Rock art in the Karoo: The work of Dorothea Bleek

Dorothea was the fifth daughter of Dr Wilhelm Bleek, the man who did great work capturing the San language. She followed in her father’s footsteps.  She was born in Mowbray, Cape Town, in 1873, but at the age of 11 moved to Germany with her family. There she completed her schooling and trained as a teacher. The family returned to South Africa in 1904. Dorothea had always been interested in the work done by her father, a noted philologist, who, with his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, pioneered the enormous task of recording the language and folklore of the /Xam and the !Kung people in the late 1800s, so she joined her aunt in continuing this task.  In 1905, while teaching in Cradock, Dorothea met Helen Tongue, also a teacher, and also interested in rock art. Helen pioneered a new method of rock art tracing.  Their shared interest took them to a site near Cradock where Helen was already working and after spending time there they decided to take their research further afield.


At the beginning of 1906, Dorothea and Helen took a train trip from Cradock to Bloemfontein and Ladybrand where they continued work started at various rock art sites recorded in George Stow’s manuscript, Native Races of South Africa. Towards the end of the year, they were off to an area around the Maluti Mountains of Basutholand (now Lesotho) which were rich in rock art. Their third and last trip together took them to Fauresmith and on to Luckhoff. Later, Dorothea visited several other areas  in South Africa and in neighboring countries on her own, searching for rock art. In 1910, she visited the area near Prieska in the Northern Cape, from where some of the San informants interviewed by her father and aunt had originated, states an article in the South African Rock Art Digital Archive. Subsequent travels included trips to other parts of the Northern Cape, the eastern Transvaal, South West Africa (present-day Namibia), Bechuanaland (Botswana), Angola and Tanganyika (Tanzania). In 1923, she published The Mantis and His Friends: Bushman Folklore and, after her death, a Bushman Dictionary was published. The notebooks which Dorothea had inherited from her father and aunt were donated to the University of Cape Town shortly after she died in 1948.


© Rose’s Roundup September 2011.

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