‘WHAT IS THE MEANING OF YOUR WORK?’
After the publication of People of the Eland in 1976 (Vinnicombe 1976), followed by the presentation of David Lewis-Williams’ thesis Believing and Seeing the following year, there were still limitations to the hypotheses presented: there were no San people left of whom one could ask directly – “What is the meaning of your work?” Accordingly, I set off for Australia in 1977 where Aboriginal people still paint, and where there is a profound knowledge of that world view that has produced a wide range of rock paintings and engravings. I have been privileged, over the years that have elapsed since that momentous decision, to have periodically worked with Aboriginal groups in Western Australia who have greatly broadened my understanding and stimulated my thinking. I bring some facets of this Australian experience to how I now perceive San rock art and the theories that have contributed to our understanding of it.
In attempting to document these insights, some of them salutary, all of them mind-expanding, it is difficult to know where to begin and where to end. This is a matter of concern to us westerners whose thinking has been structured by the rigorous patterning of the written word with all its prescribed sequences of letters and words strung together in logical progression. However, to people whose principal forms of communication depend not on writing but on speech, this sequencing would matter not one whit. For example, attempting to write down myths and stories from an oral tradition can often become a frustrating experience. The information is given incrementally – depending on the circumstances, and depending on the teller's mood and perception of how ready the listener is to understand or to appreciate the information. The ‘story’, in our terms, may start at any point in the narrative, and may, quite literally, be told in segments over a period of years. “Why didn't you tell me that before?” I cry when, in Aboriginal Australia, I am at last told of a key episode or concept that, to my mind, makes sense of an otherwise seemingly disparate array of factors. “All same story,” they reply, looking baffled.