Twyfelfontein is a site of ancient rock engravings in the Kunene Region of north-western Namibia. The site has been inhabited for 6,000 years, first by hunter-gatherers and later by Khoikhoi herders. Both ethnic groups used it as a place of worship and a site to conduct shamanist rituals.
In the process of these rituals at least 2,500 items of rock carvings have been created, as well as a few rock paintings. The area was uninhabited by Europeans until after World War II, when a severe drought caused white Afrikaans speaking farmers (Boers) to move in.
The farm was later procured by the apartheid government as part of the Odendaal Plan and became part of the Damaraland bantustan. It is subdivided into 15 smaller sites as described by Scherz in 1975. Objects from the site include a variety of stone tools made mostly from quartzite.
Type and shape of these tools indicate not only the use on rock but also the prevalence of wood and leather working. Artwork such as pendants and beads from ostrich eggshell fragments have been found at several places.
The nearest small town, Khorixas, lies 80 km to the east. The world heritage site is small (less than 1 km2), but includes some remarkable galleries of rock engravings (pteroglyphs) depicting an extraordinary diversity of wild animals – rhino, elephant, giraffe, oryx, ostrich, flamingo, zebra and many more – and footprints.
The engravings are often superimposed on one another, and are engraved on the massive rock faces of free-standing boulders in completely exposed positions. The rock art at Twyfelfontein was produced during the dry season of the year, when the shortage of water and food forced people to congregate near the spring.
This was a time of intense ritual activity. Rituals helped to strengthen the values and cohesion of the group: they were performed during initiation into adulthood, to heal the sick, to ensure successful hunting and to make rain.
Each and every feature of an engraving is deliberate and holds a specific meaning. Sometimes the meaning is difficult to establish directly, but often an informed guess is possible. The earliest examples of rock art in southern Africa are all small enough to be held in the hand.
Seven small painted stones were discovered at a rock shelter (the Apollo 11 Cave) in southern Namibia, including one that depicts a feline form with human hind legs – clearly an animal that exists outside the realm of reality.
One of the most prominent collections of rock paintings and engravings in Namibia can be viewed at Twyfelfontein, (doubtful spring). Twyfelfontein itself lies some 550m above sea level and there are some 2,500 rock engravings on 212 slabs of rock, with an additional 13 panels embracing further examples of rock paintings. Stone artefacts and ‘stone tool manufacturing debris’ can also be found there.
As Twyfelfontein lies in a valley, it is flanked by the slopes of a sandstone table mountain, covered in a hard patina. The early Stone Age artists, probably the work of San hunters, chiselled through this incrustation to produce their art work and in time the patina reformed over the engravings protecting them from weathering. Stone Age hunters and animals were attracted to this small perennial spring, the only one of its kind in the area.