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The southern San and the trance dance: a pivotal debate in the interpretation of San rock paintings.



The Bleek and Lloyd Collection of the 1870s covers a wide range of southern San lifehistories, foraging strategies, myths and rituals (Lewis-Williams & Biesele 1978; LewisWilliams 1981, 2000; Deacon 1986, 1988, 1996; Guenther 1989; Deacon & Dowson 1996; Bank 2006; Skotnes 2007; Hewitt 2008; Lewis-Williams & Challis 2011). It comprises verbatim, phonetic /Xam language transcriptions that the philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd wrote down and transliterated into English. But the collection does not deal with each and every component of /Xam life and belief in equal measure: when Bleek and Lloyd were taking down the statements that their informants gave, they knew virtually nothing about the San and consequently had no framework within which to formulate their questions. The collection should therefore not be equated with the systematic, theoretically-informed ethnographies of later anthropologists who lived for varying periods with a range of San linguistic groups in the Kalahari Desert.


Among those twentieth-century ethnographers were Lorna Marshall (1999), Richard Katz (1982), Alan Barnard (1992), Megan Biesele (1993), Richard Lee (1968, 1993) and Mathias Guenther (1999), all of whom described the San healing, or trance, dance. Traditionally, this dance is held in the camp and everyone attends (e.g. Marshall 1999: 63-90; see also Katz 1982; Biesele 1993; Katz et al. 1997). Often, it lasts all night. Generally, the women sit in a tight circle around a central fire, while the men dance around them, their feet making a circular rut in the sand. Sometimes the men cut through the circle of seated women and approach the fire. The women's complex, rhythmic clapping and singing contribute to the shamans' entry into trance.

Guenther concluded that "this dance is the central ritual of the Bushman religion and its defining institution" (Guenther 1999:181). Indeed, the trance dance is a key component in a set of beliefs and rituals that have been labelled 'pan-San" (McCall 1970; Lewis-Williams & Biesele 1978; Lewis-Williams 1981; Barnard 2007). This (perhaps misleading) phrase does not mean that all San linguistic groups are identical in every respect, only that certain specific beliefs and rituals are common to all, or virtually all, groups: "[R]eligion is far more uniform throughout Bushman and even Khoisan southern Africa than are material aspects of culture and society" (Barnard 2007: 96).


For some years there has been a growing misapprehension that the Bleek and Lloyd Collection does not refer to the San trance dance and, further, that there is no other evidence that the southern San performed such a dance. In 1996, although conceding there is much in the Bleek and Lloyd Collection about /Xam ritual specialists (Bleek 1933, 1935, 1936; Hollmann 2004), Pippa Skotnes wrote,

Despite the many stories of shamans and medicine people, the thousands of pages of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection taken from /Xam informants make no mention of the trance dance we know so well from the ethnographies of the !Kung... [A]part from the //Ken dance which initiated shamans, we have no evidence from these records that the /Xam practised trance dances at all (Skotnes 1996: 238).

Anne Solomon uncritically took up Skotnes's point. Although she had earlier accepted that an account that the young San man Qing gave Joseph Orpen in 1873 referred to "the trance dance as ethnographically recorded" (Solomon 1998: 273), she later asserted that,

... there is no evidence of a southern San trance dance. The frenzied behaviour of the dancers described by Qing relates to the weakest of the dancers being assailed and overcome by lethal spirits, not the careful induction of a trance state through rhythmic dancing, as in the Kalahari context (Solomon 2007:157).

Recently, Skotnes's and Solomon's view was cited and affirmed by Michael Wessels, who wrote,

Nor do the /Xam appear to have practised trance dancing. There is only one reference in the whole 12 000 pages that could be directly interpreted as a reference to trance dancing, and that is not unequivocal (Wessels 2010: 277).

Similarly, Paul Bahn (2010:101) uncritically cites the error.

