Essays & Opinion

Mystery and ritual: a photo essay

In 2014, I rid myself of all possessions that couldn’t fit in a backpack, and threw myself entirely on the mercy of this wondrous planet of ours.

For the next four years, I trekked across Mongolian steppe-land, Egyptian sand dunes, Kenyan swamps, and the cobblestoned streets of innumerable ancient cities.

In the spring of 2018, my path brought me to South Africa — one of humanity’s primeval ancestral homelands, where I found myself drawn irresistibly toward sites of archaic ritual…

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I spent time investigating palaeolithic San rock paintings in Maloti-Drakensberg Park, near Durban, South Africa. It was absolutely breathtaking.

But this was only part of a particular adventure that had started some days previously, and would continue for some days after.

I had talked some fellow adventurers into visiting a very ancient, very important place that most South Africans have never even heard of. But even by the night before, we still weren’t sure how to get access to that mysterious place.

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Our resident expert was Sotiris Spetsiotis, an ex (Greek) Navy Seal who had lived in South Africa for 40+ years, and loved to tell adventure stories all day.

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Sotiris Spetsiotis (on the left). The guy on the right is Sotiris’s protégé Ndumiso, a full-blooded Zulu who knows this country like the back of his hand.

We set off bright and early in the morning, in Sotiris’s Land Rover. Since we didn’t yet have a definite plan for reaching [UNDISCLOSED LOCATION] yet, we decided to pay a visit to Maloti-Drakensberg Park first, to check out some prehistoric rock paintings by San people.

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At the park’s visitor center, we met Rowan — a Zulu bush guide who also happens to be an archaeologist specializing in ancient San rock paintings.

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And so, the four of us set off on a long, steep uphill hike, to a hilltop rockshelter that has served as a site of shamanic ritual for San people for thousands of years.

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Until at last, we arrived at a truly extraordinary place.

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These rock paintings were made by San hunters more than 3,000 years ago, using the blood of the very same elands (antelopes) depicted in these scenes.

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This particular figure is a therianthrope — a “beast-man.” He has the torso and arms of a human, but the legs, hooves and head of an antelope. He is a shaman who has fully integrated the physical and spiritual attributes of his tribe’s most sacred prey.

San people have carefully preserved many aspects of their stone-age culture — — including languages that contain “a whisper of THE ancient mother tongue spoken by the first modern humans.”

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So it’s likely that these shamanic San paintings — while they’re only about 3,000 years old — offer a window into some of humankind’s very earliest religious beliefs and practices.

In the spirit of all good adventures, however; we saved the best for last.

At one point in our conversation, I asked Rowan if he’d heard of [UNDISCLOSED LOCATION]. His reply: “Oh yes. That place is a lot more ancient than this one. I know someone who’s been there.”

So I talked it over with Soterios and Ndumiso and we agreed to headed to [UNDISCLOSED LOCATION] the next morning.

We had no idea what to expect.

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The area surrounding the site is just about the last kind of place you’d expect to find a palaeolithic rockshelter. It’s just… empty countryside.

We finally arrived in a tiny village, where we met a man named John. John had an old book with info on the site — and on the scientists who excavated it.

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John warned us that the rockshelter is almost inaccessible — deep in the forest, across a fast-flowing river, at the top of a sheer cliff. I told him I’d do whatever it took to get to the site.

And so, John led us into the woods. Eventually, we came to a rocky, muddy river. Though it’s hard to tell from this pic, the water is hip-deep, and flows fast enough to knock a grown man down. The slippery algae-covered rocks don’t help, either.

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As I rolled up my trousers and forded the river, my intrepid guides guides stayed on the shore, cheering me on. I’m just kidding. They were laughing at me. “Watch out,” they called to me. “Pythons and other serpents live in these waters.”

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“If a serpent eats me,” I shouted back, “Tell people I died searching for the Inmost Cave!” Onward and inward!

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On the far side of the river, John and I came to a sheer cliff face. If you’ve known me for a while, you know heights are my only real phobia. But I’d already come this far. No turning back now.

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As we heaved ourselves over the top of the cliff, I turned around to take in the view. It wasn’t hard to see why stone-age San people were in awe of this place.

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Though this rockshelter contains no paintings like the ones I saw at Maloti-Drakensberg, it’s a treasure-house of primordial relics. Archaeologists here have dug up stone arrowheads, bone needles and other tools dating as far back as 60,000 BCE.

And here’s the mind-blowing part: Those tools are essentially identical to the equipment that San people still make and use today.

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John led me to the excavation pit at the far end of the rockshelter… On the strict condition that I not touch anything. I didn’t. My heart was pounding so hard, all I could do was stare in awe.

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I stared down into the pit — down through 75,000+ years of unbroken African history. Across all those millennia, San people continued to visit this sacred place.

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As we turned away from the excavation, John turned to pick up a stray piece of plastic trash, with sadness in his eyes. Sometimes people wander up here, he told me, and contaminate this active archaeological dig in one of the most primeval sites of human habitation on earth.

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That’s why we promised never to reveal the location, or even the name, of this place. [UNDISCLOSED LOCATION] needs to remain a secret for now — and for the foreseeable future.

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We left without disturbing a single stone. And I hope it stays that way.

About the author of this post

006 Ben PortraitsBen Thomas is editor of The Willows Magazine, author of The Cradle and the Sword, creator of TheStrangeContinent.com, and founder of the neuroscience news agency The Connectome. He travels the world as a freelance writer, and has lived in more than 40 countries. His hobbies include aquaculture, Linux customisation, tantric meditation and ink drawing.

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