Bushmen healing and rock art

Bushmen healing and rock art

The Bushmen are a hunting and gathering people of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. There are many interesting aspects of their culture, but their connection with the natural world is mostly expressed through their rock art and healing/trance dances. The healing dances and the Bushmen’s rock art are both central to the Bushmen’s way of life, and through them we can learn a lot about their lives.

Healing Dances

The Bushmen have an incredible way of healing. According to Rupert Isaacson, who spent time among the Bushmen and is the author of The Healing Land, they have been seen healing a woman of stomach cancer, and causing children who have had chest complaints no longer coughing. Their system has evolved over thousands of years; they heal by using trances. [Rupert Isaacson. "Lived among Bushmen." Times, The (United Kingdom).] Healing is a very important part of the Bushmen’s lives. The Bushmen have healing rituals. According to Isaacson, they are all-night dances where healers go into a trance in order to cure ailment. These can be physical or psychological in individuals, or for the well being of the community as a whole. They sometimes will tie offerings to animal spirits to the trees, or will use drums in order to contact animal and ancestor spirits. [Isaacson, Rupert. "The Healing Land." Geographical 73.7; 7 (2001): 53.]

The Bushmen trance or healing dances are spectacular affairs. Richard Katz, an associate professor from Harvard University says they have these four times a month, on average. [Katz, Richard. “Accepting ‘Boiling Energy’.” Ethos. 10.4, (1982):344] In her book, The Harmless People, Elizabeth Thomas observes that the women sit in a circle around the fire with their babies on their backs and sing the medicine songs in several parts with falsetto voices and clap their hands in a sharp, staccato rhythm. Behind them the men dance one behind the other and circle around slowly taking very short, pounding steps in counterpoint to the rhythms of the singing and the clapping. This is accompanied by the sharp, high clatter of rattles—made from dry cocoons strung together with sinew cords—that are tied to their legs. The dance is a complicated pattern of voices and rhythms that make music that is infinitely varied and always precise. They take great care in these dances, they begin learning the songs and dances when they are children, and work for perfection in skill and timing all their lives. [Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Harmless People. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. 132. ] [Gordon, Robert J. Picturing Bushmen. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1997. 112B.]

Healers and Energy

Lorna Marshall, who conducted six expeditions to the Kalahari for the purpose of studying the Bushmen, says that as the dance intensifies, the n/um, or energy, is activated in those that are healers, most of which are the dancing men. The n/um is so strong it can become dangerous. Healers experiencing this must not point their finger fixedly at anyone, especially a child, because a “fight” or “death thing” might go along their arm, leap into the child, and kill it. [Marshall, Lorna. “The Medicine Dance of the Kung Bushmen.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. 39.4 (1969): 347-381.]

Katz also says, the singing of these powerful n/um songs helps “awaken” the n/um and “awaken” the healer’s heart; their heart must be awakened before they can begin to heal. The healer undergoes a transformation, which comes after a painful transition into an enhanced state of consciousness, called !kia. This connects the healer and their spiritual healing power, and the community. When healers are experiencing !kia they can heal all those at the dance. !kia is a very special and extraordinary state. [Katz, Richard. “Accepting ‘Boiling Energy’.” Ethos. 10.4, (1982):344] [Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Old Way. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2006. 270.]

There are several instances of how the healer undergoes this transformation of intensifying n/um and going into !kia. Isaacson says, “they sometimes dance themselves into a trance, sometimes screaming in pain, and other times laughing or singing.” [Isaacson, Rupert. "The Healing Land." Geographical 73.7; 7 (2001): 53.] They can also suddenly fling their arms into the air and with a piercing shriek crash to the ground, as observed by Elizabeth Marshall. [Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Harmless People. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. 132. ] The transformation experience was described to Richard Katz by an experienced healer, Kinachau, in the following quote:

“You dance, dance, dance. Then n/um lifts you up in your belly and lifts you in your back, and then you start to shiver. [N/um] makes you tremble, it's hot. . . . Your eyes are open but you don't look around; you hold your eyes still and look straight ahead. But when you get into !kia, you're looking around because you see everything, because you see what's troubling everybody . . . n/um enters every part of your body right to the tip of your feet and even your hair.” [Katz, Richard. “Accepting ‘Boiling Energy’.” Ethos. 10.4, (1982):344]
So it is a very powerful and mysterious experience. Without !kia healers wouldn’t be able to cure those around them.


