Rising abruptly, and dramatically, from the Kalahari scrub bush – the rock face turning a copper colour in the dying sun – the magnetic power of Tsodilo Hills both captivates and mystifies. There is an undeniable spiritualism about the Hills that immediately strikes the visitor.
Indeed for the people who live at the Hills – the San, the original inhabitants, and the Hambukushu who have periodically occupied the hills for the past 200 years – Tsodilo is a sacred, mystical place where ancestral spirits dwell. In earlier times, their ancestors performed religious rituals to ask for assistance, and for rain. They also put paintings on the rock face; and their meaning and symbolism remain a mystery even to today.
Exploring the three main Hills – Male, Female, and child – is a journey into antiquity. Archaeological research – ongoing for the past 30 years – estimates that Tsodilo has been inhabited for the past 100 000 years, making this one of the world’s oldest historical sites. Pottery, iron, glass beads, shell beads, carved bone and stone tools date back 90 000 years.
The Early iron Age Site at Tsodilo, called Divuyu, dates between 700- 900AD, and reveals that Bantu people have been living at the hills for over 1000 years, probably having come from central Africa. They were cattle farmers, settled on the plateau, and traded copper jewellery from the Congo, seashells from the Atlantic, and glass beads from Asia, probably in exchange for specularite and furs. There was a great deal of interaction between different groups, and trade networks were extensive.
Excavations also reveal over 20 mines that extracted specularite – a glittery iron-oxide derivative that was used in early times as a cosmetic.
Rock paintings are nearly everywhere – representing thousands of years of human inhabitation, and are amongst the region’s finest, and most important. There are approximately 4 000 in all, comprising red finger paintings and geometrics. It is almost certain that most paintings were done by the San, and some were painted by the pastoral Khoe who later settled in the area. The red paintings were done mainly in the first millennium AD.
Two of the most famous images are the rhino polychromes and the Eland panel, the latter situated on a soaring cliff that overlooks the African wilderness. Indeed the inaccessibility of many of the paintings may be linked to their religious significance.
The fact that Tsodilo is totally removed from all other rock art sites in Southern Africa adds to its aura of magic. The nearest known site is 250 kilometres away. What’s more, the paintings at Tsodilo are generally unlike others in the southern African region – in both style and incidence of certain images. Many are isolated figures and over half depict wild and domestic animals. In fact, there is a higher incidence of domestic animals than at other sites in Southern Africa. Some are scenes, but few seem to tell a story. Many are outlined schematic designs and geometrical patterns.
There are walking trails – the Rhino Trail, Lion Trail and cliff Trail, and others; and it is recommended that you take a guide to walk the trails and see the paintings. Both San and Hambukushu live near the hills, and guides from their villages can be easily arranged.
There is a small museum at the entrance to the site; the main campsite at Museum Headquarter has ablutions and water, while the three other smaller campsites have no facilities. Because of its tremendous historical and cultural importance, Tsodilo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.