ROCK art studies have, over the years, been the undoing of a succession of great archaeological minds. One thinks, for instance, of the famous French prehistorian, the Abbe Henri Breuil, who saw a white lady in the Bushman (1) rock art of the Brandberg, Namibia. (2) The 'white lady' had an infibulated penis and carried a bow and arrow, but somehow this escaped the Abbe's notice. Observing the Abbe's published rendition in the comfort of their armchairs, thousands of miles away from the painting itself, many readers missed the great irony of the 'white lady'. All of us who, following in the footsteps of the Abbe, seek to use rock art as a window into another culture face the same danger -- that we will see in the art a mirrored reflection of our own prejudices and preconceptions. Worse still, we may then pass these on to others through our writings. The Abbe saw the Bushmen as 'primitive', and yet he struggled to reconcile this perception with his knowledge of Bushman rock art, which he considered to be among the finest and most refined of any art in the world. Rather than change his prejudices about the Bushmen, he found it easier to believe that the Bushmen had learned their art from another culture. And so he saw what he wanted, evidence of this other culture that had taught the Bushmen to paint -- a white lady in the rock art of the Namibian desert.
When one of the authors of this paper (JAvS) announced that there was a white camel painted in the heart of the Makgabeng hills of the present Northern Province, South Africa (formerly Northern Transvaal), the other (BWS) at once challenged the claim, believing it to be another in this line of false observations. As Lewis-Williams and Dowson have stated, there can be no room for gaze-and-guess in South African rock art studies today. (3) Rock art can only be read using the history, beliefs and practices of the people who made it. Varied applications of these sources have, during the last two decades, brought about major and tangible advances in our understanding of South African rock art. A range of images from the commonly painted eland to specific human postures such as the arms-back posture, together with recurring metaphors such as 'underwater', 'flying' and 'fighting', are now well understood. (4) Conversely, the gaze-and-guess reading of rock art has led observers, inevitably, to see false things such a s a white lady in the Brandberg. In the case of the white camel, there seemed two possibilities: either the painting was a recent fake or, although it might look at a superficial level like a camel, the painting did not, in fact, depict a camel. Further investigation proved both options to be wrong. In this paper we combine our separate areas of research (the later rock art of Northern Province and late nineteenth-century Northern Sotho history) to provide a rare and unexpected glimpse into the history of livestock during this period of crisis and the processes of both the production and consumption of rock art at the time.
THE PAINTED CONTEXT
The alleged camel is one image in a panel of paintings, all executed in the manner of depiction characteristic of the Northern Sotho rock painters of South Africa (Fig. 1). The site is in a ravine near the centre of the remote hill area called the Makgabeng, a place uninhabited today (Fig. 2). In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, however, such remote hill areas served as places of refuge for the many Northern Sotho who had been dispossessed of their land and belongings by the early colonial settlers in the area.
The plight of the people in and around the Makgabeng characterizes the trauma faced by most Northern Sotho at this time. The last years of the nineteenth century were among the most difficult in the history of the inhabitants of this area. Raids by Nguni groups, such as the Ndebele of Mzilikazi (c. 1820), and then repeated outbreaks of rinderpest and Rhodesian redwater, took away the livestock and thus the wealth and livelihood of many people. Families had no means of paying the hut tax imposed by the Transvaal government in 1870. Many men had no choice but to seek employment in the mines; Northern Sotho society was literally split in two. Seizing on this weakness, the Transvaal government initiated efforts to subdue the chiefs and to organize large-scale relocations to clear the land for white settlement. The local Hananwa chief, Maleboho, took a firm stance against these moves, defying both hut tax and relocation orders. His opposition culminated in the notorious Maleboho war of 1894. Government forces laid siege to Maleboho's kraal for many months, and with great loss of life, before finally forcing him to surrender from starvation. (5) Maleboho was imprisoned in Pretoria, his land was annexed and most of his followers' possessions were carried off as war booty. (6) Many men and women were forcibly taken away and indentured on farms as a way of repaying those farmers who had fought in the war.
In these troubled times, many people fled and became refugees in remote hill areas such as the Makgabeng. The remains of their walled settlements, their cattle kraals and even their grain bins can still be seen, just as they were left when they were abandoned early in the twentieth century. It was in these places and in this tumultuous context that most Northern Sotho rock art was produced.
THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE 'CAMEL' PAINTING
Among the turmoil, tragedy and dislocation of the time, the act of painting a camel stands out as strikingly incongruent. We first thought that it might be a recent fake. The painting, however, is made out of thick powdery off-white pigment, applied by finger -- the material and method of application that defines Northern Sotho rock art. The painting thus follows the conventions of Northern Sotho rock art. Many paintings in the panel, including the alleged camel, give an impression of age owing to the way in which they have faded. This is confirmed by a photograph of the panel in one of the earliest papers on South African rock art, written by the Reverend Noel Roberts, and published in the South African Journal of Science in 1916 (Fig. 3). It can be seen from Roberts's photograph that all of the paintings had been made by 1916 and that the alleged camel painting already showed signs of wash and fading then. It must therefore have been made a number of years before, either in the first decade of the twentieth century or earlier. At this time, the Makgabeng interior was still 'unexplored territory' to white colonists. The painting must therefore be explained within the context of traditional Northern Sotho rock art practices.
Such an early date makes the depiction of a camel even more surprising. The painting is pushed back to the days of the first …