Katz also states that the people can only heal when they learn to control their boiling n/um, or energy. The healer learns to “pull out sickness” from the people. When they do this, they use !kia, or enhanced consciousness, to see the things they need to pull out, like “the death things God has put into the people”, and they get them out. [Katz, Richard. “Accepting ‘Boiling Energy’.” Ethos. 10.4, (1982):344]

According to Elizabeth Marshall, to cure people and get the evil out of them the medicine man, or healer, will begin by washing his hands in the fire. He then will place one hand on the person’s chest, and one on their back, and will “suck” the evil from them. The medicine man often shudders and groans as he does this, and then will suddenly “shriek the evil into the air.” [Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Harmless People. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. 132. ] Katz states that if the person they are healing has a specific symptom, the healers hands focus on sucking the evil out of that area, but if there are no symptoms of illness the healers’ fluttering and vibrating hands move lightly and sporadically over the person’s chest. [Katz, Richard. “Accepting ‘Boiling Energy’.” Ethos. 10.4, (1982):344]

The healers aren’t just curing sicknesses, like disease, as we might think though. Elizabeth Marshall states in another book, The Old Way, that they are expelling what they call “star sickness.” This is the force that takes over a group of people and causes jealousy, anger and quarrels and failures of gift giving. It is the evils that pull people apart and damage unity. [Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Old Way. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2006. 268-272.] The dance mends the social fabric as it releases hostility according to Katz. To further promote the social cohesion, the healer also pleads with the Gods for relief from harshness. [Katz, Richard. “Accepting ‘Boiling Energy’.” Ethos. 10.4, (1982):344] So, healing is an important, central part of their lives, because they can then be a unified and peaceful people. Without the healing dances, their lives would be full of contention.

Other Occurrences at Healing Dances

Also in this powerful state, healers often walk on fire, see the insides of peoples’ bodies and scenes at great distances from their camp, or travel to God’s home, as observed by Elizabeth Marshall. One healer tells of a time when his spirit left the camp and came upon a pride of lions that had been troubling the people. The man’s spirit ordered them away, and they left and didn’t bother the people anymore. [Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Harmless People. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. 132. ] These activities would never be attempted in their ordinary state.

Along with healing, these dances and !kia also give the people more sense of self. K"au fDau, a healer that is blind, described becoming more his self, to Professor Katz, like this:

“God keeps my eyeballs in a little cloth bag. When he first collected them, he got a little cloth bag and plucked my eyeballs out and put them into the bag and then he tied the eyeballs to his belt and went up to heaven. And now when I dance, on the nights when I dance and the singing rises up, he comes down from heaven swinging the bag with the eyeballs above my head and then he lowers the eyeballs to my eye level, and as the singing gets strong, he puts the eyeballs into my sockets and they stay there and I cure. And then when the women stop singing and separate out, he removes the eyeballs, puts them back in the cloth bag and takes them up to heaven.”
So during the !kia state he becomes more than himself because he can then see, both figuratively and literally. [Katz, Richard. “Accepting ‘Boiling Energy’.” Ethos. 10.4, (1982):344] Healing and this powerful energy are important to the Bushmen so they can identify themselves, and see who they truly are.

Becoming a Healer

Becoming a healer isn’t just for a few religious specialists. According to Thomas Dowson, an independent archaeologist who has held posts at the University of the Witwatersrand and the Universities of Southampton and Manchester, the people would rather have it spread throughout the group. It is a long and painful process to become a healer, but still many go along this path. In fact, by the time the people reach adulthood, about half of the men and a third of the women have become healers. [Dowson, Thomas A. “Reading Art, Writing History:Rock Art and Social Change in Southern Africa.” 25.3 (1994): 332-345.] Katz also says the motivation and reason they want to become healers even though it is painful is because they can help people. If someone is very sick and almost dead, they can bring them back to life. [Katz, Richard. “Accepting ‘Boiling Energy’.” Ethos. 10.4, (1982):344] They like the power of being able to help people, influencing and changing their lives.

