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Rock Art of Twyfelfontein, Namibia, Africa
A Survey into the Relationship between
Animal-Engravings and Cupules

Cupules and animal engravings at Twyfelfontein

2.2: Analogies of Cupule-Animal Combinations (Page 2)

Rock Art of Twyfelfontein in Namibia, Africa


Deeper inside the shelter but still on the same wall are possibly five mostly crudely executed animal figures and again a large number of randomly distributed cupules. There are two indications that some of the cupules are earlier. First there is a row of cupules (marked 1 in Figure 41) that seems to have been avoided by the execution of the tail of an animal, which is bent in an unusual manner. The second clue is given by the front legs of another animal, which have been engraved within a large cupule, a shallow basin rather (4 in Figure 41). Yet, some cupules might be more recent. Judging from a series of photos kindly provided by Ulrich Hallier, cupule 5 has not weathered much, and two cupules seem to be superimposed upon one of the animals (2 and 3 in Figure 41), another is placed on the largest cupule. In the same cave is a smaller block of stone with at least nine large anthropic depressions on its horizontal top (grinding hollows?) and some grooves that look like tool sharpening grooves. These features possibly indicate that the shelter once was used as a (temporary?) habitation place.

Roughly 3 km to the west is a small conical rock outcrop featuring another cluster of decorated rocks. On an almost vertical wall rhinoceros and elephant engravings occur together with cupules. These cupules are regarded by Hallier & Hallier (2000: 28), as anthropic depressions, although Soleilhavoup (2000: Fig. 11) considers them to be natural features. For us, modern researchers, this difference is important. One may wonder however, if it really would have made much difference to the prehistoric artists whether the depressions were natural or anthropic. In general, it is also possible that natural depressions were worked, so that they now appear as cultural cupules.

It is argued that the random cupules that occur with the rhinoceros are older because one of the grooves (marked by an arrow in Figure 42 A) clearly runs across one of the shallow and weathered cupules (Ulrich Hallier 2001: pers. comm.).

The elephant engravings are equally interesting. Again the randomly executed cupules seem to represent the earliest stage of engraving (Figure 43.1) followed by the addition of a groove parallel to ground level (A). Possibly the groove indicated a trap (Huard & Leclant illustrate many examples of such alleged traps: 1980a: 223 etc.). It is suggested (Huard & Leclant 1980a: 237, 251; Allard-Huard 1993: 147 etc) that also certain clusters of cupules may represent traps (Figure 46 B and Figure 46 E). It is therefore even possible that the cluster of depressions (whether natural or anthropic) below the groove also indicated a trap (or was interpreted as such) and that the groove was only meant to emphasise or define the trap.

Later (but how much later?) the line and cupules were superimposed by an elephant engraving (B in Figure 43.2), and later still, a much larger elephant was executed across the cupules and the smaller elephant (Figure 43.3). This sequence is evidenced by several instances of grooves that superimpose cupules and/or grooves (Figure 43.2C and Figure 43.3D).

One of the other panels at this site shows a bovine (possibly superimposed upon another, unidentified animal) that features not only five parallel grooves as possible artificial skin decoration, but also three rather large ovaloid cupules (Figure 44 B). These cupules appear to be more weathered than the polished outline-grooves of the bovine and may therefore be (much) older, but they may also be (worked?) natural depressions. Possibly those depressions attracted the manufacturer of the animal engraving, and they could have been incorporated to serve as skin decoration as well. But equally they may have been included (if on purpose) for completely different and unknown reasons.

There are also many instances where it is uncertain whether animal imagery was added to existing cupules simultaneously or distinctly later. An engraved panel at Wadi Aramas (Figure 39 Site 10), Messak Settafet, shows three incomplete bovines, one of which (Figure 45 B) seems to emerge from a cluster of small cupules, while three isolated cupules appear within the body of the animal. Below the cluster of cupules are some grooves that do not seem to belong to the animal. They look more like a curved arm. No evidence is presented that the animal is contemporary with the cupules, but it is clearly associated with the cluster of cupules. The incomplete animal could have been added to an existing group of cupules, or vice versa. In Saharan rock-art, it is quite customary notably, to find engraved animals deliberately depicted only partially (usually the front parts).

Lutz & Lutz (1999: Bild 2) state that this cluster of cupules represents the egg-laying of an ostrich, but they do not give a source for this assumption, nor do they explain the reason for a combination of "ostrich eggs" with a bovine (if indeed any relationship exists). Also the size of the cupules relative to the bovine seems to be too small (scale in Figure 45 B approximated from Lutz & Lutz 1999). Moreover, a laying of more than 50 ostrich eggs seems rather unlikely, at least for one ostrich. It is known however, that several females lay their eggs in one big cluster in order to minimise the risk of eggs being stolen and consumed.

It would be more logical to find an engraving of an ostrich combined with cupules, such as at Disselfontein, South Africa (Figure 46 A) and perhaps at Kaf el Metchia, Libya (Figure 39 Site 5), but in the latter case the cluster of 55 cupules (Figure 46 B) is said to represent a trap (Huard & Leclant 1980a: 251). Indeed, clusters of cupules are sometimes regarded as possible traps in hunting imagery. At Abka in Sudan (Figure 39 Site 23) for instance, there is an incomplete engraving of a giraffe hovering above a cluster of ten cupules, which is said to be a possible trap (Huard & Leclant 1980a: 237). And at nearby Gorgod (Figure 39 Site 22) there is a stylised giraffe "trapped" in an incised "sandal" and in a spiral-cluster of 36 cupules, the whole group hovering over a horizontal line of 12 cupules ((Figure 46 E).

