The Cultural History and World Heritage of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg

The Drakensberg, so called by the Dutch settlers because to them the eastern part of southern Africa’s Great Escarpment, resembled the ridges on a dragon’s back; is also known in Zulu as “uKhahlamba ” meaning “a barrier of spears” referring to the height of this escarpment rising up to 3 000m or more in places.  Some Voortrekker legends also recall how a father and son, out on stroll “saw” a dragon afloat in the misty clouds surrounding the high peaks of the Berg; and even the Zulu believe that the “Inkanyamba”, a mythological python-type of creature with a horse-like head and mane lives on top of these mountains and that it can control weather conditions and that especially Berg thunderstorms were ascribed to the actions of this creature.  Legend has it that the Drakensberg Bushmen could control this feared being, a belief that caused people from all over southern Africa to seek San out as rainmakers.


history-2The oldest layers of rock in the Maloti Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site (MDP WHS) and its surrounding areas date back to about 250 million years and consist of sandstone and mudstone. Geologically, they belong to the Upper Beaufort Group and were laid down in flood plains and river valleys. These layers are located at an altitude of about 1 300 metres.  The second oldest rock layers are known as the Stormberg Group and physically they make out the foothills; the lowest of these layers are known as the Molteno Formation dating to about 220 million years ago and they contain the first examples of dinosaur trace fossils. These layers are located at an altitude between 1 500 and 2 000 meters.  Above the Molteno Formation, the Elliot Formation, also known as the Red Beds because of the presence of purple mudstone and sandstones can be found and they date to about 180 to 170 million years ago. Physically, they make out the steep slopes of the mountain. Red Beds are known for their fossilized wood and dinosaur remains.

Above the Elliot Formation, the Clarence Formation can be found also known as Cave Sandstones. They date to about 170 to 160 million years ago and today they represent the line of cliffs and overhangs where the San lived and where the most rock art can be found. Cave Sandstone is the most significant feature of the Little Drakensberg.

At about 160 million years ago the Gondwana landmass began breaking up, accompanied by volcanic activity and over the next 20 million years, basalt lava flowed from the fissures and they eroded back to form the massive cliffs of the High Drakensberg. The outflows lasted about 50 million years, from the early Jurassic period to the Cretaceous period and capped the sedimentary rock formations.


Archaeological sites from the Early, Middle and Later Stone Age and the Late Iron Age are present in the MDP WHS and surrounding areas, indicating that this region may have been occupied by humans over the last million years.  One of the most important archaeological sites in understanding the prehistory of the MDP WHS and its environment is that of Sehonghong Shelter in Lesotho.  This site dates back to the late Pleistocene (40 000 to 12 000 ya) and is as such very important as there has been substantially much more research done on Holocene prehistory in southern Africa.  Sehonghong Shelter was first excavated by P. Cater in 1971, where he uncovered a sequence of Middle and Later Stone Age assemblages, dating to before 32 000BP.  The site’s good preservation conditions lead to follow up excavations in 1992.  The newer excavations have been valuable in understanding the Middle Stone Age/Later Stone Age transition.

The oldest dates obtained from excavations focusing on the Stone Age from inside the MDP WHS comes from the Southern Berg (8 000 years before present- Good Hope Shelter) and 5 000 years before present for the Northern Berg.

It is, however, the Later Stone Age or Holocene communities that have contributed to its nomination as a World Heritage Site on cultural criteria.  These San hunter-gatherer left behind a large amount of archaeological evidence including rock art that today are some of the most unique prehistoric paintings on the continent.  Their activities and beliefs were reflected on the walls of their shelters by their artists – the battles, the hunts, the animals and birds, the mythological beings, bees and fish, ladders and digging sticks, dances and families. They painted till as late and the most recent to around AD 1720-1820.  Their population was small, probably never more than a thousand at a time, and therefore had little significant impact on the vegetation or wildlife of the area.

By the end of the first half of the first millennium AD, the Bantu-speaking farming communities were migrating into the region occupying the foot-hills and valleys below the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Mountains. The Bantu-speaking communities introduced settled life, domesticated livestock, crop production and the use of iron.  Over the next centuries into the second millennium AD, the Nguni groups in the greater region developed, giving rise to socio-cultural complex societies that eventually led to the rise of complex societies such as the Zulu Kingdom in the 1800s AD.  Bantu-speaking farmers soon appeared in the region of the MDP WHS and were responsible for Late Iron Age prehistoric villages such as the Mgoduyanuka in the grasslands below the mountain range.

