Finding the Meaning of San and Khoe Rock Engravings

Discover the images depicted in San and Khoe rock engravings - and their deeper meanings

Origins Centre

Stylized re-drawing of pecked rock engraving depicting a zebra and indeterminate animals (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Early southern African rock paintings and engravings are steeped in symbolic and spiritual meaning. 

Take a trip through re-drawings of southern African rock engravings to spot the animals and symbols depicted.

Zebras are often depicted in San rock engravings.

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

National Treasures

In the 1900s these engraved boulders were collected from various localities around South Africa. In 2019, these 80 boulders were finally put on public display at Origins Centre, under the curation of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Pecked rock engraving depicting zebra (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Note how the zebra's individual stripes have been pecked into this rock engraving. 

Stylized redrawing of pecked rock engraving of a rhinoceros (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

In this image the artist has depicted a rhinoceros. Rhinos often visited rocky outcrops to rub themselves against the rocks. Rhinoceros engravings are sometimes found near the rocks they used to rub against. 

Pecked rock engraving of a rhinoceros (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Note how the skin folds are carefully portrayed in this engraved (pecked) rhinoceros.

Stylized re-drawing of pecked rock engraving of an elephant (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

In this image we can see one of the largest animals in the world - the African elephant. 
Elephants are mythical creatures linked to both male and female initiation ceremonies in San belief systems today.

Stylized re-drawing of pecked rock engraving of a resting wildebeest (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

This artist chose to depict a resting wildebeest, an antelope found in southern Africa. 

Many engravings were made using a pecking technique by hammering and chipping away at the rock surface to create the image.

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

In their original setting, on a small hill or in an open grassland, at certain times of day as the sun changed position in the sky the engravings would have 'magically' appeared. This was presumably the intention of the engraver, and added to the impact of the image on the stone

Stylized re-drawing of pecked rock engraving depicting an eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand


Many of the engraved depictions are realistic animal forms, but which carried symbolic meaning and associations.

Stylized re-drawing of pecked rock engraving depicting three eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Here, an eland is depicted, one of the most important creatures within San cosmology. 

The rock art and recorded oral traditions have captured the beauty and power of the eland.

Stylized re-drawing of fine-lined rock engraving of an eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

A sharp object was used to make fine-line engravings to create an image on the hard rock surface - often in single, seemingly effortless, strokes. Here the form of the eland is beautifully captured.

Geometric pecked rock engraving (2019) by Khoe (Khoi) herdersOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Sun geometric design

Geometric engravings are difficult to ascribe authorship to. Scholars largely agree that geometrics pertain to personal markings used in girls’ initiation ceremonies in both Khoe and San societies. 

Stylized re-drawing of geometric pecked rock engraving (2019) by KhoiSanOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Khoe or San: Are they the same or different people?

Hunter-gatherer and early herder groups are thought to be ancestral to the San and Khoe people that were written about in the early 16th and 17th century by Europeans. 
There are many debates about how these early societies may have interacted, integrated and changed over time. 

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Today, every effort is made to conserve rock engravings and painted rock art in their original context. However, rock art is salvaged when mining and other developments place them under threat. Origins Centre is honoured to curate, and display these beautiful rock engravings.

Stylized redrawing of pecked rock engraving of a rhinoceros (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Bring the engraved animals to life in augmented reality!

The Origins Centre has an Augmented Reality (AR) App that's bringing the museum to life! Get a sneak peek into this fun experience from home, by downloading the OriginsCentreAR app for free (available on IOS and Android). Choose 'Engravings', scan these orange re-drawings, and watch the animals appear on your screen

Credits: Story

The San and Khoe peoples of southern Africa

National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences
Rock Art Research Institute, Wits University
Amanda Esterhuysen
Steven Sack
Tracings: Brent Sinclair-Thomson and Ghilraen Laue
Architects: 24/7 (Nabeel Essa, Yoliswa Dlamini, Natasha Laurent)
Vanguard Movers
Museum Curators and Collections Managers: Tammy Hodgskiss, Lara Mallen, Catherine Namono
David Lewis-Williams
Online Exhibition Curator: Tammy Hodgskiss

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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