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Rock Art Namibia Africa

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

Cupules and animal engravings at Twyfelfontein

2.3: Attempts at Interpretation (Page 2)

Rock Art of Twyfelfontein in Namibia, Africa


At Site 2.1 we find some possible examples (Figure 8), and also the cupules near the oryx legs at panels 4.13 and 4.15 might be regarded as instances of cupule-spoor combinations (Figure 27). Panel 4.21.1 is the only rock where just spoor and cupules (apart from faint paintings on the other side of the block - Ouzman 2002) are found together (Figure 36 ), but especially as the cupules appear distinctly spatially separated from the spoor, they may not be contemporary and their relation with the spoor, if any, is obscure (although Scherz [1975: 197] wondered if the cupules might have been used to count the killed leopards). In summary, cupules associated with spoor at Twyfelfontein may be earlier (possibly panel 4.21.1), contemporary (panel 2.1), or later (panel 4.13).

Except for perhaps the sporadic spoor-cupule combinations there are no convincing examples of purposeful and relational additions of cupules to animal imagery at Twyfelfontein. However, the apparently unintentional and haphazard superimposition of cupules upon animal imagery does occur and involves both random clusters and rows of cupules. Again there are only few examples. The best examples of random superimposition are found on panels 3.1 and 3.2, and possible examples exist on panels 4.6, 4.7, 4.8.1, 4.14, 4.17 and 4.18. Although the practice of superimposing cupules upon animals seems to imply that such cupules are relatively (much) younger than the animal depictions, in absolute sense they still may range from very old to relatively recent, in view of the great age of the animal rock-art tradition in general at Twyfelfontein.

The reason to superimpose cupules upon animal imagery at Twyfelfontein is obscure, but it is possible that the execution had more to do with the site and/or the rock itself than specifically relating with the animal imagery. Again, as there is no informed knowledge, only analogies may help to access the possible reason(s) for such cupules.

However, a distant rock-art site may offer an explanation. On the north coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is a low eminence of irregular lava called 'Ava 'o Kiri. On this outcrop are three panels with altogether four large engravings of fish, some fishhooks and some natural and possibly cultural cupules, as well as a few faint and indeterminate markings. Importantly, at the foot of the outcrop and out of sight of the fish engravings is a horizontal outcrop. It is covered with more than 30 polissoir (flat and oblong tool-sharpening depressions) and some anthropic cupules. The small number of fish engravings on the impediment does not justify the presence of so many polissoir. Therefore, I suggested that the lower outcrop was specially selected by the islanders to sharpen their tools because of the importance of the place, also acknowledged by the execution of a special sequence of fish engravings. Perhaps it was thought that supernatural potency (called mana in the Polynesian culture) could be derived from the rock by sharpening their tools and by executing cupules at this specific spot (Van Hoek 2000a: 14-15). Could this idea also explain the execution of cupules at Twyfelfontein? Might the non-visual explain many of the cupules there (and elsewhere)?

Interestingly, Ouzman quite independently postulated a similar idea recently (2001: 245). He describes some animal engravings from southern Africa that were carefully and repeatedly rubbed with the fingers or pieces of hide at specific spots. Importantly, Ouzman argues that "rubbing them [those spots] allowed people to access the potency they embodied" (Ibid. 247). Although in first instance the manufacturing of cupules does not actually represent instances of rubbing (though tool sharpening activities do), their execution may still have had the same purpose. Ouzman notably argues that "Such cutting and hammering of the rock also functioned more generally as a means of piercing the rock so that potency could flow from the Spirit World into the Ordinary World" (Ibid. 248) and into the person or even the group that manufactured those openings. This idea would explain the random placement of such cupules on the rock. If the purpose of probably shamanic rituals were to release potency from the Spirit World, it would not really matter where those cupules were placed. Indeed, except for the cupule-spoor combination, cupules at Twyfelfontein are not exclusively related with one specific animal species (like the giraffe or ostrich) or with specific parts of an animal's body (see for instance Figure 11, Figure 12, Figure 13 and Figure 20).

This may indicate that those cupules were probably related to the potency of the rock and to the potency of the place itself. The potency of both the rock and the site had already been acknowledged by meaningful animal imagery. The same concept may be valid for the giraffe engravings with heavy cupule-infill (Figure 50) and other examples from the Sahara, although there is no informed knowledge regarding Saharan rock-art about a possible shamanic context.

There is even a more complex explanation of such randomly placed cupules. Apart from possibly representing passages between the Spirit World and the Ordinary World, the execution of those cupules could fulfil the desire to possess pieces of such potent places (Ibid. 248). Indeed, many of the engraved rocks at Twyfelfontein are heavily flaked (for instance the cupule rocks at sites 3.2 and 4.5) and it is worthwhile to examine whether this flaking was natural or cultural of origin (or, sadly, caused by vandalism). When rock-art panels prove to have been flaked culturally, this could point to the desire to possess a part of a potent site (Ibid. 250).

