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The White Lady of Brandberg ?


The Brandberg Mountain





Namibia's Highest Mountain


The White Lady - San Paintings




Brandberg - Namibia


Brandberg is a granite mountain located in the northwestern Namib Desert near the coast in Damaraland. The desert is the oldest in the world and the mountain is Namibia’s highest at 2573 meters. It has a mass of approximately 650 square kilometers. Feldspar is a basic component of the Brandberg’s granite, a mineral which can take on a blood-red colour. The Damara named the mountain Dâures, or 'burning mountain', as it sometimes glows red at sunset. For the same reason, Afrikaans and Germans named it ‘Brandberg’, meaning ‘mountain that burns’. The Herero named it Omukuruvaro, or 'mountain of the Gods'. Its highest point is called Königstein, or Kings Stone (German).






Brandberg Mountain from Space

The Brandberg is a massive granitic intrusion, that was exposed by erosion of the earth’s surface following the breakup of the American and African continents. Weaknesses in the earths crust admitted many similar intrusions, such as the Spitzkoppe, Otjohorongo, and Erongo mountains, striking landscape features in the area. Horizontal layers of basalt and dykes of dolerite are evidence of the complex geological development of the Brandberg scenery, which took place over 600 million years.

Most of the geological features visible in this area date to within the last 120 million years, a period that coincided with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. In the so-called Petrified Forest to the north of the Brandberg, there are fossilized examples of conifer like trees up to 30 meters in length, evidence that extensive forest cover and a relatively moist environment existed at one time. The same area has small traces of gravel deposits or tillites, left by the subsequent retreat of enormous ice sheets, which covered much of southern Africa at the beginning of the Karoo era.

The red sandstone outcrops seen mainly to the north of the Brandberg are remnants of the great deposits of windblown sand laid down in the Karoo era. In some outcrops, the bedding of ancient dunes is clearly visible, while in others it is possible to see depressions and valleys that were filled by the accumulating sand, often with fine-grained mudstones and gravel deposits beneath. At the end of the Karoo era, these sediments were overlain by layers of basaltic lava up to 800 meters thick, which covered parts of South America and southern Africa. Remnants of these enormous flows now form the Goboboseb Mountains southwest of the Brandberg.



Brandberg Mountain Formation


Erosion from glacier, wind, rain and temperature activity has removed much of the rock which surrounded the Brandberg intrusion, so the granite mass now stands almost 2000 meters above the surrounding desert. The geological structure of the mountain shows that the granite rose by way of a volcanic pipe approximately 25 kilometres  in diameter. The heat generated by this event baked and hardened the Karoo rocks which remain as a series of dark coloured terraces around the base of the mountain and near the summit. In many places these rocks are tilted inward, indicating that the Brandberg mass rose and then subsided slightly. There are many geological faults in the granite, some containing veins of haplite and quartz from subsequent intrusions.



Brandberg Mountain - Click image to view a larger file - then Zoom in and around.

One important feature of the Brandberg granite is its onion-like structure, clearly visible on large areas of exposed rock. These cracks running parallel to the surface, and the faults which run perpendicular to the surface, accumulate rainwater that sustains the vegetation of the ravines. The large boulders found in the ravines and at the foot of steep slopes are another characteristic feature, which results from this fracturing of the granite. 

Human Settlement


The Brandberg and the surrounding desert plains are extremely rich in archaeological sites. Most of the sites at the foot of the mountain are surface scatters of stone artefacts dating from the mid to late Pleistocene, or within the last 500,000 years. Some of these sites are very extensive. Erosion has combined many successive periods of occupation on the present land surface. There is very little evidence of early occupation on the mountain itself, which has a high concentration of more recent sites dating from the last 10000 years. Included in these are a large number of painted rock sites.



