Long Read | An odyssey in search of ochre

A traveller’s tale traces the history of early ancestors and humans through the art, markings and symbols they left behind in caves, riverbed rocks and other sites in South Africa.

Level one of the Covid-19 lockdown seemed to be a good time to go to places less visited, with a tent on board to be able to camp outdoors, far from the risks and ravages of an unfriendly virus.

This would be a chance to explore bucket-list places not yet visited, for instance the Wonderwerk Cave near Kuruman where the first controlled use of fire has been attested a million years back. Also, Blinkkopklip, a nearby cave which has been mined for at least 1 200 years for an ore seen in its time as more precious than gold.

And the Blombos cave on the southern Cape coast where people have been making art and jewellery for 70 000 years.

The itinerary would include not only caves, but other spaces sacred in times past, where chippings, scratches, engravings and paintings have left indelible messages from a forgotten past, transforming a timeless landscape into a place with meaning, conceptualised in terms often obscure to us.

1 June 2012: The entrance to the McGregor Museum-managed Wonderwerk Cave, a national heritage site in Kuruman, Northern Cape. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ GO!)

The animals captured in this rock art – eland, gemsbok, elephant and zebra – have been on the scene so long it may as well have been forever. Much of the art is not of great antiquity itself, yet it speaks intimately of the spirituality of the people who created it.

Even the beginning of settler times, for example, is depicted in images of sea-faring craft, women in long dresses and men in hats with guns, horses and wagons. 

This would be a humble journey in a small 4×4, but would span three geological ages – the Pleistocene, the Holocene and the present Anthropocene – where man-made change hurtles us to a hellish future.

The time span of this story is so vast that it considerably predates modern humans; homo sapiens only having been around from perhaps 200 000 years ago. But the making of fire, the use of tools and pigments probably used for body adornment, stretches back much further. Our distant ancestors bristled with creativity as they shaped what we became.

First stop in Wonderwerk

Wonderwerk is just off the main road between Kuruman and Danielskuil in the Kalahari. While many sites billed as caves are often just large overhangs, Wonderwerk is a proper cave, three to seven metres high and extending 140 metres deep into the Kuruman hills.

The subject of detailed archaeological work since the 1970s, Wonderwerk shows the earliest use of controlled fire, with fragments of cooked animal and plant material being recovered and dated to a mind-boggling 1 million years. This ancestor is usually identified as homo erectus, a hominid with just one-third the brain size of sapiens.

Mastery of fire is seen to have been a key technological achievement by early humankind, allowing for warmth, protection from predators and making food more palatable, nutritious and digestible while extending activities earlier in the morning and later at night. Cooking, one view holds, transformed us from animals into humans.

The area had obviously received good rains, evident in long pale-green grass in abundance. The cave, part of the McGregor Museum, looks outward across a sprawling plain with antelopes and ostriches. Guide, Iris Khabae, opened the small museum and then unlocked the heavy gate to the cave. Normally there’d be archaeologists on site, but Covid-19 has halted work at present.

1 June 2012: A maze of demarcated research sites in the bowels of the Wonderwerk Cave. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ GO!)

There is a long walkway down the middle to the back of the cave. The rest is all marked with string lines and tags, with the deepest excavations being many metres deep. The cave, according to research published in April this year, has seen the longest occupation of any site. This puts habitation by our early ancestors as far back as 2 million years ago, making Wonderwerk the world’s oldest home.

Only one family of occupants, though, is known by name. This was the Bosman family who lived in the cave in the early 1900s before building a farmhouse on the property. PE Bosman, a giant of a man who was nearly two metres tall and weighed 200kg, lived in the cave with his wife, 14 children and livestock.

Wonderwerk is best known for the oldest intended use of fire. But a reading of its archaeology shows that specularite, an ore which when struck turns into a liquid that releases an infinity of tiny sparkles, has been found in the cave at a level dating to at least 500 000 years ago.

Specularite at Blinkkopklip

In 1812, scientist-explorer William Burchell talked of a specularite mine at Blinkkopklip (Tsantsabane in Setswana) on the other side of the Kuruman Hills, not far from present-day Postmasburg. Archaeologists Anne Thackeray, JB Thackeray and Peter Beaumont reported in the early 1980s that specularite had been mined there for at least 1 200 years. 