But the execution of cupules hardly ever produces flakes suitable enough to take away (although some Twyfelfontein cupules indeed look "flaky" - for instance the cupule on rock 4.5, marked B in Figure 18). Therefore, to overcome this problem, another method might have been invented. The manufacturing of cupules (made by pounding, grinding or pecking) often produces a fine stone powder that can easily be swallowed by a person without causing harm (it is known that animals, like elephants, and groups of people occasionally consume certain types of clay during severe shortages of food). Consuming stone powder from cupule rocks for several reasons has also been reported from other areas. For instance, in Europe, cupule-powder is said to have been used as or in medicine (Evers 1996: 83; Schwegler 1992: 29; see also Callahan 2000 for a full report). In this respect it is worth mentioning that Ouzman (2001: 251) tentatively and carefully suggests that the ingestion of rock powder (called geophagy) might also have been a possible way for selected people in southern Africa to inhere the potency of an (engraved) rock or site.

Thus the execution of cupules at certain locales at Twyfelfontein may have been intended to create visible passages to the Spirit World and possibly simultaneously to produce a powder that could be ingested in order to absorb metaphorically and literally the potency of the place.

Possibly also the sound of hammering during the execution was equally important (Ibid. 247). Indeed, certain sandstones at Twyfelfontein have an acoustic effect when hammered or struck with bare hands. I did not attempt however, to induce acoustic effects at engraved rocks in order not to cause any damage, but certain rocks near engraved panels indeed proved to have certain acoustic qualities (for instance, the stone immediately NW of site 4.9). Possibly, also some cupule stones at Twyfelfontein have (or once had) certain acoustic properties that triggered the execution of those cupules. The desire to produce sound (the sounds themselves and/or their echoes; Waller 1997) may also be the explanation for "clouds" of hammer marks on several stones, for instance the circular grouping at site 4.6 (Figure 58), and just possibly also the rows at site 2.

rock art cupules namibia africaFigure 59 A
Click for Enlargement
rock art cupules namibia africaFigure 59 B
Click for Enlargement

However, the production of dots in painted art does not cause any acoustic effect. And yet, also many paintings feature dots that are suggestive of cupules. A fine example is found in a cave at Pech-Merle, France, where black dots have been painted in and around two black horses (Figure 59 A). Those dots (and the horses) have been interpreted as the product of (shamanic) hallucinations (Lewis-Williams 1991: 157). A similar interpretation is offered for the deeply engraved horse pierced with holes in the cave at Montespan, France (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998: Fig. 69). In first instance the ensemble was interpreted by earlier researchers as a hunting scene, but, according to Clottes & Lewis-Williams, the many holes outside the horse's body rather suggest a metaphorical, possibly shamanic context.

It is often argued (Blundell 1998: 3; Dowson 1989: 84) that also most of the Bushman/San rock-art of southern Africa is shamanic of character. It is therefore possible that also the art at Twyfelfontein, the majority of which most probably is authored by the ancestors of the modern San peoples, is mainly shamanic of origin. One of the most important sources of shamanic imagery no doubt is the trance experience of the shaman, which is said to evolve in three stages (Lewis-Williams 1987: 240; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1988: 208; Blundell 1998). Importantly in the scope of this work, the first stage of trance is characterised by experiencing often moving or shimmering entoptic forms (geometric shapes generated by the nervous system within the eyes) such as zigzags, meandering lines and nested curves, but also by hallucinating dots of different sizes.

Especially these (micro)dots frequently appear in the painted imagery of southern Africa, and have been compared with dots associated with paintings of animals in European caves (Lewis-Williams 1991: 425). In southern Africa, for instance Dowson (1989: 89) reports of paintings of animals that have microdots superimposed upon their bodies, like a feline from the Natal Drakensberg, for which he argues that the animal does not represent a (natural spotted) leopard, but instead depicts a shaman in trance imbued with supernatural potency.

Much larger finger dots have been superimposed upon a painting of an eland (Dowson 1989: Fig. 13), an animal considered by the southern San to have more supernatural potency than any other animal (Ibid. 91). In first instance the dots appear to have been arranged in a haphazard way (Figure 59 B), but it is more likely that the finger dots were intentionally placed upon parts of the eland's body that were important to the artist (see for instance Ouzman 2001: 245). A painting of a "hallucinatory" eland (?) from South Africa has angular lines and dots superimposed (Lewis-Williams 1987: Fig. 6A).

The "random" placement of those dots much resembles the position of cupules noticed at certain animal engravings (Figure 46 F and Figure 46 G; Figure 47 C and Figure 47 D; Figure 55, disregarding the problems of chronology for the moment). But also rows and spiral-shaped clusters of cupules (Figure 46 D and Figure 46 E; Figure 47 B) could have been derived from the first stage of trance experience, as they often appear as chains of dots (Dowson 1989: 87).

In Part 1.3, I already suggested that the rows of painted dots in southern African rock paintings could be functionally comparable to certain (rows of) cupules at Twyfelfontein. It therefore cannot be ruled out that certain sets of cupules at Twyfelfontein, especially the rows and rosettes of relatively small cupules, have a shamanic background, and, just possibly, that in particular the cupules that appear in combination with animal imagery may have had the same meaning and content as the painted dots, notably to symbolise and/or to acquire supernatural potency (as has been suggested by Dowson [1989: 91] for the painted (micro)dots in southern African rock-art).

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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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