some 2000 years ago Phoenician seafarers sailed down the coast of Africa, ended up in Namibia, crossed the Namib and painted a picture of their princess on rock. You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out that this story belongs in the realm of fairy tales and legends. Nevertheless, experts seriously discussed this as a theory for years. Even the name of the main figure is a reminder of it: the White Lady, one of the most famous rock paintings in southern Africa. It draws hundreds of tourists into the Tsisab Valley of the Brandberg Mountain west of Uis every year.
The White Lady was discovered in January 1918 by Reinhard Maack, a German surveyor and later geologist, who explored the Brandberg with his friends to map it. Maack’s sketch and description of the rock painting prompted Frenchman Henri Breuil to visit the site. Breuil, a renowned expert on European rock art, saw similarities between the Brandberg paintings and ancient Mediterranean art. He interpreted the figure’s long hair and the white paint on the lower body and legs as distinct characteristics of a European woman. Possibly he found it difficult to believe that African cultures were able to produce paintings which he recognised as great art.
In fact the figure’s male characteristics are difficult to overlook, including bow and arrow (not bow and musical instrument) and the unmistakably male genitals. In 1950 when Breuil studied the picture details must still have been clearly visible. Uninformed tourists, who caused it to fade by spraying it with water or even Coke for more contrast in their photos, arrived much later. Today the picture may only be viewed with an official guide, and railings keep visitors at a distance.
The site also includes further references to African artists. The “lady” is not alone but part of a group of figures painted in a similarly artful manner. One of them is clearly recognisable as a woman. Scientists now agree that the white colour suggests body painting. The main figure may therefore be a shaman, a medicine man.
The White Lady made Brandberg world famous, even though the paintings in the Maack Cave are not the most striking on the mountain nor are they representative. So far some 1000 rock art sites totalling around 50,000 pictures have been registered. According to expert estimates they were painted 2000 to 4000 years ago. Seventy percent of them depict human figures and 20 percent depict animals, almost exclusively large game that does not occur in the upper mountain reaches. The remaining 10 percent depict various other themes. The artists used earth pigments (iron oxide minerals), mostly red, but also black and white and occasionally some yellow.
It is still unclear why the people of that time painted. The only certainty is that the rock pictures were not intended as art in our sense of the word. According to experts painting was an important part of rituals, to heal, for example, or to strengthen the community. The pictures are also seen as a “reference work” to pass down knowledge from generation to generation.
The origin of the artists is also a mystery. It is thought that they were hunters and gatherers who moved about in groups of around 20 members. Presumably they made collective decisions. Not only the San but all population groups with hunter-gatherer ancestors qualify as descendants of these prehistoric artists.
Anyone who wants to see the White Lady and other beautiful paintings has to register at the entrance to the Tsisab Valley and may only continue with an official guide. The guides are trained and supported by the National Monuments Council.
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