Dances Lasting All Night

These happenings go on throughout the entire night. Elizabeth Marshall says, people will get tired, but they will not stop, because it is important to keep going until sunrise. Sometimes the younger people will endure no longer and might leave the dance circle, but the older people never falter. When the first light of dawn shows on the horizon they gather extra energy; they will sing louder and dance faster. As the sun rises the dance reaches a “final most powerful intensity”, and then will suddenly stop. [Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Old Way. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2006. 268-272. ] Sandy Gall, author of the book The Bushmen of Southern Africa, states that after a healing dance they “collapse in exhaustion” until the next day, when, fully recovered, they share their trance experiences with one another. [Gall, Sandy. "The Bushmen of the Kalahari." Ecologist 33.7 (2003): 28-31.]

Elizabeth Marshall informs that, the reason these dances are held all through the night is because of tradition started long ago. It is a known fact that at sunrise and sunset, when the warm air and cool air of night pass each other sound carries the best. It has to do with the density of the two kinds of air; sound travels the best in dense cool air. Back when the first Bushmen lived, the land was empty and quiet, and very few things made loud noises in the Kalahari Desert. So in the dry cool air the sound of people holding a trance dance could be heard almost twenty miles. This sound could have been a notice to others far away that a large number of people was somewhere nearby. So the people wanted to continue their trance dances until dawn, when the sound travels the farthest. [Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Old Way. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2006. 268-272.]

Rock Paintings and Engravings

Gall says, the Bushmen paintings and engravings date back to thousands of years ago. They are found all over the southern half of Africa in caves and overhangs. He says, “There are extraordinary still very vivid pictures of animals, hunters and half-human half-animal hybrids. The half-human hybrids are believed to be the medicine men or healers.” [Gall, Sandy. "The Bushmen of the Kalahari." Ecologist 33.7 (2003): 28-31.] Their depictions of these medicine men, give us evidence that they did do the healing dances.

Gall says, “The Laurens van der Post panel at Tsodilo is one of the most famous rock paintings.” High on this rock face in Botswana is the image of a “magnificent red eland bull” painted, according to Van der Post, “only as a Bushman who had a deep identification with the eland could have painted him.” Also on this rock face is a female giraffe that is motionless like it is alarmed by a predator. Several other images of animals are on it also, along with the flesh blood-red handprints that are the signature of the unknown artist. [Gall, Sandy. "The Bushmen of the Kalahari." Ecologist 33.7 (2003): 28-31.] [Tsodilo Hills Travel Guide. Aug. 2007. Creative Commons. 30 Nov. 2007. http://www.world66.com/africa/botswana/tsodilohills. ]

Learning From Rock Art

The Rock art isn’t just mere paintings that the Bushmen painted for fun. We can actually learn a lot about them through examining it. According to Dowson, “a lot of rock art is actually in symbols and metaphors.” For example, eland bulls, meant marriage, and curing or the trance dance. Rock art gives us a glimpse of the Bushmen’s history, and how they lived their lives. [Dowson, Thomas A. “Reading Art, Writing History:Rock Art and Social Change in Southern Africa.” 25.3 (1994): 332-345. ]

