Southern Africa's Top Rock Art Sites

Riaan Viljoen 28-04-2024

The history and prehistory of Southern Africa is essentially a tale of the adventures, symbiosis, and struggles of a nomadic hunter-gatherer people we refer to as the San. For thousands of years, before a single tribe had arrived from Europe or central Africa, the San spent their time among the animals during the day and among the stars at night, with traditions, customs, and practices that form the oldest known culture in the world.

Thousands of rock art paintings capture the remnants of their heyday as stewards of these beautiful lands. African Sky can customize tours led by knowledgeable guides to all the destinations listed and also offers a pre-designed ten-day tour focused on rock art in South Africa.



One of the earliest documented empires in this part of the world came to Mapungubwe around 1000 AD. Rock art in the area predates this period and ends abruptly as the rise of the people of Mapungubwe comes. Therefore, the sites found here are quite significant and may indicate the last remnants of the San living in this part of South Africa. Mapungubwe is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the rock art here is one of many artifacts in an area rich in cultural history.



Twyfelfontein in Namibia is an exceptional rock art site and one of the oldest recorded, dating back over 6,000 years. The site, perhaps better described as a prehistoric gallery, is full of rock art of various kinds, with over 2500 discernible figures pictured on boulders in this arid part of Namibia. Ongoing archaeological and anthropological studies draw on the site here at Twyfelfontein.


Tsodilo Hills

Tsodo Hills in Botswana, or Tsodilo, described as the 'Louvre of the Kalahari' by UNESCO, is another world heritage site with extraordinary historical and cultural significance to the San. The site is a spectacular rocky hill in the middle of an otherwise flat and arid landscape that has been used for rituals and worship by the San for millennia. In his famous book about his adventures through the Kalahari, Lourens van der Post made particular reference to their encounter here and the early feeling the hills conjured up as the desert winds echoed through the passages and chambers during their stay there. 


Mwela Rock Paintings

In Zambia, the Mwela Rock Paintings site is a series of painted cave walls dating back to the Stone Age, which locals attribute to the Batwa, the local name for the San. The art here is very compact, with scene after scene painted one after the other, sharing themes and motifs with the art found in South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.


Matobo Hills

Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe is a distinct rocky hill located thousands of miles from Tsodo Hills in Botswana. The art here is well preserved and dates back to at least 3,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest such sites globally and in the region. The site is also close to the burial place of the British industrialist Cecil John Rhodes and makes for a great trip to this far-flung part of Zimbabwe



Aside from being astonishing for the biodiversity of plants found here and the beauty of its flowering landscapes, the Cederberg mountains are steeped in the prehistory of the San. The Khoi, a related group to the San, essentially pastoralists, inhabited the area today as part of the Cape Provinces. The Khwa Tau San Heritage site is close to the Cederberg mountains and warrants a visit for those exploring the Khoisan culture in greater depth. In contrast, the rock art sites at Stadsaal, Truitjieskraal, Southern Arch, and Varkkloof are noteworthy.



Like the Cederberg, the Drakensberg is awash with rock art sites of varying scope and condition in South Africa and Lesotho. Game Pass Shelter and the Kamberg Rock Art Centre are two noteworthy sites, though interested travelers should still explore several scenic hiking trails, which leads to less visited rock art sites. 


Brandberg Mountain

Bradberg is not only the highest mountain in Namibia but is also revered for the famous White Lady painting created by bushmen at least two thousand years ago. Over one thousand other rock paintings made by ancient inhabitants can also be seen here in the Damaralnd region, home to other important and well-preserved rock art sites.