Rock art by LSA hunter-gatherers can be found in the form of paintings or engravings in almost every district in South Africa. There is no comprehensive list of all sites, and many have not been recorded, but it is estimated that there are at least 20 000 to 30 000 sites and well over a million individual images. Although many are not well preserved, collectively they represent a remarkable record of the beliefs and cultural practices of the people who made them. Most were created by San hunter-gatherers, but Khoikhoi herders and Iron Age farmers added to the collection.
The hunter-gatherer paintings were generally made with a brush or with a reed ‘pen’ and have fine lines and delicate details. They were mostly made with red ochre, but yellow, purple, white and black were also used. Most paintings used one colour (monochrome) but some are painted with two (bichrome) or several colours (poly chrome). Where the paint is blended from one colour to another, it is referred to as shaded polychrome. Not only did the hunter-gatherers make paint that has lasted thousands of years, they were gifted artists who expressed complex ideas in elegantly simple ways. They were also responsible for the older tradition of rock engravings in the Karoo.
Khoikhoi herders who brought sheep and cattle into this part of South Africa within the last 2 000 years were probably responsible for the most recent phase of painting, in which the paint was applied with a finger instead of a brush. The colours are mostly monochrome and the subject matter is frequently non-representational patterns with symbolic meaning. As the Khoikhoi settled on the land formerly occupied by hunter-gatherers, the San gradually stopped painting as their numbers and cultural activities declined.
Iron Age farmers contributed paintings and engravings in the Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng and North West provinces after they settled there more than 1 000 years ago. Their paintings were also made with a finger or very broad brush and are closely connected to initiation of young men and women.