Brandberg Archaeological Site

One reason for the great concentration of relatively recent archaeological sites on the mountain is that increasing aridity made the springs and waterholes more important to mobile groups of hunters. Earlier occupation of the surrounding area probably took place under wet conditions that have not been repeated in the last 10000 years. During this period, the technology and ecological adaptation of hunting became more specialized and complex. Stone tool assemblages include fine pointed drills and scrapers, as well as tiny stone barbs used as tips for poisoned arrows. There are also tools made from bone and items of ostrich eggshell jewellery and leatherwork.

Archaeological evidence shows that the upper Brandberg was occupied mainly in the dry season and that small groups of people lived in loose congregations around the most reliable waterholes. They lived on wild plant foods and game, relying heavily on dassie, hare and klipspringer. Each settlement area on the mountain is centered on one or more large rock painting sites. Modern day academics who repetitiously state the paintings were 'ritual based', far outnumber those like us - who see the paintings as natural human expression. Once you discard their rhetoric, it becomes clear the abundant communal based Brandberg rock paintings show details of everyday cultural life and celebration.

Hunting communities living at the Brandberg were not isolated from other people. Seashells and unusual stones show that there was contact through movement and the exchange of gifts. Rock paintings of the Brandberg are similar to those in other parts of Namibia, which confirms there was a great deal of mobility and communication. These lines of contact brought the first pottery to the Brandberg about 2000 year ago, followed by metal objects and livestock. The creation of new works was probably halted with the arrival of pastoral tribes around 1000 AD. Pastoralist lifestyles became the dominant way of life and scenes of domesticated animals are rare.


San - Khoi Khoi Pot

Few European explorers ventured into this area during the 18th and 19th centuries and there is less evidence of trading contact during this period then at the coast or in the central parts of Namibia. The Brandberg pastoralists were probably poorer than other communities were, as the result of raiding in the early to mid-nineteenth century, and the devastation of the Rinderpest epidemic at the end of the century. Early in the 20th century, nomadic communities were forced to settle in designated reserves such as Okombahe, leaving the Brandberg and large areas of the Namib Desert unpopulated for the first time in many thousands of years.


Southern African Rock Art




Drakensberg Rock Painting -  Kwa-Zulu Natal


Paintings by the San are found throughout Namibia and South Africa. The oldest paintings are estimated to be between 25,000 to 27,000 years, calculate by stratigraphic and radiocarbon evidence. Evidence shows that people have lived in the Brandberg for 5000 years. The age of the paintings in the Maack Shelter has not been determined. Research indicates that the large painted sites were abandoned in the last 1000 years.

The San ground iron rich rock called hematite to obtain red paint. Ochre (stone) was ground for the yellows, charcoal or manganese for black and calcium carbonate for white (sea or eggshells). The powders were bound with blood serum, egg white and casein (milk fat / cheese).



Maack - Hoffman - Breuil





  Reinhardt Maack - 1892 / 1969


In 1917, topographer Reinhard Maack and cartographer Alfred Hoffmann, discovered a small rock shelter containing paintings. The two had descended the mountain and taken shelter over night under an overhang. On awakening – Maack saw the paintings and made a sketch.


(Maack discovered the rock engravings (petroglyphs) at Twyfelfontein prior to 1914.)





            Reinhardt Maack Brandberg Sketch                Reinhardt Maack Brandberg Watercolour


Maack made a watercolor from the sketch and a copy is stored in Cape Town.


Enter Abbé Henri Breuil - a man of self-serving sensationalized fame.




Abbé Henri Breuil - Father Henri Breuil - (Père 'thou shall not smoke'!)

Twelve years later, French Abbé Henri Breuil viewed Maack’s contribution in Cape Town, and took copies with him back to France. Over the years, Breuil became an acknowledged expert on the Palaeolithic cave art of Europe. He lectured at the College de France from 1929 to 1947. He obtained a reputation for over interpreting certain works of art and for being  too eager to understand ‘meaning’. Shortly after WW2, he wrote General J Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa, saying, ‘I send you a portrait of a charming young girl who has been waiting for me on a rock in the Brandberg for perhaps 3000 years. Do you think it polite to keep her waiting much longer?’ Smuts visited Paris in 1946 and they had lunch. The encounter led to a Breuil ‘expedition’ to the Brandberg in 1947.