The people living towards the north were known as the amaZizi and to the south, the amaThola. The amaThola probably also painted rock art and it is suggested that they believed that horses and baboons had special powers, thus making paintings of these animals would protect them during cattle raiding expeditions.  Relations between these people and the San were complex during the Nineteenth Century, but from 1816, under the leadership of King Shaka, the rise of Zulu military power in Zululand far to the north-east brought an end to peace in the region as successive waves of refugees displaced by the Zulu army (impis) settled towards the Drakensberg, in turn attacking those already there.  They named the mountains the Barrier of Spears, uKhahlamba.

Rock Art

The MDP WHS’s status, as a World Heritage Site is dependent on the holistic and inclusive protection and management of its resources in order to ensure its integrity.  The unique attributes of the Drakensberg Mountain Range include its scenic landscapes and picturesque which generate a sense of place, the high biodiversity value of the region as well as its unique heritage resources, specifically referring to San/Bushman rock art.

The legacy of rock paintings by early San/Bushman hunter-gatherers lent considerable weight to the Maloti-Drakensberg Park bid for World Heritage status. San rock art represents a masterpiece of human creative genius and it also bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared (UNESCO criteria for World Heritage Site Nomination).  Rock art embodies a scarce and non-renewable heritage. It is material evidence of the spiritual and aesthetic achievements of the San/Bushman and it also serves as a medium through which their cultural continuity, change, cosmology and their life ways can be communicated to present and future generations. Some researchers are of the opinion that nowhere is there such a collection of well-preserved and diverse rock paintings anywhere else in Africa, especially in the area sub-Saharan Africa.  Studies have recorded 600 painting sites containing 40 000 images inside the Park, with many more located in the areas surrounding it.


In 1837 the Voortrekkers with horses and wagons arrived in the foothills of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Mountains.  Many turned to livestock farming and hunted wild game.  This brought them into conflict with the San, who were partly dependent on hunting.  The shrinking of the San’s traditional hunting grounds and the political dynamics among the Nguni-Zulu farming communities and the arrival of the white settlers all contributed to instability and hardships for the San. With the encroaching settlement of Voortrekkers amongst the foothills of the Drakensberg the very existence of the San people was threatened. Clashes over hunting grounds, private ownership of land, and the arrival of cattle led to increasing numbers of cattle raids by the San people. The Natal colonial authorities organised their containment and pursuit.

Soon the San were being targeted and being shot in tensions and battles over resources.  Eventually the situation became so bad that the San were hunted and decimated by the settlers. The last sighting of San people in the Drakensberg Mountains was in the early 1880’s.

Living heritage

The MDP WHS and its surroundings contain various living heritage sites. Most of these are situated within the lower altitude areas of the Park and the surrounding Buffer Zone.  These are the areas most accessible to local communities who live adjacent to the Park and who attach living heritage values to particular sites. However, it is not only local communities who attach living heritage values to the Park but also certain groupings such as the //Xegwi San  descendants of the  Mpumalanga Province who refer to the Drakensberg generically as their “ sacred ancestral home”.  The living heritage sites of the Park can be divided into four broad categories namely a) natural sites or features b) archaeological sites with living heritage values c) graves and d) places of worship. There are some overlaps between these categories. Natural features include certain mountains, pools, waterfalls, forests, ochre pits, caves and boulders.

Archaeological sites with living heritage values include certain rock art sites as well as certain old homesteads of African leaders that are still frequented by local and affected communities.  Some grave sites situated within the Park are still frequented by the relatives of the deceased and thus have living heritage values.  There are many places of worship within the Park and the associated Buffer Zone.  These are mostly areas utilised by independent African church groups.  Living heritage sites are utilised by all the known ethnic groups who live or used to live adjacent to the Park.  These include Zulu-speaking and Southern Sotho-speaking communities.  Initiation sites are mostly associated with the Southern-Sotho speaking groups.  San descendants live in various areas adjacent to the Park especially in the south.  Despite social and cultural change some descendants continue to interact with rock art sites and regard them as sacred.

Rock art sites have also been appropriated by certain Zulu-speaking diviners (izangoma) who often train their students at these sites.  The spiritual and community values of sites are taken in to account in the management of such, rock art sites that are used for rituals are not open to the general public as a measure of respect for the communities concerned, unless negotiated with the community as is the case at Game Pass Shelter.

Other examples of living heritage sites are Penwarn 7 (an initiation site), Inkanyamba Cave (rain making site), Game Pass Shelter and Waterfall Shelter (visited by ZCC pilgrims, who believe that the Holy Ghost blessed the water and also that the mythological creature, the Inkanyamba visits the pool at the bottom of the Waterfall).