The incredible history of Bushman rock art in Southern Africa revealed - Times LIVE
Sat May 27 11:49:55 SAST 2017

The incredible history of Bushman rock art in Southern Africa revealed

Dominic Skelton | 2014-08-28 11:30:05.0

Tim Forssman and Lee Gutteridge have compiled Bushman Rock Art: An Interpretive Guide in order to give us insight and understanding into one of the oldest forms of art.

The book further explores Bushmen culture and traditions which directly influenced the aesthetic content of their rock art.

Extracts from the book:


To understand the importance of animals in rock art, we must try to understand what they mean to Bushmen in general. Animals are an intrinsic part of the Bushman belief system, so much so that they were believed to offer divine protection to people and the environment. For example, in the Kalahari N!adtsa or Khanyi and his consort, Khyani Mma, are believed to be the masters of all animals and mistress of the bush and water respectively.

/Kaggen, their trickster deity, often appears as a mantis in folklore, displaying the power resident in animal forms. Some animals possess more powers than others. For example, the elephant, baboon and antbear are said to have retained certain human attributes from the First Order of Existence. For some Bushman communities killing either of these animals makes one impure and only through certain rituals can a hunter be released from this fate. The!Kung and Nharo choose to distance themselves from such animals because they believe they have a soul much like humans do.

Most Bushmen believe in two orders of existence. During the First Order of Existence, animals were still people. There were no social rules and obligations. The trickster roamed the chaotic world and could assume any guise he wished, depending on his agenda. His actions, as well as the First Order of Existence, are related in many Bushman folktales.

This primal time intrudes into the present through such stories but also through the transformation of humans into animals while in the spiritworld and at certain stages during coming of age rites. Bushmen speak of large game as though in awe of them. This is supremely illustrated in the tale of the ‘Branding of the Animals’ that occurred at the end of the First Order of Existence. It was during this period that the people of the First Order were given different animal forms.

The story goes that the deities wanted to create supernatural potency and so they wrote this into the animals’ hides in the form of different designs. From the day of branding, people became animals and were given names. The first to be branded was the zebra and the last was the Spotted hyaena. Humans were now human, animals were now animals and potency, or n/om, which was used to create the animals’ distinctive features, had made its first appearance.

According to Megan Biesele, who lived with a group of !Kung for many years, storytellers speak of the First Order with sadness as it was characterized as a time of innocence, very unlike today. They also revere the attributes of eland, giraffe and kudu, depending on the area in southern Africa, as they represent the Great Meat Animals believed to bear immense supernatural potency. Apart from n/om, all people and some animals have weather-changing capabilities. This is linked to, among other things, the spilling of fluid such as blood on the ground, as may happen in childbirth or while hunting animals.

Those animals most important to Bushmen are painted with particular care and detail. However, the careful nature with which Bushmen painted all animals shows their respect for the animal kingdom. Yet they were not only dear to Bushmen but also dear to God and painted animals express Bushman beliefs and ideas.

Although the meaning of all animal species is not well understood, some of the key species have been well researched and the deep symbolic attributes of them have been discovered in the ethnographic record. For example, Patricia Vinnicombe and David Lewis-Williams have made significant advances in understanding rock art and specifically the role eland played in the belief system of southern Drakensberg Bushmen.

Ed Eastwood, on the other hand, has looked at the role of the kudu in Bushman beliefs of northern South Africa and shown that in this region it was the most powerful of all animals, as was the eland farther south.

The rock art of each region has a dominant animal. The eland features prominently in the Drakensberg, the kudu in the northern Limpopo province and Zimbabwe, the Red hartebeest in the Waterberg and the springbuck in the Brandberg of Namibia. This is not a reflection of the most common animal in the area.

If this was the case, wildebeest would not be as infrequent in the art as they are because they are common throughout the bushveld. The same applies to smaller creatures such as Rock hyraxes and tortoises, which were commonly consumed by Bushmen but not painted. Interestingly, there are over 40 different painted species in the northern Limpopo province, which has the most diverse rock art repertoire in southern Africa.

What makes Bushmen paint certain animals and not others? It is the animal’s symbolic power and meaning that renders it of interest to an artist. The reason why a species is important had to do with a number of things, possibly because of the ‘meat’ ranking Bushmen gave animals, which is linked to the animal’s shape, size, beauty and behaviour. Red Meat Animals include the kudu, eland, tsessebe, hartebeest, springbuck, gemsbuck and giraffe.

White Meat Animals seem to be associated with carnivores and include the lion, leopard, hyaena, African wild dog, mongoose, jackal, snakes and the monitor lizard. This meat is generally avoided. Black Meat Animals include the warthog, Bat-eared fox and the wildebeest, the only large antelope that does not fall into the Red Meat category. The Roan and Sable antelopes are categorised as Great Meat Animals but it is not certain whether these are also Red Meat Animals. Nevertheless, Great/Red Meat Animals generally possess the most potency.

In some rockshelters a combination of different animals is found. This may include the Red, Black and White Meat Animals. Other creatures might be found painted here too, some of which have a powerful link to Bushman thought. The depiction of such animals together suggests the congregation of powerful forces.