At first sight, Breuil ‘determined’ that the central figure (not the central figure at all) was female, despite the fact that it was physically male and was identified as such by Maack and every other scholar who studied the painting. He decided that this figure and the rest of the frieze represented a procession that was not of African origin. He went further to claim the so-called White Lady was probably Isis, as known from artworks of Pharonic Egypt and that the figure bore resemblance to artworks of the classical Mediterranean cultures. According to the Wits University who later employed him; Breuil insisted that an ancient tribe of Europeans that once inhabited Africa painted the art. However the archaeological community finally threw out this interpretation in 1956 as a “highly romanticized” explanation. Breuil's attribution to a European culture was self serving and outright racist. One wonders how, with almost 50,000 individual San paintings recorded to date on the mountain around him, he could have suggested the 'White Lady' was unrelated. We wonder if this 'acknowledged expert' looked only at this rock painting and if so, did he see only one figure therein?


The name 'White Lady' was subsequently conferred onto the central figure in the Maack Shelter by means of Breuil titling a paper - then a book - ‘The White Lady of Brandberg’, a name that has stuck to this day. Breuil made serious errors in his interpretations of these and other rock paintings in Namibia, apparently for no other reason than instant self-serving sensationalized fame.

Detailed studies of the paintings show that they resemble others found in many parts of Namibia and the Brandberg itself and are not particularly unusual. Excavations at this and many other painted sites on the Brandberg have yielded abundant evidence of indigenous occupation, but no trace of foreign anything.

The 'not so White Painting'



The White Lady of Brandberg


The so-called White Lady painting is in fact a very fine San example of a group of people on the move. The fading character - 3rd right of centre - is a medicine man or shaman of importance - and seems destined to be known as 'The White Lady' forever. This figure is not the only partially painted white figure in the mural.


Click either thumb to view larger Images

Escorting the entire group is a woman, followed by a masked male figure. Both have white elements added to large portions of their bodies. You may decide for yourself which of the two figures is the leader of the group or who in the mural is the 'central' attraction.


Click either thumb to view larger Images

Basarwa - Lesarwa - Masarwa - Mosarwa (San)  Bushman - Botswana - 2004


Take note of the figure ahead and to the left of the Shaman 'White Lady', standing to the viewer's side of a finely painted Zebra (below). Attached to the figure's upper arms are what should be Zebra manes - something that San healers wear to this day (above). If depicting these was the intent of the artist, then there is more than one Shaman present in the painting.




Shaman on the move?


Over all, the painting depicts people and objects in movement, perhaps hunting and or in celebration. All of the main characters are wearing some form of footwear or headdress. There are also figures that depict women with breasts, the 'White Lady' of course not.




The White Lady of Brandberg - (Male Shaman - Hunter)


There is little doubt the clarity of what remains of the so-called 'White Lady' has been weakened. Years ago, the painted figure above was more intense and detailed. Early European visitors sprayed it with water to enhance the colour for picture taking.


He (the White Lady) carried a bow in one hand and a rattle or flywhisk in the other. He showed body sweat markings as droplets and streaks. He was wearing wrist, upper arm, knee and ankle rattle straps as a male Shaman would. Finally and most important, on the oldest drawings and photographs, he is clearly wearing a penis cover, once worn by men throughout Southern Africa.



Click thumbs to view larger Images

People on the move - the most common motive in Rock Paintings


The majority of paintings are found higher up the Brandberg Mountain. Larger gatherings of people, as well as game, were attracted to the abundant water there. At the same time, the higher elevations made it possible to escape the extreme heat of the Namib Desert below. Above are examples of paintings found higher up the Brandberg Mountain.





Brandberg Fantasy




A parting shot of the Brandberg Mountain.



Click thumbs to visit other Namibian  and Southern Africa Art pages.



                     Twyfelfontein Rock Art            Herero Genocide - Nama Genocide                 South African Art




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