~ Ansel Adams
On January 23rd the Wall Street Journal published an article and fascinating slide show about the ancient paintings in Inanke Cave in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park. This cave and hundreds like it were painted between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago by the people known as the San. There are two absolutely remarkable things to know about the San: first, they are believed to be the very earliest of all living humans — and second, yes, they are living humans, still very much among us. Commonly called Bushmen, modern San primarily live in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
While Inanke has the region’s most extensive paintings, the Matobo National Park Web site also speaks highly of the paintings at Nswatugi Cave and several others in the area. The faint paintings of white rhinoceros in the cave known as White Rhino Shelter actually inspired Zimbabwe to reintroduce the species to the park.
The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Fitzgerald describes the startling wealth of imagery on the walls of Inanke. “Beneath Inanke's encompassing dome, herds of giraffe, eland, kudu, ostrich and duiker, among others, fill a broad painted band running the length of the back wall just above eye level,” he writes. “They offer a celebration of life equal to any of the mural cycles of the Renaissance.”
Sculptor David Maritz, who grew up in Central Africa and has visited Inanke many times, writes movingly about the caves and their influence on his art on his Web site. (This is his photo of the cave.) He explains that we know the meaning of the paintings because a German ethnologist named Wilhelm Bleek, who came to Africa in the 1870s to study the Zulu language, became fascinated with the “Click” language of the San. Bleek compiled a “12,000-page verbatim recording of the language, beliefs, and habits of the San people” that opened the door to understanding.
Maritz describes a recent visit to Inanke. Walking through the high grass he briefly lost his way — the cough of a nearby leopard sent him backtracking to the path. Being threatened by territorial baboon troops is also a commonplace for visitors to the cave, which can only be reached by foot. Referring to the ancient peoples who left their fascinating marks on Inanke, Lascaux and other painted caves, Maritz writes, “These first human artists were using the animal icons of their time, the Eland in Africa or the Bison or Aurochs in Europe, to empower themselves into the spirit world to seek the answers to the everyday problems of life. Their art was a real part of the solutions to these problems.”
Inanke is a breathtaking window into the culture and mystical beliefs of the oldest traceable members of our family tree. What talented babies we were.