A Survey into the Relationship between
Animal-Engravings and Cupules
Cupules and animal engravings at Twyfelfontein
Rock Art of Twyfelfontein in Namibia, Africa
The simplicity of the cupule, its universal occurrence, its appearance in almost every prehistoric and historical period, and the general lack of informed knowledge concerning these markings, make the cupule one of the most enigmatic features of rock-art imagery. Even when informed knowledge is available (or when formal methods yield reliable information), the meaning of the cupule still proves to be so diverse that it will be impossible to give just one explanation for the cupule, also when it co-occurs with animal imagery. It is even possible that one single artist attributed different meanings to various cupules used by him/her in one work of art. Without direct information, these meanings are inaccessible to us. Therefore, interpretations often involve guesswork. Also the co-occurrence of cupules and animal art at Twyfelfontein (and of course elsewhere) inevitably invited reflection on many varying issues. I will briefly review the most significant issues here.
First of all, it is almost certain that the cupules at Twyfelfontein (and also the paintings and the animal engravings) also are a reflection of the enormous religious importance of the place that provided water in a large, arid area for many thousands of years. Consequently the place became a major spiritual and social centre. Just possibly also cupules were among the first signs on the rocks at Twyfelfontein confirming that spirituality, as might be evidenced by the cupules on stone 1.1 (Figure 6). However, all remarks regarding relative chronology must be considered with caution, as there is no evidence available to support the observations regarding the dating of the engravings. This means that there is also no proof that cupules are indeed the oldest surviving markings at Twyfelfontein. The actual meaning of those "primordial" cupules will also remain obscure forever.
It is highly probable that cupules were executed during almost every rock-art period at Twyfelfontein, as is evidenced by several instances of superimposition. The manifestations are again most diverse. There notably is a big difference between the rows of small cupules that are superimposed upon geometric motifs (Figure 23 and Figure 24) and the much larger cupules superimposed upon animal engravings at sites 3 (Figure 12 and Figure 13), 4.5 (Figure 18) and 4.6 (Figure 20).
Also it is by no means certain that the cupules belong to the Khoekhoen geometric art. It is not even certain that all geometric art is of Khoekhoen origin. There notably is a big difference between the cupule-circular geometric art (Figure 6) and the cupule-less curvilinear geometric art (Figure 92) at the place. Another argument is that geometric engravings and also many cupules have a much more weathered appearance with a patina that looks distinctly older than adjacent animal imagery (that may have been re-worked, however).
This survey of cupule rock-art at Twyfelfontein rendered it to be most unlikely however that the cupules that co-occur with animal engravings are directly and intimately related to those animal images. Except for the relatively scarce cupule-spoor combinations (Figure 8 and Figure 36), the two cupule-oryx combinations (Figure 27) and the cupule at the leg of the small animal at Site 18 (Figure 32), there are no other instances at Twyfelfontein that demonstrate such an intimate relation.
However, in other rock-art regions all over the world, several specific combinations of cupules with animals have been described, the most notable being cupules representing eyes and natural skin patterning and/or cultural skin decoration, although there will also be many instances where cupule infill may relate to specific rituals (like with the giraffe engraving in Figure 50
Yet, at Twyfelfontein there are no eyes or nostrils depicted, certainly not by cupules. And there are definitely no instances of cupules used as skin patterning or as skin decoration. There are also no cupules placed at significant body parts, such as on the womb, just below the tail or at the tail end of animals. There are no cupules representing (ostrich) eggs. At least, at Twyfelfontein there are no cupules associated with ostrich engravings (an animal species quite frequently depicted at Twyfelfontein), although there is one panel (4.6) where cupules are found associated with bird (ostrich?) engravings. But in this instance the cupules do not seem to represent eggs as the cupules are widely scattered across the panel. Also, there are no cupules indicating genital areas. There are no (rows of) cupules deliberately connecting animal engravings, although in the painted art of southern Africa animals frequently are connected by lines, either straight lines or zigzags. There are no cupules outlining animal engravings as we have seen at Toro Muerto, Peru (Figure 51 J). And there are no clear instances where clusters of cupules may form a trap in which an animal is driven.
It may therefore be concluded that the majority of the cupules at Twyfelfontein that are associated with animal engravings probably more express an intimate relation with the rock and/or the place where they are found than with the animal imagery itself. Such rock- or place-related cupules may represent a means of contacting and accessing the Spiritual World hidden behind the rock surface. An additional reason to produce cupules might have been the desire to acquire (or even ingest) pieces of those sacred places, possibly also as mnemonic devices. It cannot be ruled out however, that some of the (rows of) smaller cupules represent entoptic imagery of the first stage of shamanic trance experiences, as most probably the engravings at Twyfelfontein are related to the shamanistic world-views that are so characteristic for most of the southern African peoples.