The first known name of the place was |Ui-||Ais, which means “permanent source” in the Khoekhoe language, which is spoken by both the Damara and the San of northern Namibia.
The fact that the present name Twyfelfontein (doubtful or uncertain spring) has changed into the opposite of the original is due to the farmer Levin and his story. In 1946, David Levin and his wife Ella emigrated from the Netherlands to Namibia, where he sought pasture rights in the northwest of the country. When he inquired about farmland south of the Aba Huab River, an official of the Land Giving Council told him that a farmer could not survive there – in the desert. Therefore, he was not allowed to grant the desired pasture license. After Levin had visited the dripping spring where Damara grazed and watered her goats sporadically, the area and the idea to found a farm there didn’t let go of him. At the beginning of 1947, the Levins set off northwest and settled on dry grass surrounded by mighty red table mountains. The Levin family owned 230 sheep and goats, six chickens, two horses, four donkeys, one horse and one donkey cart, a square tent and some household goods. The battle for the water began. It took a great deal of planning so that people and animals could survive. An animal was only allowed to drink every other day, in between it grazed. The water extraction process took over everyday life. When neighbours came by, Ella told them that David was at the spring. And every time friend Andries Blaauw paid the farm one of his frequent visits, he found David on his knees and digging for water at the spring. When Andries inquired about David’s health, he always got the answer: “He’s fine; he just doubts that the spring will provide enough water by the start of the next rainy season in October. Thereupon Andries called him David Twyfelfontein. When a prolonged drought began in the late 1950s, the Levin family and their children and livestock moved from pasture to pasture, until the Homeland Act of the South African apartheid government assigned the land to the Damara for colonization and forced the white farmers to sell their farms. After an initial refusal and although his wife had died in 1962 at just 42, Levin finally gave up his farm with a heavy heart to move first to Outjo and later to South Africa, where he longed for Twyfelfontein until the end of his life.
Whoever is receptive to the effect of barren and wide landscapes will understand Levin’s persistence. It is precisely in this landscape, which at first glance seems so hostile to life, that the probably oldest preserved evidence of human culture in southern Africa can be found. “Twyfelfontein” no longer stands for the dripping spring, but for the largest and most important collection of rock engravings in the world. The fact that these rock carvings, whose age is difficult to determine, have defied weathering so well over thousands of years is due to a special feature of sandstone – it contains an iron oxide layer that rises to the surface and hardens, thus preserving the carved figures. This layer, called “desert varnish”, also gives the stone its special red colour.
One of the most famous representations, which can only be visited with a guide, is the so-called “Lion Plate”, which shows a large lion with mighty paws, at whose right-angled bent tail end another paw is attached. Equally famous is the mythical creature identified as “dancing kudu”, which can be found in the middle of abstract, mostly circular motifs. The two paths that lead visitors through the rocky terrain are also named after these sites. While the so-called “Lion Man Trail” largely remains at the foot of the slope and covers a wider range of engravings, the “Dancing Kudu Trail” leads uphill to the spring that gives the name to the place and into a small hidden valley, where faded drawings under rock shelter and the dancing Kudu can be seen. While the rock engravings of Twyfelfontein are attributed to the San, the rarer rock carvings go back to the “Wilton culture”, named after their place of discovery in Zimbabwe, a Neolithic hunter-gatherer culture.
The engravings at Twyfelfontein can be typologically divided into three classes: Iconographic representations, abstract engravings and the mysterious round depressions in the rock, called cupulae, which have obviously been scraped using stone tools. For a long time it has been assumed – at least as far as the realistic depictions of animals and their traces are concerned – that the depictions were of hunting animals, which, for example, were intended to signal to subsequent groups that and which game was to be found here, or that the depictions were quasi made as “teaching material” for children. This interpretation seems to be largely obsolete and not very plausible in scientific circles today. Also the illustration of a seal, a good 100km away from the coast, clearly contradicts the theory that only locally represented animal species are represented. Although today there are no more San living in the Twyfelfontein area, the idea that one has to point out to “Bushmen” by means of illustrations that wild animals can be found in the vicinity of a well known spring seems to reflect the naivety or ethnocentrism of the researchers. Moreover, the San living in the northwest of Namibia, for example, credibly assure that children are taught by observation in nature.
It is more likely that the engravings are – in general terms – an interaction of ritual and economic practice. That means, the representation of animals should bring about their actual appearance in the sense of a hunting rite, and the irritating representations of animals, e.g. without hoofs/feet or as in the case of the “lion-man” with a hand-paw at his tail end, have a reference to shamanic journeys, in which the shaman puts himself into a trance and then, e.g., assumes the shape of an animal or its character. Some researchers assume that the representation of the lion is that of a shaman. Also the depiction of giraffes is rather interpreted as a rain symbol, because this symbolism is widespread in Africa, but giraffes did not belong to the hunting animals of the San. Artistically designed animal tracks should enable the shaman to control the movement of the animals and force them to follow these tracks.
One can only speculate about the meaning of the abstract motifs to this day. For example, there is the (older) theory that the drawings are abstract maps describing the location of springs and other geographical features.
The dimples named Cupulae are not to be confused with other dents in the stone to be found on site. The larger pits, which can be found on horizontal surfaces, served as millstones in which plants were crushed or ground, and the parallel rows of small indentations served as playboards for the traditional Owari, widely used in Africa, which is played with pearls or plant seeds. For the other cupulae, one theory assumes that the hollows probably served as sound stones (lithophones), as can be found in Zimbabwe and Tanzania, where they are still produced and used today.
At the site’s visitor centre, which was redesigned a few years ago, guides wait for the arriving visitors. Some visitors describe their motivation – depending on the time of day – as different. However, our own experiences on the spot do not confirm this, but we should note that the tour ends on time at 5 p.m., which is understandable after a long day in often baking heat with different interested bus tourists. A possible split is to do the longer trail in the early morning and the shorter one in the afternoon. Further attractions of the closer and further surroundings, to which one can pay a visit in the context of the journey or in the course of the stay are the petrified forest, the basalt columns known as organ pipes as well as The Living Museum of the Damara. The forest consists of 260 million year old tree trunks buried in the former river bed of the Huab and petrified over time.