There is now a danger that other researchers will accept this view if it is left unquestioned. Even when not explicitly articulated, the view and its implications underlie much writing on San rock art. Indeed, the issue has assumed importance principally because rock art researchers have argued that various features and experiences of the dance, along with those of related activities, contributed substantially to the making of southern San rock art (e.g. Lewis-Williams 1981, 2003; Huffman 1983; Yates et al. 1985; Dowson 1992; Walker 1996; Blundell 2004; Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2004; Deacon & Foster 2005; Hollmann 2005; Eastwood & East-wood 2006; Lewis-Williams & Challis 2011). Guenther, for one, concludes that the importance of the dance for understanding San rock art,

... is borne out by centuries-old rock paintings in many parts of southern Africa that are replete with the trance motif ... It is depicted either figuratively, through metaphorical or mystical images of trance, or literally, through bent-over, collapsing, or collapsed dancers who bleed from the nose and dance to chanting and clapping. The fact that trance dances are described by all writers who have visited the Bushmen, even nineteenth-century ones, further attests to the ubiquity and antiquity of this key Bushman ritual (Guenther 1999: 181).

Challenges to interpretations that emphasise the role of the trance dance (but certainly do not claim that every image is a trance vision) should not themselves be accepted uncritically. These challenges miss three independent but complementary lines of evidence. First, in dealing with the Bleek and Lloyd Collection and other San sources they ignore San idioms and do not analyse /Xam words. Secondly, a range of diagnostic and distinctive rock paintings and engravings constitute persuasive evidence. Thirdly, the eyewitness accounts of early travellers, who observed San people in their home environment, contain pertinent information.

/Xam San responses to copies of rock paintings

The Bleek and Lloyd Collection does not contain a full, systematic, stage-by-stage description of the trance dance, such as those recorded by the more recent ethnographers. This is because the topics of which the informants spoke were, at least in part, a function of the suburban circumstances in which Bleek and Lloyd transcribed the narratives; the difficult colonial context and, probably, Bleek's frail health prevented them from travelling to their informants' homes and witnessing any of the rituals of which they spoke. Moreover, it seems that, restricted by these circumstances, Bleek and Lloyd themselves did not fully appreciate the importance of the trance dance in /Xam life: they tended to regard dancing as recreation rather than ritual. This was certainly true of Dorothea Bleek, Wilhelm's daughter (Bleek 1924: unnumbered page).

Nevertheless, there are direct references, in /Xam San idiom, to the trance dance. In 1875, Lloyd asked Dia!kwain, a /Xam man, to comment on copies of rock paintings that George William Stow made in the 1860s and 1870s (see Figure 1; Lewis-Williams 2000: 21-22; Lewis-Williams & Challis 2011). In 1930 Dorothea Bleek published one of these copies, a line of six human figures. Next to it she placed a portion of the comment that the /Xam informant Dia!kwain offered on it:

They seem to be dancing, for they stand stamping (?) with their legs. This man who stands in front (1st figure to the right of the beholder) seems to be showing the people how to dance, that is why he holds a stick... The people know that he is one who dances first, because he is a great sorcerer. That is why he dances first, because he wants people who are learning sorcery to dance after him... For when a sorcerer is teaching us, he first dances the 'ken dance, and those who are learning dance after him as he dances (Stow & Bleek 1930: caption to pl. 2a; original parentheses).

Because we have Lloyd's phonetic manuscript, we can consider the exact /Xam words that Dia!kwain used (L.V.22.5755ff; Bleek 1935:11-14; Hollmann 2004: 218-20). It is necessary to trace key words through the collection to identify the contexts in which they were used and so to build up a picture of their connotations. None of the critics whom we have cited does this.

It is now well known amongst southern African rock art researchers that the /Xam word !gi:xa that Bleek and Lloyd translated as 'sorcerer' is the /Xam equivalent of the better known Kalahari Ju/'hoan word n/omkxao (Lewis-Williams 1981: 77). In addition to Bleek and Lloyd's 'sorcerer', it has been translated as 'medicine person', 'healer' and, the word we use, 'shaman' (Lewis-Williams 1992; Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2004; Lewis-Williams & Challis 2011: 55-56). These are the San people who enter an altered state of consciousness at trance dances and in other circumstances in order to heal the sick, travel to god's house in the sky, control antelope, journey to distant parts of the country to see how their friends and relatives are faring, and to control rain (Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2004; Lewis-Williams & Challis 2011: 55-58). Among other writers, Guenther accepts 'shaman' as appropriate to denote these San ritual specialists: "In the fashion of shamans all over the world, the [San] trance dancer, by means of altered states, enters the spirit world and obtains from it the wherewithal to restore the health of sick fellow humans" (Guenther 1999: 186).

