Johannesburg - For a long time, these images were the record of the hunted.

Rock art panels depicting Bushmen/San being chased by men on horseback, firing guns. The attackers were believed to be Boer commandos on punitive raids that destroyed the Bushmen/San in the Drakensberg area during the 19th century. But some riders appeared to carry spears, some wore feathered headdresses, and they preformed San trance dances, not the typical attire or behaviour of a Boer commando.

But now one academic believes he can explain this, saying the painters were the hunters, a band of raiders who terrorised communities in the central and southern Berg.

These were the pirates of their day, a rag-tag group of Bushman/San, Xhosa, Zulu and coloured people and at least two white British deserters. They were swashbuckling, some carried fancy plumes in their wide-brimmed hats, their horses made them mobile and they were armed with muskets.

They were known as the Amatola, and their victims were the white trekboers skirting the Drakensberg into Natal and black communities living in the area. “These people were what were known as the ‘skelm basters’, people from smashed communities who were escaping the frontier and going to live beyond the frontier in the mountains,” says Dr Sam Challis of the Rock Art Research Institute at Wits University.

Many were possibly escaping from the frontier wars in what is now the Eastern Cape. Others could have been British army deserters.

The colonists at the time often saw these people as Bushmen, but in a different context to the traditional San who today are often seen as true hunter-gatherers.

“Bushmen in the 19th century were often a mixed group of raiders adapting to their environment,” says Professor John Wright, author of the book Bushman Raiders of the Drakensberg 1840-1870. “They weren’t just hunter-gathers, they were raiders and traders.”

Their booty, believes Challis, were cattle and horses, which they traded for tobacco, maize and possibly gunpowder and guns. There is little mention of the Amatola in the colonial record, an inquiry held in 1850 spoke about the region being the haunt of “a large tribe of Bushmen, Hottentots and runaway slaves”.

So, to learn more, Challis had to turn to the rock art he believes they left behind. There are several Drakensberg sites that show men on horseback.

The Amatola, says Challis, adopted a Bushman/San cosmology, a belief system of trance dances, and of shamans entering the spirit world to fight evil and illness.

“A lot of them would have been San or of San descent,” explains Challis. “They were a mixed group, but with shared beliefs – this was something they could bond over. They were creating a new identity.”

But there were differences to traditional Bushman/San rock art in the panels left by the Amatola. “The paintings changed, you had guys trying to take on the potency of eland and rietbok, now it is baboons and horses,” says Challis. Horses were new to the area, arriving only in the 1830s.

The baboon becomes an important figure, almost a totem, borrowed from both Bushman/San and black cosmologies. An animal that has magical powers, derived from medicinal plants. And it is these plants, Challis believes, that were used by the Amatola for protection during raids – roots that were hung around necks to “create invisibility and turn bullets to water”.

The Amatola reigned from about 1835 to around 1865, Challis believes. There is no mention of them after this date.

Challis believes they were raided by the Sotho and colonialists, and may have decided to become farmers instead.

But they have left a legacy. Challis says their modern equivalent, cattle rustlers, use the Berg kloofs and often carry the same medicinal plants. - The Star