Ian Watts, lead author of a 2016 paper that studied the use of specularite at three sites in the area, including Wonderwerk, said that along with red ochre it had been in irregular use from 500 000 years ago and in regular use from about 300 000 years ago. 

Watts suggested that the back of the Wonderwerk cave – over 100 metres inside the hill – with its unusual sensory characteristics was used for special ritual performances. “We speculate that it was used for fire-lit, body-painted, song-and-dance performances, the performers glittering and red.”

Burchell wrote that the site was one of the most celebrated north of the Gariep (Orange) River, “being the only spot where sibilo (specularite) is found. Hither, all the surrounding nations long for a supply of that ornamental and, in their eyes, valuable substance.

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“It constitutes in some degree an article of barter with the more distant tribes, and even among themselves; so that it extends over at least five degrees of latitude [about 500km], or among every tribe I have visited.”

This appears to be confirmed by a South African Journal of Science article in 1974, which reported that buried ostrich egg shells containing specularite, possibly serving as caches, had been found along the Orange, Vaal and Riet Rivers. These are places located about 100km to 150km from Blinkkopklip.

Ryan van der Linde lives near the Shining Mountain, as it is also called. He had been into the cavern aged 11, but not since. The entrance is through a small hole at the base of the koppie, not big enough for an adult to fit. 

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But extensive searching, while revealing some trenches and discards as evidence of mining, was not successful. We then followed Van der Linde a short distance along a more or less identifiable path. The ground was noticeably glistening, covered with thousands of micro shiny particles. Around the corner was a cave. Inside, to the one side, was the person-sized hole, the access point to the main chamber.

He and I entered the cave, heading towards the hole. I immediately felt a wincing pain on my ear, and shortly afterwards, my shoulder. We were being attacked by wasps. “Run,” he shouted as we quickly exited. These wasp sentinels, their nests arrayed strategically above us, meant that a bee keeping-type suit and head protection would be needed.

Just outside the cave was a bank of ore which looked as though it was recently placed there by miners who had brought it out from the cavern. Van der Linde picked up some pieces and smashed them, releasing a soft watery liquid containing – seemingly and magically – its own sparkling micro universe.

All that glistens is specularite

Craig Foster, of Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher fame, described a visit to the cave in My Heart Stands in the Hill, a book he co-authored with Janette Deacon in 2005:

“I had heard all these extraordinary stories about this elusive substance called //hara or specularite – stories of old shamans with their heads covered in this glistening material. Some people said that in the old Africa it was more highly prized than gold or ivory. Yet, mysteriously, today, it wasn’t in use at all.”

Peter Beaumont told Foster about a cave he’d discovered many years before called Shining Mountain and drew a map on the back of an old cigarette carton. “Eventually we found a place called Shining Mountain (Blinkkopklip) and squeezed through a narrow gap into the cave. I looked back and the whole cave was raining //hara.”

We can learn more about //hara and its red ochre associate, tto, from |Han≠kasso, a /Xam man who had been imprisoned in the late 1800s with others in Cape Town. |Han≠kasso told his story to linguists Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd who spent more than a decade working out first how to write /Xam and then recording the stories of |Han≠kasso and his former fellow prisoners.

Undated: A specularite rock. Called “sebilo” by BaTswana, it is a mineral valued for its flakes and crystals and mainly used as a jewel by the /Nu and other Indigenous people in Southern Africa. (Photograph by Corbis/ Gallo images)

Their Specimens of Bushman Folklore, published in 1911, says //hara is both hard and soft. And |Han≠kasso is quoted to have said: “//hara is black; the people [having mixed it with fat] anoint their heads with it; while tto is red, and the people rub their bodies with it, when they have pounded it; they pound it, pound it, pound it, they rub their bodies with it. They pound //hara they anoint their heads…

“//hara sparkles; therefore, our heads shimmer, on account of it; while they feel that they sparkle, they shimmer. Therefore, the Bushmen are wont to say, when the old women are talking there: That man, he is a handsome young man . . . surpassingly beautiful with the //hara’s blackness.” 

|Han≠kasso told Lucy Lloyd that the tto mine is on the side of a mountain. “The people are afraid [of the sorcerers who live by the mine], because the people are aware that people are there (sorcerers). They (the sorcerers) make a house there. 

