The southern African state of Lesotho is home to some of the world’s richest archaeological remains, including what CNN describes as a “network of caves” that harbor “dinosaur footprints and millennia-old rock paintings.” The site holds a special meaning for the Basotho people, whose annual pilgrimage to the caves has caught the attention of the world.
David Coplan, professor emeritus of social anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, has described the pilgrimage as a sacred and free experience, which gives the Basotho people an opportunity to relate with their ancestral past.
“It’s the key to religion in southern Africa. God is very high, and he may not be able to see you looking down from such a perch. But your ancestors know who you are and they’re interested in you, and they will funnel the blessings in their direction,” the professor intimated.
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While an ancestral pilgrimage such as this may be seen as the preserve of believers in ancient spiritual and cultural traditions, CNN’s research reveals that the caves attract persons from all religious denominations. Christians can be seen worshiping alongside traditional Zulu healers on these sacred grounds.
Pieter Jolly – an expert in the rock paintings of the indigenous people who first inhabited present-day South Africa – argues that the artwork inscribed on the walls bears a richly spiritual significance. Jolly explains:
“Much of [the art] relates to trance experiences, so unrealistic-looking figures, animals, strange creatures. The major focus of San painting was to depict the spirit world. The paintings acted as a window into the spirit world for people who had not ‘tranced’ and had not experienced what shamans had. When they went into a trance, which was achieved largely through dancing and rhythm and clapping of women, they felt as if they had transformed into certain animals of power,” he revealed.
“When you go into the spirit world – which is where you go in a trance – you go there to fight evil spirits that are bringing discord or illness or death in the community, you are safeguarded by that animal’s power. Another world existed, a spiritual world, behind the rock face.”
Even as the Lesotho caves are revered as a site to bridge the gap between the secular and spiritual world, concerns loom over the dilapidated state of many ancient paintings and rock faces. Without efforts to protect the caves from further damage, an important anchor of Basotho heritage could one day be lost to history.