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da Vinci and Michaelangelo Have Nothing on the San Bushmen

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Here I am inside the "bald" caves of Matopo
Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1480 and 1483. Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in 1506. The San Bushmen painted these cave drawings (see picture) over 6,000 years ago... six thousand years ago!!!

Yup, I was amazed too as I walked in to the powerful, domed caves in the Motopo National Park in Zimbabwe. On the walls were faded, but still clear paintings of a civilization that first felt the spiritual importance of the area over 100,000 years ago.

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 Overlooking the "cradle of mankind"
100,000 years ago... what were people like that long ago? There is still much controversy among scholars about the origin of human beings, but it is widely accepted at least that Africa was the cradle of humankind. Archaeological discoveries have found that the earliest human-like creatures roamed the savannas of southern and eastern Africa over four million years ago. Some of these creatures evolved into making tools, a process which allowed them to begin hunting in addition to just scavenging for food (about 1.3 million years ago). Soon humans were standing upright (homo erectus) and were using refined tools made of stone to hunt. The oldest discovered human fossils show that the earliest humans were hardly four feet tall-- these were the ancestors of the San people, the oldest culture found to have inhabited Africa.

The San people have been called many names by the many different foreign cultures that have come upon them through out the times. To the Xhosa people of South Africa they are the Twa. "Butwa" means grass, so the Twa are people who are shorter than grass. The Shona people of Zimbabwe call them "Zvimandionerepi", which literally means, "How far was I when you saw me?", another direct reference to their short frames. When the white Dutchmen encountered the San in South Africa, they called them "People of the bush" because they did not live in houses but rather in caves in the bush. This is where the name Bushmen originated.

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Can you see the people next to the antelope?
The San people once inhabited southern, central, and east Africa. They traveled in large family groups where the men hunted and the women gathered edible plants and fruits. They had a deep understanding of nature, as can be seen in their beautiful rock paintings. They observed and understood the behaviors of animals, which helped them in hunting. Their tools were made out of stone, and they dipped their arrows and spears in poison when hunting. The poison was taken from poisonous plants or snakes.

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Giraffe haven't changed much in 6,000 years!
By maintaining a nomadic lifestyle, the San people did not harm the environment in which they lived. Like other animals, they only took what they could find, and before resources became endangered they moved on to a new location, giving the earth time to regenerate. They did not cut forests to plant crops or alter ecosystems by building villages or dams. They only hunted what they needed at any one time, usually just small animals.

On the rare occasion that they did kill a large animal like a buffalo, it was a sacred time and the animal would be consumed at a celebration at the kill-site. This can be seen in the rock paintings they made in their sacred sites.

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Monica scanning the landscape for Flintstones
One of these sacred sites is the Matopo Hills in southwestern Zimbabwe. Matopo, literally means bald head, and the region is so named because of the endless expanse of huge, 'bald', boulder rock formations that cover the ground. You don't have to be a San descendent to feel the power of this sacred site. Monica and I were both in awe of the natural beauty. Thousands upon thousands of years of erosion have left the balancing mounds of boulders. Once these mounds were smooth hills, but years of exposure to heating, cooling, drying and cracking has left only the strongest rock cores. It's really incredible, almost like being transported into the cartoon world (The Flintstones) of Bedrock. But instead of Dino, these hills are inhabited by rhinos, hippos, leopards, impalas, boars, and wildebeests (to name just a few).

Scattered throughout the Matopo Hills are large caves with the ancient rock paintings of the San, the most famous cave being the Nswatugi. The Nswatugi Cave is an immense, spiritually powerful cave that was surely used for religious worship, as well as for weather shelter. Excavations at the cave have revealed the existence of human bones over 40,000 years old, believed to be the oldest human remains yet found in Zimbabwe The paintings are believed to be between six and ten thousand years old. The San used plant pigments, animal fats and blood to make this paint that has held up for so many years.

Unfortunately, as newly settling cultures came across the San, they were pushed to different lands. This culture today only exists in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and Namibia. The San have been pushed off the fertile lands in southern and eastern Africa, where they once roamed and are now confined to small reserves in the harsh desert.

As for the Matopos, subsequent conquering cultures were not unaware of the spiritual power of the region, and it continued to be a site of worship by many different conquering groups, including the Ndebele people. Even the founder of the white ruling class in Zimbabwe, Cecil Rhodes, was so moved by the power of the land that he requested that he be buried there when he died.

The blacks lived for centuries close to their sacred lands of the Matopo hills, but in the 20th century the white government decided that the region that housed their founder's grave needed to be protected. Farmers forced the blacks off the land and established the Matopo National Park, thus ending the intimate age-old relationship between native Africans and nature in these hills.


Kevin - Music Can Keep A Family Together... Even After Death
Monica - So Who Was Shaka Zulu- Really?
Kevin - Mbira, Mbira, in the Hand, Who's the Coolest Cat in the Land?
Abeja - Traveling in Fairyland: Visiting Swaziland's Colorful Culture and Wildlife
Shawn - Swaziland: Rich in History and Smiles

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