Twyfelfontein (which means ‘uncertain spring’) is the site of ancient rock engravings and paintings in the Kunene Region of north-western Namibia. It consists of a spring in a valley flanked by the slopes of a sandstone table mountain that receives very little rainfall and has a wide range of diurnal temperatures. The site contains around 2 000 rock carvings and in 2007, UNESCO approved it as a World Heritage Site. The site is one of the largest and most important concentrations of rock art in Africa, and was proclaimed a National Monument in 1952. It is thought as many as 40 000 people a year now visit the site, making it one of the more popular tourist destinations in Namibia.
Twyfelfontein valley was inhabited by Stone Age hunter-gatherers approximately 6 000 years ago, who were responsible for the engravings or etchings. 2 000 to 2 500 years ago the Khoikhoi, an ethnic group related to the San (Bushmen), occupied the valley, then known under its Damara/Nama name ?Ui-?Ais (‘jumping waterhole’). The Khoikhoi also produced rock art in the form of paintings, which can clearly be distinguished from the older engravings. Stone Age hunters and animals were attracted to this small perennial spring, the only one of its kind in the area.
Topographer Reinhard Maack, who also discovered the White Lady rock painting at Brandberg, reported the presence of rock engravings in the area in 1921. Of course the local inhabitants had been aware of the site much earlier than this time, but it is thought they avoided the engravings as they respected the place as a sacred area which was inhabited by spirits of the deceased. A more thorough investigation was only conducted after D Levin purchased the land for farming in 1947. He discovered the spring and gave it the name Twyfelfontein after it repeatedly dried up. While commonly being translated as ‘doubtful spring’, a more accurate translation for the word twyfel in this connection is “questionable” or “uncertain”. Shortly thereafter scientific investigation of the rock art began in 1950 by Ernst Rudolph Scherz, who described over 2 500 rock engravings on 212 sandstone slabs. Today it is estimated that the site contains more than 5 000 individual depictions.
Sandstone rocks at Twyfelfontein are covered by the so-called desert varnish, a hard patina that appears brown or dark grey. Engravings were affected by chiselling through this patina, exposing the lighter rock underneath. The indentations were created over the course of thousands of years. The oldest engravings might be as old as 10 000 years, and the creation of new works probably ended with the arrival of pastoral tribes around the year 1000. Three different types of engravings can be distinguished at Twyfelfontein:
• Iconic imagery (images of animals, humans, and fantasy creatures)
• Pictograms (geometric rock art like pecked circles, rows of dots)
• Indentations for or from everyday use (grinding hollows, board games, gong stones)
Additionally, the site contains rock paintings at 13 different locations, with depictions of humans painted in red ochre in six rock shelters. The similar occurrence of rock paintings and rock engravings is very rare.
The hunter-gatherers made most of the iconic engravings and probably all the paintings. The carvings represent animals such as rhino, elephant, ostrich and giraffe as well as depictions of human and animal footprints. Some of the figures, most prominently the “Lion Man”—a lion with an extremely long rectangular kinked tail ending in a six-toed pugmark, depict the transformation of humans into animals, a practice known as anthropomorphism. This transformation and the depiction of animals together with their tracks make it likely that they were created as part of shamanist or spiritual healer rituals.
There are engravings of animals which do not occur in the area, such as sea lion, flamingo and penguins. This indicates that hunter-gatherers might have come from the coastal areas more than 100km away. Eland, sable, wildebeest and rhino are not currently found in the area, but they are clearly depicted in the etchings. This could mean that these species once occurred in the area and have now become locally extinct.
Twyfelfontein is definitely worth a visit which enhances one’s understanding of the area and highlights how the first inhabitants of the area not only survived the harsh environment but beautified it.