Twyfelfontein – An Ancient Art Gallery Of Rock Engravings

19 Jun 2020

Brigitte Weidlich

Ancient rock paintings in Europe and in Africa are popular tourist hotspots. In Namibia, our very-own famous ‘White Lady’ in the Brandberg Mountains, fascinates visitors from near and far. Just a short drive away however, a whole valley of astonishing rock engravings, created thousands of years ago, can be viewed at Twyfelfontein. No wonder, that this ancient treasure was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

Twyfelfontein, the nearby Burnt Mountain and the unusual rock formation known as ‘organ pipes’, together with the Brandberg rock paintings, including the White Lady, the Dorros crater, and the Petrified Forest, offer the opportunity for a worthwhile all round trip to discover northwestern Namibia.

Late discovery of ancient art

This valley was first discovered in 1921 by Reinhard Maack and then virtually forgotten. Maack is better known for his discovery of the White Lady in the Brandberg in 1917, during World War 1. While on another trip to the area in 1921, he recorded in his field notes that he had come across a mountain valley with a large number of rock engravings. The discovery was then forgotten for over 20 years. By 1947, drought stricken farmers were granted farmland in the area and the local Nama-Damara speaking population there was resettled near the Brandberg.

The commercial farmer David Levin became the owner of this newly declared farm in 1947. He noticed the ancient engravings while looking for a spring up in the mountains on the eastern side of the valley. Known as |Ui-Ais (the jumping water) to the indigenous population, Levin called it ‘doubtful spring’, or Twyfelfontein in the Afrikaans language, as the spring did not have a continuous flow.

Another three years would pass before an expert travelled there to examine the engravings, which depict wild animals on over 200 huge sandstone slabs. Dr Ernst Rudolph Scherz, who immigrated to Namibia in 1933, was a chemist by profession but developed a keen interest in African rock art and was overwhelmed by the Twyfelfontein valley and its numerous rock engravings! The Levin family was aware of the cultural value of these paintings and showed them to the few interested people who came to visit there. In 1965, they had to give up the farm due to the Odendaal Plan. This was an initiative of the South African apartheid government to buy up farms and create a homeland – Damaraland - for the indigenous population.

Dr Scherz had in the meantime started from 1960 onwards to document over 2,500 rock engravings with funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft. Of invaluable assistance was his wife Anneliese, a professional photographer.

Unfortunately, over the years, some vandalism took place, damaging some engravings and a few were even forcefully removed. It was declared a protected area only in 1986.

Some facts about Twyfelfontein

Twyfelfontein is situated in the Huab valley of the Mount Etjo formation in the southern Kunene Region. The rocks with the artwork are situated in a valley flanked by the slopes of a sandstone table mountain.

The site has been inhabited for 6,000 years, first by stone-age hunter-gatherers and later by Khoikhoi herders, related to the San (Bushmen). Both ethnic groups used it also as a place of worship and a site “to hold shamanistic rituals”, according to the National Heritage Council of Namibia. At least 2,500 items of rock carvings have been created, as well as a few rock paintings.

Twyfelfontein displays one of the largest concentrations of rock petro glyphs (= rock engravings) in Africa. The Khoikhoi also produced rock art, which can clearly be distinguished from the older engravings. Since rock engravings are less common than paintings, Twyfelfontein is a very special example of this ancient art. Today it is estimated that the site contains more than 5000 individual engravings. Many depict animals and their spoors, human figures and about a third are abstract and believed to also depict rituals. The rock art area consists of fourteen smaller sites that were introduced by Scherz in his initial site survey.

UNESCO world heritage site

In 2007, the United Nations educational and cultural authority UNESCO declared Twyfelfontein a world heritage site. It was the first one in Namibia, followed a few years later by the Namib-Sand-Sea heritage site in the coastal Namib Desert.

According to UNESCO, “the rock art at Twyfelfontein forms a coherent, extensive and high quality record of ritual practices relating to hunter-gatherer communities in this part of southern Africa over at least two millennia. They eloquently reflect the links between ritual and economic practices of hunter-gatherers in terms of the value of reliable water sources which nurtured communities on a seasonal basis.”

All the rock engravings and the few rock paintings within the core area are regarded as the authentic work of San hunter-gatherers who lived in the region long before the influx of Damara herders and Europeans.

Keeping the heritage alive

Since Namibia’s independence in 1990, the government has taken great strides to involve local communities in rural areas with tourism sites. Lodges and camping places create jobs and locals have been trained as tour guides, also for Twyfelfontein. A communal conservancy has been established from which the locals derive benefits though tourism.

The Uibasen Conservancy gave permission for a lodge in 1999 within the “ceremonial site’’ rock-engraving site in the buffer zone. According to UNESCO, this has compromised the integrity of the rock engravings in this area somewhat. However, the overall state of conservation of Twyfelfontein has improved over the past few years, “particularly in terms of the way visitors are managed.” The implementation of the Management plan began in 2005,” according to UNESCO.

The lodge, campsite, visitor's centre and most of the other tourist facilities are managed as a joint venture between the lodge owners and the Twyfelfontein-Uibasen Conservancy. In this way, the local community remains involved and this important heritage site is preserved for future generations.

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