'Geometric' Motifs in Khoe-San Rock Art: Depictions of Designs, Decorations and Ornaments in the Gestoptefontein-Driekuil Complex, South Africa

In: Journal of African Archaeology
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  • 1 School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand

‘Geometric’ motifs in rock art — so-called because they superficially resemble certain mathematical shapes — are globally widespread and likely have different meanings. Southern African researchers have described these motifs variously as ‘abstract’, ‘non-representational’, or ‘entoptic phenomena’. Research at the Gestoptefontein-Driekuil Complex (GDC), a cluster of rock art sites in South Africa’s North West Province, suggests, however, that certain ‘geometric’ motifs depict recognisable, tangible and significant objects. I use Leonard Schultze’s term Khoe-San (originally Khoi-San) to refer to the speakers of languages in the Khoe- Kwadi, Ju|’hoasi and Tuu language families whose ethnographic accounts and objects I study. I identify motifs that have been scratched and hammered into the rock as designs, patterns, and items of personal adornment, including headbands and hair attachments. These occur on the same rock surfaces as motifs of clothing (especially aprons) and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic depictions. The images of designs, decorations and ornaments can be associated with initiation-related ceremonies that may have been performed at the GDC. Although I do not claim that all geometric-looking motifs depict some ‘thing’, the interpretation of certain geometric motifs as depictions of material objects and designs made on these can fruitfully be extended to many other rock engraving sites in southern Africa.

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