It is therefore tempting to suggest that also the Wadi Aramas bovine (Figure 45 B) might represent a wild animal in a trap. But one has to be cautious. Lutz & Lutz notably state that the engraving represents a domesticated bovine dating from the earlier art periods (1999: 40). Therefore, those cupules may have had a completely different meaning.

Indeed, not every cluster of cupules will represent a trap. Also the bovine from Gira-Gira, Tibesti (Figure 39 Site 19) seems to be "trapped" by a number of cupules (Figure 46 G). But it could depict a domesticated animal, as it has no horns and features a spiral (artificial skin decoration?) at its rear end. Therefore those cupules could well belong to an unknown rock-art tradition from another period.

Possibly another argument against the idea of the cupules in Figure 45 B representing ostrich eggs is found at another site in the Messak area (location unspecified by Coulson & Campbell 2001: 185). They illustrate a group of possibly ten bovine-heads, one of which also seems to have a small cluster of cupules. It is situated near the withers of the largest and most complete animal (Figure 45 A). This is a most unlikely place for an ostrich nest. Moreover, the cluster seems to follow the flowing line of the shoulder and it therefore is acceptable to suggest that the cupules were added to the animal engraving (a little?) later.

Although the meaning of such cupules is still enigmatic, they simply could have been added to represent artificial skin decoration of (domesticated?) cattle. The practice to decorate the skin of cattle is often illustrated in African rock-art (Allard-Huard 2000; Coulson & Campbell 2001: 193; Hallier 1990, Hallier & Hallier 1992, 2001: 39; Lhote 1987) and is still practised by certain African societies today (Blauer 1999: 114).

Further examples of cattle with cupules for possible artificial skin decoration are found, for instance, to the west of the Aïr Mountains (Figure 39 Site 17). At Téguidda-n-Tagaït, Lhote (1987: 13) reports a bovine with interior lines and five widely scattered cupules, four within the animal's body (Figure 47 C). But again the cupules may be older or later, as one cupule is located in an apparently random (meaningless?) position below the animal. Other cupule-animal combinations in the same area occur at Moradi (Lhote 1987: 207, 208) and Oukaré (Lhote 1987: 269).

A heavily decorated bovine from Tin Territ, Tassili (Figure 39 Site 14) features several cupules incorporated in a jumble of spirals, circles and other grooves. Many grooves continue outside the bovine (not shown in Figure 45 C) and more geometric patterns are engraved on the rest of the panel. It therefore seems as if the bovine was executed on existing geometric designs and that after that more grooves and, later still, a set of large horns (also not shown in Figure 45 C) was added to the bovine (Allard-Huard 2000: Photo 123). All geometrics, both the original patterns and the added lines, possibly were regarded as artificial skin decoration. One of the three deep cupules at the top of the head however, may have been incorporated deliberately to depict an eye, which brings us to the next possibility: cupules representing certain physical parts of an animal.

World-wide, there are many instances where cupules form an integral part of animal imagery. For instance, there are engravings where cupules form the tail ends of animals. The lions (Figure 46 C) from Qued Chréa, Algeria (Figure 39 Site 2) and possibly the lion (Figure 47 B) from Tamokrine, Aïr (Figure 39 Site 17), feature cupules at their tail ends, which may have served to emphasise the function of the black tail-tip of female lions with which they signal to and attract the attention of the cubs.

More often however, cupules serve to indicate the eyes (and sometimes the nostrils) of animals, like at the impressive panel of the "crying cows" in SE Algeria (Coulson & Campbell 2001: Fig. 4) and the strange giraffe engraving from Wadi Mathendush (Figure 39 Site 9) that has two anthropic cupules facing the observer in a rather weird way (Fürst 1997: 90). Indeed, it has been argued that (pairs of) cupules may often have been executed to depict eye sockets and thus possibly symbolise vision or represent a symbolic association with light (Jacquet 2000: 148). But possibly such cupules are also metaphors for looking into other realms.

An eye at an animal engraving can either be indicated by a natural depression, as with the elephant at I-n-leludj, Akakus (Figure 39 Site 12; Jelínek 2000: 162), or by anthropic cupules, but in case of cultural depressions it is not always certain what was executed first: the cupule or the animal, as the following examples will show.

Authentic cultural cupules are found to represent eyes at a strange engraving from Oued Djerat, Tassili (Figure 39 Site 13). Two animals (bovines?) seem to share one horned head, bisected by a groove and each part having a cupule for an eye. It is possible that the animal was engraved around the two cupules, as there are four other, apparently randomly placed cupules (and traces of three more) on this piece of stone (Figure 45 E). It is also possible that some of the cupules were already there and inspired the manufacturer of the double-animal to use cupules for eyes.

The head of a bovine from Wadi Hassan (Figure 39 Site 11) features a row of four cupules (Figure 45 D), the largest said to represent the eye (Soleilhavoup 2000: 57). But if only the largest cupule does represent the eye, what then is the meaning of the three smaller ones? Possibly, one decided to incorporate four existing (natural or anthropic?) cupules as the eyes of a bovine engraving, while it did not matter to the manufacturer that he/she created too many eyes.

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Rock Art of Twyfelfontein in Namibia, Africa

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Rock Art of Twyfelfontein in Namibia, Africa

Rock Art of Twyfelfontein, Namibia, Africa
| Namibia Preface | Namibia Introduction | Twyfelfontein Cupules | Cupules & Animals | Picture Captions |
| Appendix 1 | Appendix 2 | Bibliography | Acknowledgements |
| Bradshaw Foundation Homepage | Africa Rock Art Index |

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