The first syllable of !gi:xa means invisible supernatural potency; that is, the 'electricity' or 'energy' that San shamans harness (Lewis-Williams 1981: 76-77; Katz 1982). The second syllable (xa) means 'full of'. The Ju/'hoan equivalent of !gi: is n/om (formerly given as n/um). A/Xam !gi:xa (pl. !gi:ten) was a person who was full of potency. The 'sorcery' that the /Xam shamans learned to perform is given in the manuscripts as !gi:-ta didi (Bleek 1935: 12). Didi means 'doings, actions' (Bleek 1956: 25); -ta forms the possessive case. !Gi:-ta didi thus means activities performed by harnessing !gi:.

Two other /Xam words can be translated as supernatural potency://ke:n and /ko:ode. All three words appear in the following statement about a shaman who has died:

[H]e takes the magic power [/ko:ode], he shoots it back to the place where people are. For the people are those whom he wants to take away with his sorcery [//ke:n], for the thought of them while he was among men.., a sorcerer [!gi:xa] is a being who when he dies, wishes to fall heavily taking his sorcery [!gi:] (Bleek 1935: 28-29).

This and other passages show that, whatever connotations the words !gi:, /ko:ode and //ke:n may have had in certain contexts, they were, fundamentally, synonyms for supernatural potency.

Because Westerners generally find the various San clicks difficult to pronounce, Lloyd and Dorothea Bleek frequently substituted apostrophes. The word 'ken, as it appears in Dia!kwain's response to Stow's copy, is more correctly recorded in Lloyd's phonetic manuscript with a lateral click as //ke:n. The whole phrase in the manuscript is !koa //ke:n, the first word of which means "to dance, tread or step" (Bleek 1956: 436-37). In the Kalahari today the Ju/'hoansi refer in their own language to the trance dance in an identical way: djxani n/om, which means 'dancing n/om'; that is, 'dancing potency' (Biesele pers. comm.). Dia!kwain's statement is therefore explicit evidence, in San idiom, for a /Xam trance dance and the activation of potency (//ke:n) that the dancing achieves. Recreational dances do not activate potency and are not spoken of in this way.

When a young Ju/'hoan man is learning to become a n/omkxao, he may receive potency directly from god in a mystical experience or he may approach a prominent shaman and ask him for instruction. He then repeatedly dances with the experienced n/omkxao in normal trance dances (Marshall 1999: 50-53). In doing so, he gradually absorbs n/om from his mentor and learns how to control it. Clearly, it is to this process of learning from a prominent shaman during a regular trance dance that Dia!kwain was referring when he said, "He feels that he is a great man... For when a sorcerer is teaching us, he first dances the 'ken dance, and those who are learning dance after him as he dances" (Stow & Bleek 1930: caption to p1. 2a; Bleek 1935: 11-14; L.V.22.4754). The //ke:n was not exclusively an initiatory dance, as writers have supposed (e.g. Skotnes 1996: 238; Hewitt 2008: 216); rather, it was an ordinary trance dance during which novices could sometimes learn to become shamans.

A further clue lies in the continuation of Dia!kwain's comment on StoWs plate 2a: "When a sorcerer is teaching us, when his nose bleeds, he sneezes the blood into his hand" (Bleek 1935:12). (Dorothea Bleek omitted these words when she published Stow's copies in 1930.) Nasal haemorrhage was associated with the trance state that /Xam shamans entered (e.g. Bleek & Lloyd 1911:113; Bleek 1935: 19, 34; Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2004). Though present-day researchers have not actually witnessed it, the Ju/'hoansi still associate nasal bleeding with trance (Marshall 1969: 374, 1999: 87; Keeney 2003: 90, 99-100). It was frequently painted throughout southern Africa (Lewis-Williams 1981; Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2004).

Dia!kwain gave a comparable comment when he was asked about another copy (Stow & Bleek 1930: pls. 13 & 14; L.V.10.4744-4750, 4755-4757). It shows a scatter of dancing figures, some of whom are women; some bend forward at an acute angle. A number appear to have antelope heads, but some are clearly wearing caps with what Dia!kwain identified as gemsbok horns. Significantly, he said nothing about hunting disguises, formerly a popular interpretation of painted figures with antelope heads. Instead, he said, "[T]hey mean to tread the 'ken [!koa//ke:n] with them." He thus identified a second copy of a rock painting as a trance dance. In this account, he did not mention the initiation of a novice into the status of a shaman. Rather, he was again referring to regular trance dances.