Metaphorically, animals express actions and emotions such as aggression, protection, femaleness, caring, beauty and perhaps, most importantly, spiritual power and potency, or n/om. Some rockshelters boast a great diversity of species, particularly those in northern South Africa, emphasising the immense power of the animals through their combinations and their specific spiritworld connections.

Bushman Rock Art 72dpi.jpg

The trance dance

The trance dance transcends all tiers of Bushman cosmology. It was the hub of Bushman life. Elements from this ritual permeated everyday life as well as Bushman thought. Richard Katz, who has researched Bushmen for over three decades, says that the trance dance is the focal point for anthropologists because it was the central feature of Bushman culture; to understand Bushmen, we need to understand this ritual. It was the Bushmen’s primary expression of religion, medicine and cosmology.

For the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari, the dance was an orienting and integrating event of great significance. It kept Bushman cosmology alive as it frequently dramatized it. The spiritual states and cosmology went hand in hand; passing to the next level required passing from one dimension of consciousness to another. Because of its salient role in Bushman life, it should be no surprise to find its metaphors in their rock art.

The Bushman trance dance is one of the best-known hunter-gatherer rituals. It has been studied in Lesotho and the Kalahari by researchers including Thomas Arbousset, François Daumas, Richard Lee, Lorna Marshall, Megan Biesele, Mathias Guenther, Richard Katz and others, whose research has helped shed light on this pivotal Bushman ritual.

The dance solved many problems and relieved much tension in the community. If visitors arrived, a dance may have been performed and they would be invited to participate. A type of dance known as a healing dance was used to cure people of illness or bad luck and through its performance, everyone present would be healed, even those merely watching.

A dance might also have been used to help people conquer hunger when there was a lack of food and it was thought to assist with the future acquisition of meat and vegetables. The dance’s aim is to cleanse the community of negative agents and to restore harmony to the small band of Bushmen.

Dances were generally held at night and were more frequent during winter months. Everyone joined in the dance; to not participate made one vulnerable to malicious spirits of the dead. Often the women would begin by clapping and singing songs, which were named after powerful animals that are rich in n/om (supernatural potency or power).

Then the men would join in, adorned with rattles made from dried seedpods wound around their calves and carrying fly-whisks usually made from giraffe, eland or wildebeest tails. The men wore an apron or loincloth for the occasion and sometimes a bandolier. They may also have equipped themselves with long dancing sticks: props for when the supernatural power consumed their bodies and minds at a later stage in the dance.

The power that arrived (n/om to the Ju/’hoansi) was perceived to be dangerous if not controlled but beneficial to the whole community when treated correctly. Those with the ability to control this power were regarded as shamans. In the Kalahari, approximately half of the men and a third of the women were shamans.

To enter the spirit world, the shaman would dance around a fire or simply to the accompaniment of clapping and singing women. The shaman would push him- or herself to dance for hours, to the point of exhaustion and pain, continuing until the n/om manifested, starting in the shaman’s abdomen and then slowly moving up the spine.

When the n/om reached the shaman’s head, he or she would collapse and enter the spirit world. The extensive rhythmic dancing and hyperventilation caused the shaman to sweat profusely and community members would rub the sweat into his or her body as well as the fat from a powerful or potent animal. The shaman’s nose often bled while in the trance and the blood was rubbed on sick people, infusing them with the shaman’s absorbed spiritual power, or wiped back across his or her own cheek.

While in an altered state, the shaman’s spirit left the top of his or her head. The experiences he or she had in the spirit world were largely idiosyncratic but there are major commonalities between Bushman groups who live thousands of kilometres apart. Often, shamans would travel in a spirit form to visit friends and family to see whether they had sufficient food and were in good health.

They also related to community members how they entered the ground through a small crack or waterhole, sometimes travelling along subterranean rivers or threads of light to meet God. They would plead with Him to heal their people when they arrived in His village.

In the physical world, the shaman would draw the sickness from an ill person by laying hands on him or her and thus absorbing it into his or her body. They would then repel the sickness with a piercing shriek. Some shamans would exorcise the extracted sickness by carrying it and throwing it away into the bush or by sneezing it out.

The spirit world was also a place of great confrontation and frequent battles. Here, a shaman sometimes fought with spirits of the dead and malevolent shamans’ intent on inflicting harm or death. The notion of evil resides outside the community because within the family structure or band of Bushmen, they do not believe in self-inflicted destruction.

Another important task the shaman was responsible for was controlling the rain. To do so, a group of shamans searched the spirit world for a waterhole where a rain animal lived. They would capture this animal and lead it across the sky to where they wanted the rain to fall. At this point, they would milk the animal if it was a female or slaughter it if it was male. The milk or blood became rain, which then fell over the land.

Once the spirit-world tasks had been completed, the dance would slow and the shamans would sleep for many hours, recovering from the night’s activities. After waking, the shaman might tell the band of his journey into the spirit world, relating the well-being of relatives living many kilometres away or of the confrontations with evil spirits. The discussion would be held in an informal manner, with each shaman telling his or her story. Often these journeys contradicted one another, yet each was treated respectfully, acknowledging that the spirit world is a multi-faceted place that was not seen in the same way by other shamans.

Dr Tim Forssman is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pretoria. For a copy of the book contact him.


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