Twyfelfontein Rock Art | Damaraland, North | West Namibia

Rock carvings near Twyfekfontein Country LodgeRock carvings near Twyfekfontein Country Lodge

In the north-west corner of Namibia, Damaraland is home to one of the oldest cultural groups in the country. After being pushed out of their traditional areas by Nama and Herero newcomers, the Damara were resettled in the Erongo region after independence.

Damaraland, North-west Namibia

Trees dot the dry riverbeds, testimony to the underground water that provides the Damara people and the resident herds of springbok, desert elephant and leopard with their life blood.

The Twyfelfontein valley is ringed in ridges and domes of blistered rock, fractured by the forces of heat and time. Shards of crystal are embedded in the rocks and scattered underfoot. The dome shaped hills are 560 million years old. At Twyfelfontein, the rocks tell a story of a people and a time far older than the Damara.

Rock Art

Over the millenia, this region has passed through periods of swamp and forest, glacier, desert and volcanic activity. South America and Africa broke apart some 120 million yrs ago. The ensuing lava flows are visible at the geological attractions, Burnt Mountain and the Organ Pipes. 180 million years ago, the climate warmed up and huge areas of Southern Africa and South America became desert. The petrified remains of ancient sand dunes surround the Twyfelfontein valley. The sandstone has eroded into fantastic shapes, providing a vast natural canvas for prehistoric artists.

Unlike the painted rock art of their cousins elsewhere in Southern Africa, stone was both the medium and the method for these ancient San artists. There are more than 2 000 rock engravings in this valley which was proclaimed a National Monument in 1952. There is archaeological evidence of human habitation here for at least the past 6 000 years. The engravings could be as old as this, although no one knows, as there is no way of dating them. When Damara herders arrived in the 1930's, the San moved on and that was the last of them in this valley. But, the rock art they left behind tells their tale.

What, at first glance, looks like inhospitable terrain is soon obvious as ideal San territory. In this arid region with less than 150mm of rainfall a year, there is a fresh-water spring. It is not year-round, however. Hence, Twyfelfontein 's name, 'Doubtful Fountain.' Rocky overhangs and caves provided shelter for the San from cold and predators.

Etchings

It is obligatory to take a local guide when visiting the site. Maureen is our 20 year-old Damara guide from Khorixas, the tiny administrative capital of Damaraland. Maureen is one of a twin among five kids. Her mother works in a hospital and her father in the government's housing department. At 9 o' clock on a late October morning, it's already hot. We clamber over slabs of rust red rock sheared from the mountain face. Apart from designated sites, there are engravings everywhere you look. You need to watch your feet or you'll find yourself standing on them.

According to Maureen, the San believed that, because of their long necks that stretched to the clouds, the giraffe were rain-givers. So, the San never hunted giraffe. The first set of engravings we come across show giraffe in company with a parade of animals akin to Etosha's waterholes during the dry season: Zebra, elephant, eland, springbok and two rhinos, antelope spoor and bushman footprint. In another stony etching of Eden with giraffe, moving ostrich, rhino and lizard, is a hippo.

It is hard to believe that this watery mammal was once present in this place of stones. On another large rock face, as unexpected as the hippo, is the unmistakeable outline of two seals and opposite them a penguin. The San would make the long trek to the coast for salt; today about 150km by road. They would return and record the strange creatures that they had seen there. In another series of engravings, the concentric rings look at first sight like a bicycle but are in fact waterholes on a rocky map.

Paintings

All the images up until now have been etchings. We come across the first paintings in an overhang; ochre figures daubed from oryx blood and ostrich egg cells. Several of the figures are short and represent the small and wiry San, while the taller figures are the encroaching Himba. The painting is a warning to other passing San that their enemies have been sighted in the area.

The artist's premonition is frozen in time and cast in stone. The Himba and the Damara drove the Bushman out. We come across the poignant remnants of a stone circle in which the San would light a fire with the crystal littered underfoot, and dance.. into the shadowy realms of history.

by Laurianne Claase
Copyright interACTnow 2004
African Safaris Guide to South and East Africa
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