What is Tsodilo?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

Tsodilo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country of Botswana near the Kalahari Desert. It is known for its high concentration of rock paintings. Tsodilo is also incredibly important to the San people of the region, for whom it has great spiritual significance.

Tsodilo is made up of four distinct hills, which jut up rapidly from the earth to heights of about 1,300 feet (400m). The landscape other than the hills is rather gradual, with smaller hills rising up occasionally. The land is covered in dry brush, and is fairly desolate feeling.

Each of the four hills of Tsodilo is personified, and is named based on that personification. The tallest of the hills, in the south, is called the Male Hill. Near it is the Female Hill, which is shorter than the Male Hill at about 1,000 feet (300m), but covers a great deal more area. A shorter hill, at about 130 feet (40m) is found nearby Female Hill, and is known as Child Hill. The fourth hill is not named as clearly, but is said to have been the original wife of Male Hill, before he left her for Female Hill.

Female Hill is the site of the majority of the rock paintings for which Tsodilo is internationally famous, and it is here most visitors travel first. The paintings at Tsodilo offer an extensive look back in human history, and the area has been inhabited for some 30,000 years, making it one of the oldest inhabited areas on Earth.

The paintings cover a wide range of shapes and figures, with some surprises for visitors. Probably the most iconic of the paintings at Tsodilo is an image of a zebra that is painted on a rock outcropping. This painting has been adopted as the logo for Botswana’s museums and monuments department, and is the image one most often sees associated with Tsodilo. Other paintings include human figures, mostly of the San in various ritual poses. Some of the most surprising paintings for visitors are of animals that the San would likely never have seen, such as whales, and even some penguins. These images suggest that the San had contact with groups extremely far away from their homeland.

Many people report a very strange feeling when they visit Tsodilo. Some describe the feeling as one of spirits being all around, while others just describe it as an uneasiness. Still others find the feeling pleasurable and feel as though the air is charged with a deep-seated spirituality. The Afrikaner Sir Laurens van der Post describes in his writing a time when he and his companions hunted game meat in the area, even though their guide warned against it. Soon after they found their electronic equipment all failed, and they were attacked by bees multiple times. They eventually wrote down apologies to the spirits of Tsodilo, at which time he says the anomalies ceased.

The San believe that Female Hill is where many of the gods rest and hold court, making it similar to the Greek conception of Mount Olympus. They believe that Male Hill is where the First Spirit prayed when he had finished creating the world. There is an indentation on Male Hill which is purportedly the indentation left from the First Spirit’s knees as he knelt in prayer.

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