Bushmen also used rock art to record things that happened in their lives. Several instances of rock art have been found that resemble wagons and colonists. Dowson notes that, “The people who brought in the wagons and so forth thus became, whether they realized it or not, part of the social production of southern African rock art. They added a new dimension. [Dowson, Thomas A. “Reading Art, Writing History:Rock Art and Social Change in Southern Africa.” 25.3 (1994): 332-345.] D.P. Bleek, writer of the article “Beliefs and Customs of the Ixam Bushmen”, published 1933, says the Bushmen also recorded “rain dance animals”. When they did rain dances they would go into a trance to “capture” one of these animals. In their trance they would kill it, and its blood and milk became the rain. [Bleek, D.P. “Beliefs and Customs of the Ixam Bushmen. Part VI:Rain Making. Bantu Studies, 7 (1933): 375-92.] As depicted in the rock art, the rain dance animals they “saw” usually resembled a hippopotamus or antelope, and were sometimes surrounded by fish according to Dowson. [Dowson, Thomas A. “Reading Art, Writing History:Rock Art and Social Change in Southern Africa.” 25.3 (1994): 332-345.]

We can also learn more about how the Bushmen lived through their rock art. In the following depiction, the people are all in a dancing stance, and the women are all clapping. So, according to Dowson, it is believed to be one of their healing or trance dances. Everyone is the same; one is not more elaborate or more detailed than another. This shows that though the healers held special powers, they were not thought of as higher or better. Healing was not for becoming a more prominent and powerful person, it was for the good of the entire community. [Dowson, Thomas A. “Reading Art, Writing History:Rock Art and Social Change in Southern Africa.” 25.3 (1994): 332-345.] [Dowson, Thomas A. “Reading Art, Writing History: Rock Art and Social Change in Southern Africa.” 25.3 (1994): 332-345.]

H. C. Woodhouse, author of the book Archaeology in Southern Africa, says historical sources have also said that Bushmen often disguised themselves as animals so they could get close enough to grazing herds to shoot them. The head of the buck was an important part of this disguise, and was also used in dancing and miming of the actions of animals. The large number of buckheaded figures in paintings is proof that the Bushmen did this. [Woodhouse, H.C. “Rock Paintings of Southern Africa.” African Arts. 2.3 (1969): 47.]

Production of Rock Art

Woodhouse also says Bushmen used different colored stone to do the drawings. He says, “They usually used red rock, which they ground until it was fine, and then mixed it with fat.” They then rubbed this on the rock to form the pictures. This paint that they used withstands the rain and weather for very long periods of time. [Woodhouse, H.C. “The Medikane Rock-paintings: Sorcerers or Hunters?” South African Archaeological. 23.90 (1968): 37-39.] The Bushmen then, according to Phillip V. Tobias, an Honorary Professor of Palaeoanthropology at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, used this paint in four different styles. These four style techniques are “monochromes, animal outlines in thick red lines, thinly outlined figures, and white stylized figures.” [Tobias, Phillip V. “Bushmen of the Kalahari.” Man. 57 (1957): 34. ] A.R. Willcox, writer of the article “Australian and South African Rock-Art Compared”, published 1959, says the tool they used to do these paintings was “a brush made from animal’s hair or a single small feather.” This may be one reason for the great fineness and delicacy of their painting. [Woodhouse, H.C. “Rock Paintings of Southern Africa.” African Arts. 2.3 (1969): 47.] I. and J. Rudner, writers of the journal “Who Were the Artists? Archaeological Notes from South West Africa”, published 1959, say the form that the Bushmen use is often referred to as a Dynamic School. “It has a lot of action and color, and reached its climax in the shaded eland pictures.” It is usually associated with the Bushmen. [Rudner, I. & J. “Who Were the Artists? Archaeological Notes from South West Africa.” South African Archaeological. 14.55 (1959): 106-108]

According to Woodhouse, clues are given as to whom worked on the rock art by the subjects that are chosen. There are many pictures of the Eland, Reybuck, Hartebeest and Lion, and also of Bushmen and Kafirs fighting. [Woodhouse, H.C. “Rock Paintings of Southern Africa.” African Arts. 2.3 (1969): 47.] However, there are few depictions of plants. Wilcox notes that, “plants usually fell in the domain of women, so it is presumed that the authors of these paintings were men.” [Willcox, A. R. “Australian and South African Rock-Art Compared.” South African Archaeological. 14.55 (1959): 97-98.]


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