Telling our human story

2014-10-15 00:00

LAST week, I had the opportunity to sample media of a different kind. It was 800 years old and created from the soil, creatures and plants of the land over which it still presides, and its message was as profound as on the day it was created.

I’m ashamed to admit that this experience in the Royal Natal National Park last week was my first encounter with the San rock paintings that adorn the caves and stone cliff faces of the Drakensberg.

Witnessing those scenes etched into the cliff face was a humbling reminder of how momentary our time is on Earth, and of the endeavour of our ancestors as they carved a path for us.

Being in the business I’m in, the experience led me to reflect on the powerful drive of humans to tell their stories, and to leave behind an enduring message for future generations.

You could look at those images of eland and other creatures on the stone as an example of the first reporters in what is now KwaZulu-Natal.

While I know the rock paintings reflect a San spiritual view of their world and are regarded as deeply symbolic, in my eyes at least, they also serve the more literal purpose of being reportage of their time, giving insights into the daily lives of humans who lived so long before us.

Thousands of the paintings, like the ones my wife, daughter and I were taken to see, canvas the Drakensberg, and now that I have had a first taste of them, I am intrigued to experience more.

I imagine the richness of the story that they tell collectively, adding with each of them a small detail to the endless timeline of our human story.

The small scenes we viewed depicted the animals which they held in regard and around which much of the artists’ existence revolved — giraffe, baboons, leopard, bushbuck and, of course, the mighty eland.

Gazing from the rock-art site over the kloofs and hills lapping at the foot of the awesome Amphitheatre centuries later, there is still evidence of the world those who produced this art knew.

But it’s the depictions of their own rituals — San practising running and hunting or dancing around a fire — which tell the story of daily life, that are most poignant. Did the person who etched these drawings on the rock face centuries earlier imagine that his story would continue to resonate through time?

It makes you wonder, if you were asked to produce a scene or describe the story of your life, what would it be? Would it be sentimental, idealistic or grittily realistic?

Would our story triumph our achievements in career and society, or would they reflect on love for family and close friends?

What rituals of our daily existence would be meaningful enough to us to share with a reader or observer eight centuries hence, and hope that their depiction would capture the essence of our meaning?

It’s an interesting thought experiment for a person sitting in an editor’s chair as we produce a daily chronicle of our time, something The Witness has been doing for 168 years.

I wonder how many of those tens of thousands of editions would stand the same test the rock art of the Drakensberg has as an historical document of value. I suppose that will be left to historians to unravel, much as anthropologists decipher and find meaning in the San paintings.

No doubt they will conclude that our documents tell a truth but not the whole truth, much as a rock-art painting records a slice of the idealised, spiritual world view of the San painter.

But from our newspaper pages they will draw clues to describe the humanity — or lack thereof — of our epoch, will notch our mark on the timeline of history and perhaps be grateful that we took the time to tell imperfectly our story at all and, in doing so, to reach out to the generations still to come.

Thanks for indulging my whimsical thoughts. See what a week of mountain air can do to an editor’s head!

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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