Rock art rituals: Namib Desert carvings offer fascinating insight into ancient initiation for girls
When carefully examined, the rock art of the Namib Desert can shed light on forgotten rituals and practices from thousands of years ago. A particularly interesting feature seems to show ancient initiation rites intended to help young girls become women. But you might not be able to catch that sight from your first glance at what appears to be a dancing female antelope.
The depiction of this female antelope, known as a kudu, has been interpreted as a symbol of girls learning to behave like women in a hunter-gatherer society living in the Namib Desert around 3,000 years ago.
“Dancing Kudu” Petroglyph, Twyfelfontein, Namibia. (Thomas Schoch/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Archaeologist John Kinahan explained his first impressions of rock art to IBTimes UK:
“Part of my job in the Namib Desert is to search for evidence of ceremonies that may have taken place here in the past. Forty years ago I came across this image of a kudu, which is carved with an unusual rock polishing technique, and I was struck by it. My recent investigations suggest that female kudu imagery was central to ancient initiation rituals…”
Kudu rock art drawing found in the Namib Desert. ( John Kinahan )
Kinahan suggests that the ritual seclusion shelters used in these ceremonies are engraved next to the kudu. He also stated that the animal did not dance (despite its nickname “dancing kudu”); instead, he is in a position similar to that taken by women as they would grind grain and grass seeds. Additionally, female fertility is suggested by the fact that the animal is depicted as if pregnant.
But what inspired ancient artists to depict a young woman as a kudu? The connection between this animal and positive social values for a female was likely the cause according to Kinahan, who said IBTimes United Kingdom :
“It is possible that the sociable characteristics of the female kudu were given as an example to follow for young girls who were preparing to become women. Kudus are docile and sociable, they all take care of the young together and work together without the males. These characteristics were probably considered desirable for women. The female kudu was probably incorporated into initiation ceremony imagery to put girls on the path to womanhood.
Three kudus among the brown grass at Ruaha in Tanzania. (Paul Shafner/ DC BY 2.0 )
Although it can be difficult for modern viewers to discern the finer features of ancient rock art, Kinahan suggests you need to consider the importance of shamanic beliefs in the hunter-gatherer societies of the Namib Desert. to get a better idea of how this particular piece of art shows ancient initiation rituals. Why? Because shamans probably created the art and conducted the initiation ceremonies.
The study of this piece of rock art is presented in the journal Antiquity.
Five modern sangomas (diviners – traditional healers) during an Umgido (ceremony) in Zululand. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top image: detail of the kudu engraving believed to depict women’s initiation rituals in the Namib Desert thousands of years ago. Source: John Kinahan
By Alicia McDermott