This exhibition presents a visual experience of the richly detailed knowledge and beliefs about the spirit world, rain-making and healing that inspired the paintings and engravings. The story is told from the perspective of the San people whose ancestors created most of the art.

The word ‘/Qe’ describes the power associated with God and the supernatural in N/u, a San language of the Northern Cape spoken by fewer than 20 people today. It was suggested for this exhibition by /Una /Khasi-Rooi, her sister Antje /Khasi and other members of the N/u community. Most of the quotations that illuminate the meaning of the rock art in the exhibition are in /Xam, a San language closely related to N/u but no longer spoken.

Rock art is found in many parts of Africa. The majority of rock paintings and engravings found in southern Africa can be clearly linked to San beliefs. Also, in this region, within the last 2000 years, engravings and finger-paintings were made by Khoekhoe herders and African farmers.


The present exhibition in the African Cultures Gallery was installed in the early 1970s, and was intended to show the essential features and patterns of material culture among the various groupings of indigenous people in southern Africa. These groupings were defined according to cultural and linguistic criteria that were intended to enable the reconstruction of social systems that no longer existed at that time, but this caused the displays to present cultural patterns as if they were static and timeless. Additions to the exhibition made during the 1980s and early 1990s, such as the display of a Nama camp, sought to counter this impression by incorporating a historical dimension. Though the exhibition does not represent the ways of life of contemporary rural and urban South Africans, it shows the vital role played by traditional knowledge of natural resources and their utilization in the past by the indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa.

The famous but controversial diorama of 19th-century /Xam hunter-gatherers in the Karoo region of the Western Cape is closed to the public pending a decision on its future to be taken after consultation with representatives of indigenous South African people and other stake-holders.


Indigenous knowledge is an important part of every South African’s cultural heritage. Indigenous knowledge refers to traditional knowledge that is handed on from generation to generation in communities. This exhibition is a window on indigenous ways of using natural resources in daily life and on ceremonial occasions, and it also provides a focus for current research and debate on intellectual property rights.

For a more comprehensive list of exhibitions see social history exhibitions.