“And when they go to the tto, they throw stones at the tto mine, when they wish the sorcerers to hide themselves, that they may go undisturbed to work at the tto, while they feel that the sorcerers dwell at the tto mine… They put away the //hara and the tto, and they return home.”

Burchell spent several months at Litakun, a Tswana settlement north-east of present-day Kuruman. Litakun was then equivalent in size to Cape Town. He intended to stay long enough to learn Setswana. And, while there, he did several portraits, showing sibilo in his subjects’ hair. He ground the specularite he used with gum water or sometimes mixed it with oil.

The prestige of ‘black lead’

Sabata Mokae, who writes in Setswana and teaches creative writing at the Sol Plaatje University, said: “In Setswana, when we become extravagant with language we refer to Black people as ‘Bana ba mmala wa sebilo’ which means ‘children of the black lead’. 

“Usually, Batswana would identify with minerals found where they lived. My people, Barolong, refer to one another as ‘Tshipi noto’ which means ‘iron ore’.”

Burchell said sebilo was mainly used on the head, the wearer considering himself properly adorned, and in full dress. “Indeed, to lay aside our European prejudices, it is quite as becoming as our own hair powder, and is a practice not more unreasonable than ours; with which it can in many respects be compared. There is, however, a real utility in it, or rather in the grease, for those who do not wear caps; it protects the head from the powerful, and perhaps dangerous, effects of a burning sun, as it equally does, from those of wet and cold.”

Deacon and Foster, though, found a deeper ritual significance for specularite use than just sun protection. In My Heart Stands in the Hill they tell of setting up camp near Brandvlei with a group of /Nu elders and then showing them samples of specularite and red ochre.

Undated: San rock carvings of elephants at what is now a private game ranch in the Great Karoo, South Africa. (Photograph by Elimont, Herbig & Associates/ Gallo images)

“The mood changed dramatically … It was as if we had opened a treasure chest of diamond jewellery. Ouma /Una was so excited with the specularite that she could scarcely contain herself and rushed off to her tent to apply some to her face.”

For many decades, these elders had not seen specularite, which was used as face paint in the initiation ritual for girls known as hokmeisie, where older females painted the initiate’s face to resemble the markings of a gemsbok.

Die gemsbok bul soek die vrouens (The gemsbok bull searches for women),” Deacon and Foster were told.

Earlier, Van der Linde had shown us a stone-age hand tool he picked up a week earlier, in the dry t’Gaaypa river bed in front of his house. This is about 100 metres from the specularite cavern.

The tool was beautifully shaped. I sent a photograph of it to David Morris, professor of archaeology at the Sol Plaatje University, and a specialist in this area. His reply: “That’s a lovely example of a handmade [tool] that could be at least 500 000 years old.”

So ancient is this form of tool that it fell out of use from about 300 000 years ago, by which time our ancestors had become more sophisticated and specialised in tool-making.

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Heading south a few days later, we came across another stone-age tool while picking up keys to access a cave near Koekenaap near Vredendal. Sited on a bend of the Olifants River, the cave has been somewhat transformed – or “colonised” – to make it habitable for tourists, the imposed structures marring an otherwise magnificent shelter and site.

I sent a photo of this stone-age tool to Morris too, and he replied that it was probably older than the first, our ancestors having made these tools from as long as 1.6 million years ago.

We then made a stop at an overhang known as Heerenlogement (Gentlemen’s lodging), south of Klawer, where a hundred explorers in the colonial period, including scientists, missionaries and those in the employ of the colonial authorities, had since 1712 chiselled or written their names on its walls. A spring at the base of the cave, and some protection from the elements, appear to have been the main drawcards.

Visitors included flamboyant adventurer and ornithologist, François le Vaillant (1783), whose books on his southern African escapades enraptured readers across most of Europe; naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg (1774); Robert Gordon (1779), who led several parties into the interior and renamed the Gariep as the Orange River; missionary Robert Moffat (1817); and John Geddes Bain (1854), road-building engineer and painter.

Besides the graffiti that is old enough to be legally protected, a tree, presumably the same described by Levaillant and James Alexander (1836), somehow grows in the tightest of cracks, appearing to defy gravity up above you.

But as storied as Heerenlogement may be, it is somewhat soulless. Perhaps because it was not a destination in itself, but rather transient, a stepping stone to somewhere else.

