Art & Culture of Botswana

In this video, Oliver Coulson from Safari Consultants gives an introduction to the cultural heritage of Botswana’s Khoi people, and San Bushmen, and discusses examples of rock art made by these indigenous populations.


For more than 30,000 years, the Khoi and San people (more commonly known as the Hottentots and Bushmen) have lived in the area now known as Botswana. They have existed by living off the land, collecting wild plants, insects, birds and small animals and also by hunting larger animals with lightweight bows and poisoned arrows. There are still around 35,000 of these people; roughly half of whom still live with the old customs and traditions.

In the north-western corner of Botswana, between the Okavango River and the Namibian Border, there is a collection of art made by these indigenous people that dates back to the Stone Age.

Known as the ”Louvre of the Desert”, the Tsodilo Hills boast one of the highest concentrations of rock paintings in the world. In an area of some 10 square kilometres there are over 4,500 paintings. In addition, archaeological evidence provides a record of human activities that stretches back about 100,000 years.

The paintings are executed in red ochre derived from hematite from the local rock. Much of the art is naturalistic in subject and characterized by a variety of geometric symbols, distinctive treatment of the human figure, and exaggerated body proportions of many animals. For example, the rhinos painted here have very large bodies and disproportionately small legs.

The art is not very well dated. Although some of the paintings could be very old, much of the rock art is likely to be relatively more modern. However, there are a few clues that allow us to date some of the art with reasonable accuracy.

For example we can say that images with cattle are slightly more recent than some of the other paintings, as cattle were introduced to the region after the 6th century AD. Therefore anything with a cow in it is generally regarded as dating from around 600-1200 AD. The latest of the paintings are dated to the 19th century on oral evidence.

The present day local communities arrived as recently as about 1860. Nevertheless, Tsodilo still holds special significance for the local people, who recognise this site as a place of special worship frequented by ancestral spirits. In recognition of the international significance of the area’s art and archaeology, the site has been a designated UNESCO world heritage site since 2001.

Today, local churches and traditional doctors travel to Tsodilo for prayers, meditation and medication. The rock art of northern Botswana is often overlooked by foreign travellers, who usually focus on viewing the country’s wildlife. The majority of visitors to the site are indigenous people who come for religious reasons.

It is interesting to compare the rock paintings of Tsodilo with rock engravings at Twyfelfontein in Namibia. The two sites are roughly 800KM apart, and although this initially sounds like a large distance, it’s actually about a month’s walk, if you consider that these Bushmen roamed for about 30KM a day. As the Bushmen were nomadic, and covered very large distances, it seems probable that the people who created the art at Tsodilo were aware of the art at Twyfelfontein.

The rock engravings, or petroglyphs, at Twyfelfontein are generally older than the paintings at Tsodilo, with the engravings being about 6,000 to 2,000 years old. The site of the Namibian engravings is significant to understanding their meaning – these petroglyphs are situated around a natural spring. In the dry season, nomadic hunters would have gathered here at the reliable water source, and engaged in various rituals which are linked to the images engraved in the rock. Geometric patterns in particular are likely to be connected with shamanistic rituals, where the shaman would enter a trance and see patterns of light. Perhaps an interpretation of these visionary patterns is what we now see recorded for eternity in the rock.

Apart from the geometric designs, the early artists at both Twyfelfontein and Tsodilo depicted the world around them as we can see from the many images of animals. We can draw a few parallels in the style of the images of animals at both sites. For example, the exaggerated features of the creatures mentioned earlier at Tsodilo, can also be seen in the petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein, as we can see in the case of this so called ‘dancing Kudu’ image, where the antelope’s long legs are splayed dramatically in all directions. (slide).

Southern Africa has some incredible ancient rock art, much of it set amongst stunning scenery. Both sites mentioned here are certainly well worth a visit if you get the chance.