With Our Ancestors

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I held my breath as I raised my hand to a print on the cave wall.

There was a familiar symmetry when my hand and a burnt-orange handprint were seen next to each other, and with it I spanned thousands of years of existence to recreate a signature distinct to humanity.

Rim of Africa - Group Rock Art

Day 8: Stirring before the rest of the group, five of us wandered off from camp before breakfast to explore a cave embedded in the side of a nearby cliff. We underestimated the difficulty of two small river crossings but found ourselves at the cave entrance within a half-hour.
Rim of Africa - Rock Art Figure
As we entered the shallow bowl-shaped cave, our group spoke out loud our intentions of visiting the site. There was a feeling similar to walking uninvited into a stranger’s house. The faint orange, burnt-orange, magenta, and black-tar figures surrounded us and we carefully maneuvered around to identify more figures hidden in the cracks, shadows, and worn slopes.

I could feel a quiet intensity in my curiosity — in the way my hands felt the rocks, my eyes scoured the patterns in the sandstone, and even within how I listened and smelled the air of the cave— in an attempt to absorb everything around me.

Why paint these markings on the cave walls? Will we ever really know what they mean?

“The true magic of rock art is that the energy, transfered from the ancestor through the paint into forms on the wall, is still visible and therefore survives for us to experience. “

Personally, I think most rock art interpretation speaks to the romantic notions of what the viewer thinks rather than what might have been originally intended. I believe we live such radically different lives that it would be naive to assume we can speak to their experiences.

But in no way do I mean that we cannot connect to the ancestors that left them. I like to interpret the art left behind using the creative side of my mind, looking for visual and emotive connections to what I see, not by dissecting it with science or logic, trying to pull it appart and apply meaning. That is the mistake, applying meaning, that muddles everything. Sit. Stare. Enjoy. Question. Feel. The true magic of rock art is that the energy, transfered from the ancestor through the paint into forms on the wall, is still visible and therefore survives for us to experience. Their handprint becomes an undeniable bridge to the world of people before us. We were, and are, here. Together.

This ancient experience is one of the joys of walking on the Rim of Africa. For days when the mountains seem harsh and inhospitable, the weather challenging and taxing, and the journey lonely or too far from other human existence, you can look around, like I did when hiding from rain under the cover of a boulder, and find signs of someone from before saying “I was here too”.