Cederberg eland stories

In the flatlands of the Karoo, most rock art takes the form of engravings cut into rock. This changes as one moves into the coastal mountain ranges. The Cederberg, with caves aplenty, appears to be a continuous artscape. There are so many sites which include rock art that is invariably painted or drawn, with the favoured pigment being that used further north in conjunction with specularite and red ochre.

A mineral containing oxidised iron, ochre doesn’t wash away or decay easily. It adheres to a range of surfaces, including the human body, when applied. On rock, it stains over time, becoming part of the surface.

Cederberg art has been extensively surveyed, including in many books. It is reckoned after all that there are more than 2 000 paintings in the area, with many off the beaten track and rather hard to find. While this can help protect the paintings, preservation remains an issue. Tours and guide books are available, but interpretation can be difficult.

A recent innovation, which meets some of these challenges, is virtual 3D-tours with expert commentary. The Procession Cave at Warmhoek is shown in 3D, for instance. In one tour, for example, University of Cape Town archaeologist John Parkington explains a drawing of a line of male figures, some cloaked, some naked, who are following two eland.

Undated: Perforated shell beads from Blombos Cave, South Africa. Some archaeologists and researchers consider them to be among the oldest human artefacts. (Photograph by Fine Art Images/ Heritage Images/ Getty Images)

Those cloaked, wearing eland skin or kaross, have in the worldview of these hunter-gatherer people assumed the life of the animal, becoming, in this case, the eland. The karossed figures carry their weapons in hunting bags, having concluded the first-kill ritual of a sizable animal such as an eland, kudu or gemsbok.

Parkington says that the uncloaked figures have bows and arrows ready to make their first kill, thus constituting a rebirth where the young hunter is virtually reborn as a man and is allowed to marry.

Hunting divides men from women, says Parkington. In the Kalahari, he explains, men are said to hunt women. A girl is said to have shot an eland when she first menstruates. She is then secluded with older women who perform the eland-bull dance to welcome her into the herd. She may now, in a virtual sense, be hunted and eaten by young men who have also – more literally – shot their own eland.

There are two caves near Elands Bay on the Verlorenvlei, in times past the Quaecoma River, now a 20km stretch of reeded water where flamingos feast on its muddy shores. The Elands Bay Cave, which overlooks the mighty ocean that visits the shores below, has been occupied on and off from 40 000 years to 300 years ago. Dots, hands and human figures are drawn in red ochre on its walls.

Age-old caves

Diepkloof, at the top end of the vlei, stands high in its surrounds, there being something of a climb to get to it. There are two caves, really, one a little lower than the second where there is evidence of archaeological digging. Both caves have drawings in red ochre, mostly of hands, but also dots (in black and red) and some human figures and animals.

Red-ochre use at Diepkloof dates back 110 000 years. Tammy Hodgskiss, curator of the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand, a specialist in red-ochre use, says 558 pieces of ochre and a grindstone dated to between 110 000 and 52 000 years ago were excavated here. Also found at Diepkloof are 400 decorated ostrich shell fragments dated to at least between 55 000 and 65 000 years ago.

The use of red ochre over an extended period at Diepkloof is by no means unusual. Studies at a set of southern African caves show a similar picture, there being only two recurrent items retrieved at these sites – stone tools and red ochre.

In some cases, red ochre was harvested at a seemingly industrial scale, at least by the standards of the times. A case in point being Lion Cavern in eSwatini, at 43 000 years, it is the world’s oldest mine and where thousands of tons of ore were removed.

Circa 2002: An engraved ochre plaque found in Blombos Cave, South Africa. (Photograph by Fine Art Images/ Heritage Images/ Getty Images)

But if there’s a stand-out cave in this story, it’s Blombos in the southwestern Cape. Over 8 000 pieces of ochre have been found here at levels dating between 100 000 and 70 000 years ago. These include ochre-processing toolkits and abalone shells that were used for mixing and storing ochre.

A team led by University of the Witwatersrand archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood found ochre “crayons” with a crosshatch pattern, strokes to the left and right, drawn on them. These date to about 70 000 years ago. The earliest of these crosshatch strokes was made on a small flake of stone and is dated to 73 000 years, the earliest evidence of apparently engraved or drawn design by humans.

