Piles of stones are found throughout the regions occupied by Khoekhoe and San.
Scholars have asked "are these way markers?" "Are these graves?"
This film was taken in 2019 in Okombahe. It features Benjamin |Howoseb from the Traditional Authority.
1:00min in Khoekhoegowab followed by
1:25 in English
These rocks you see here Haiseb ||o |obos. when he was born those rocks were here and they still are. I believe that wherever Haiseb moved the rocks were there so that when people came they must put a rock on there. It is not a grave. It is the Haiseb respect place. If you do not throw the stones you get bad luck. If you want to stop bad luck you can throw a stone and everything you are looking for will be open. These are the Haiseb respect rocks. [Taniseb: It is the spirit in the wind. Like belief in the God. God created people, it is a similar thing. Haiseb played the role like Jesus. It is a similar thing. But he does not have power like God. Respect is !oahsib. That was the belief, ǂom, of the people.
"You see the story, is that...we the younger generation , since the 1980s or 1990s, still when the road was being formed.
In the early days there was no transport, people were only passing by..foot..that is the reason. Once you come there then you were...the call would come in your mind saying 'let me avoid to get danger in front' but go this side. You have to put the stone. Once you come up to avoid this danger which will come on the front side. But the younger generations as you know have changed the road from this way up to the railway (road) cars road. That is why we don't use anymore such things.
CL: Its big
John Taniseb: It is big that means people were also a lot."
Benjamin |Howoseb: "The grave of Haiseb.. If you think you are passing Haiseb he might throw you into a hole. To avoid this you put a rock on the grave.
The rocks together is like one nation coming together. It means you do the same thing, have the same ideas. Inside the rocks it is like a spirit. Putting the rock on is like saying 'we come with one spirit'. People believe they are lucky if they put a rock on.
Haiseb stones are still alive. Haiseb is still alive indirectly. His power is still alive; the story is still alive."
Sometimes they say it is a grave, sometimes a ||ho-||hoba. It means "put the rocks together"
Haiseb prays at the rock pile. You just greet by putting a rock on the rock pile
Fransina Tundae (Gases): "We dug our graves using oryx horn. When you take a rock and turn it over it means 'rest in peace' ".
Alfons - a guide at Dâures (background)
“When you come to a grave you must turn some stones over. This applies to any grave”.
“When the Germans came they saw the local Damara playing a game using diamonds. The Germans exchanged the diamonds playing pieces for quartz for use in the game. The Damara then thought the diamonds must be precious, so they decided to stash the diamonds in rock cairns over the Brandberg mountain”.
Samson Awasab: "To take a stone and put it on a grave, it is like greeting a dead person".
Alfons and Attie Tsam on a farm near Tsintsabis. The Haiseb mound was near a Haiseb footprint embedded in a small boulder.
These three photographs are kindly contributed by FP team member Rick Rohde.
Rick locates early photographs and takes another photograph from the exact spot so that he can assess landscape changes.
This photograph was taken by WH Stengel in 1960 This photograph was taken by Rick close to 60 years later.
Without a local knowledge holder it is hard to identify what a pile of stones might be or mean.
Mounds by paths that become roads are especially difficult to interpret as they may be Haiseb mounds, actual graves, or road works. The mound below is probably road works.
An example of unknown provenance
This mound is in the Richtersveld but I could not find anyone who knew anything about it.
Context is everything! What would archaeologists make of this if there was no sign? This was to place under the wheels of cars stuck in the mud.
My initial objective was to try and log the number of 'Haiseb cairns' found in north west Namibia. In view of the time, distances and terrain involved this task ultimately proved too difficult. Furtherstill, I had overestimated the variability of familiarity with these mounds. For instance, Damara of the Sesfontein region were familiar with them but those around Dâures were not. This fact probably relates to the movement of the Damara and the relatively new arrival of many Damara to the Daures region. This contrasts with the long term occupation of the Sesfontein region by Damara.
This question, 'are the piles of stones way marking cairns or graves? ', raises important wider issues about translation and categories.
They are both or they may be one or the other.
The mounds are about working relationships in the world to bring the best possible and most predictable outcome. They are also about habit and culturally appropriate behaviour.
Whenever KhoeSan set off on a task beyond the village they traditionally ask the ancestors to 'open their road', keep them safe and bring them luck.
Turning over a rock, placing a rock on a pile or sometimes placing a rock in a tree, are all ways of opening up the senses to a new potentially hostile, but at the same time giving , environment.
Ancestors are good and bad. what they do effectively represents the uncontrollable in life. Haiseb is very much the same element, but is perhaps the ultimate uncontrollable element personified. In this way he overlaps with the two sides of God. The Damara sometimes move him into this sphere and this is reflected in his status as Mantis and ||Gaûab and ||Gamab, all of whom overlap as the tricky side of god.
So as KhoeSan set off into the bush they must switch on and become 'awake', seeing and hearing 'nicely'. Before entering an area where things happen Damara perform Tche Khom. This involves saying some words to the ancestors , wishing for protection and an open road at the same time as making some sort of offering, such as tobacco.
The act of moving a rock and perhaps piling them up is a way of giving respect to other than human beings. If there is a grave, KhoeSan will show respect to avoid the wrath of the ancestor. To 'greet' an ancestor is to show respect and is as important as greeting people evenly when you walk into a KhoeSan village. People who feel ignored harbour bad feelings.
Moving rocks at the same time makes a sign indicating which way to go. Many Damara speak of how their old people moved through the landscape with hunters out ahead and family following. They talk of leaving signs, including rock paintings to tell others where they went and hence rock cairns might be to help wider family find their way through their landscapes.
When one person encounters a mound of stones unless it is a known grave it can never be clear who started the mound and why, and even if the person who initially made it was clear in their mind, it may be something that was 'just done', in a sense of behaving properly. Haiseb mounds are therefore like magnets that hold together multiple meanings, binding the characteristically inchoate and idiosyncratic core of KhoeSan thinking with a way of behaving properly among humans and non human others.
These stone piles are increasingly being destroyed for roads or otherwise ignored. When the stones are ignored that is one less opportunity for KhoeSan to recognise the relationships they hold with the wider world.