Shells with perforated holes to make a necklace, containing traces of red ochre and dated to the same period, have also been found at Blombos. While the markings on ochre “crayons” and ostrich shells have no clear meaning to us, scholars “can be confident that the engravings represent novel behaviour and indicate some of the earliest evidence of the storage of information outside of the brain”, says Hodgskiss.

She analysed 9 000 pieces of ochre, dating from 77 000 to 37 000 years ago recovered at Sibudu Cave, 40km north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, to understand the cognitive abilities required by ochre users. The making of complex compound adhesives using heat suggests the people living there had advanced mental capabilities like modern humans.

“Ochre use can be employed as a proxy for cognitive capabilities, and can therefore shed light on the evolution of the modern mind,” says Hodgskiss.

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Ian Watts, who has reviewed the evidence for the use of red ochre at southern African cave sites, says he knows no hunter-gatherer society without some form of body marking – predominantly body painting, but including tattooing and scarification. He says that whereas language leaves no material trace, the use of red ochre as a manifestation of collective ritual may contribute to both our understanding of the evolution of language and our emergence as a species.

Humans evolved in Africa some time between 150 000 and 200 000 years ago, says Watts. The cultural tradition of red ochre use indicates that symbolic traditions were present in Africa when a small subgroup of homo sapiens migrated beyond the continent about 80 000 to 60 000 years ago.

Watts cites French sociologist Emile Durkheim who, based on his observations of Indigenous Australians, proposed that the first art took the form of geometric designs painted in red ochre on sacred objects and on the bodies of ritual performers, the red pigment symbolising blood.

Durkheim, the first to posit a link between language and ritual, argued that collective emblems had to be abstract because the representations concern social facts – things that have no real-world likenesses but exist only by virtue of collective agreements.

A million-year journey

Blombos and other caves were on our itinerary, but President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of renewed Covid-19 restrictions on 28 December 2020, with an instruction to restrict all but essential travel, meant that we headed home, stopping at Driekops Eiland, near Douglas, en route. 

The site has 3 500 motifs, mostly geometric, engraved on large slabs of striated rock, smoothed by glaciation in the deep past. If this seems a lot, over 20 000 of such engravings have been recorded in the broad area where the Orange, Riet and Vaal rivers converge. 

The slabs at Driekops form part of the bed of the Riet River (‘Gumaap, !Kora for Muddy River), the motifs being underwater depending on the level of the river. They have been much studied and analysed, with all manner of speculation on their meaning being advanced, including that they are the work of aliens. Some academics are of the view that they are entoptic phenomena produced naturally by the brain while in trance.

|Han≠kasso had a simpler explanation. Shown a set of similar symbols to those of Driekops, on striated rocks near Pniel on the Gy Gariep (Vaal River), he told Lucy Lloyd that dots are “those which resemble what people are wont to do to our heads with tto. They put dots (with the forefinger of the right hand) on our heads … our heads resemble the hunting leopard, they have spots,” he said, quoted by Pippa Skotnes in Unconquerable Spirit: George Stow’s History Paintings of the San (2008).

Skotnes notes that one engraving is a lattice of squares; |Han≠kasso told Lloyd these show a mat sieve used by women to sift what is referred to as “Bushman rice” (ant larvae).

9 September 2009: Rock engravings at Rooipoort Nature Reserve, near Kimberley. (Photograph by Education Images/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

David Morris has written that the engravings are the residue of ritual sequence, there being strong links between the water snake and female puberty in the oral histories of northern Karoo cultural groups. He writes that in Nama (a Khoikhoi language), the same root word is used for blood, snake, rain, the colour red and waterhole.

He says there are such cases recorded from around 1990, including one in the Richtersveld that he observed, where older women re-enacted the puberty ritual by painting a geometric pattern on the face of one of the women.

Morris added that if still practised the first-menstruation ritual would be below the radar as these practices do not fit the Christian beliefs now dominant in the region.

We also see, in the period since settler occupation, in the rock art record: a galleon and other sea-faring craft, sheep, horses, wagons, women in long dresses and men with guns. And, from the industrial age, a speeding train.

The human story played out in our caves and recorded in rock art has the deepest of timelines. It took an aeon to get from the controlled use of fire a million years ago to where we are now.

What struck on the trip was that although it may have taken us forever to get where we are, two centuries of industrialisation means that now, according to the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, we have under 10 years to rein in our present ways if we want to have a habitable planet.

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