It is important to notice that Dia!kwain was aware that he was commenting on copies of rock paintings. Indeed, when responding to Stow's copies, the /Xam informants referred more to the activities of shamans than to anything else (Lewis-Williams & Challis 2011: 50).

Rock paintings and engravings of the trance dance

There is abundant painted and engraved evidence across southern Africa, from the Cederberg in the west to the Drakensberg in the east, that indisputably depicts a suite of distinctive features and postures that are indicative of trance dances (Lewis-Williams 1981; Yates et al. 1985, 1990; Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2004; Deacon & Foster 2005; Eastwood & Eastwood 2006; Lewis-Williams & Challis 2011). These features and postures include figures bleeding from the nose, bending forward at an acute angle (sometimes supporting their weight on two dancing sticks), holding their arms in a backward posture, placing one or two hands on top of the head, wearing dance rattles, and carrying fly switches. Clapping women, singly and in groups, are also depicted. All these features, depicted singly or in combinations, are characteristic of San trance dances (Lewis-Williams 1981; Yates et al. 1985; Marshall 1999; Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2004; Lewis-Williams & Challis 2011).

The paintings and engravings also have features that, Kalahari San say, can be seen only by shamans. They include the expulsion of sickness from the back of a shaman's neck, a shaman's spirit leaving the top of his head, 'flecks' of potency scattered among the dancers, so-called 'threads of light' that take shamans to the spirit realm, and transformations of people into animals. The rock art images thus present not only depictions of trance dancers but also supernatural entities as seen from the privileged perspective of the shamans themselves. The images make visible the interaction between realms that ordinary people know about but cannot see.

Some differences between the northern and southern San dances need to be noted. The Kalahari trance dances seem, in traditional circumstances, always to be circular. In the southern Kalahari, however, where the San have lost their land and have to work for white farmers, solitary shamans have become itinerant, moving from farm to farm (Guenther 1975). They dance in the centre of the group, and clapping women (as well as onlookers) stand in a circle around them. The rock paintings and engravings suggest that the circular form was not the only choreography followed in the south. Although there are depictions of circular dances, numerous paintings and engravings show random scatters or lines of dancers, with or without clapping women. Solitary dancers are also frequently scattered among images of animals and other people. We know, by the range of features that we have listed, that these single images nonetheless refer to trance dances.

Though it is hard to date individual paintings, trance dance images have considerable time-depth. Paintings on stones excavated from dated strata in the Collingham rockshelter show that the dance was practised in the Drakensberg as long ago as AD 200-350 (Mazel 2009; see also Bonneau et al. 2011). Eyewitness evidence that we now discuss shows that it continued to be performed up to the nineteenth century.


Having copied rock paintings in the 1860s and 1870s in the eastern parts of what are now the Free State and parts of the Eastern Cape Provinces of South Africa, Stow wrote of evidence for dances in rockshelters, many of which were painted:

The universality of this custom was shown by the fact that, in the early days, in the centre of every village or kraal, or near every rock-shelter, and in every great cave, there was a large circular ring where either the ground or grass was beaten flat and bare, from the frequent and constant repetition of their terpsichorean exercises (Stow 1905:111).

Viewed in the light of Dia!kwain's comments on Stow's copies and the circular trance dances that are performed in Kalahari San camps, this report of dance rings shows that trance dances were a prominent part of southern San life as it was lived in rockshelters.

Some decades before Stow observed the dance circles, the missionaries Thomas Arbousset and Francois Daumas, who worked in what is now Lesotho, saw an actual dance that rather shocked them:

[I]t is carried on in the middle of the village by the light of the moon. The movements consist of irregular jumps; it is as if one saw a herd of calves leaping, to use a native comparison. They gambol together till all be fatigued and covered with perspiration. The thousand cries which they raise, and the exertions which they make, are so violent that it is not unusual to see someone sink to the ground exhausted and covered with blood, which pours from the nostrils... I could almost fancy that there may be mixed with it something of a religious rite, but I would not push this supposition too far (Arbousset & Daumas 1846: 246-57).

In the early 1870s, a young San man named Qing spoke of similar dances being performed, also in Lesotho (Figure 1). His account was summarised by Joseph Millerd Orpen:

They are all underwater, and those strokes are things growing underwater. They are people spoilt by the--dance, because their noses bleed. Cagn gave us the song of this dance, and told us to dance it, and people would die from it, and he would give charms to raise them again. It is a circular dance of men and women, following each other, and it is danced all night. Some fall down; some become as if mad and sick; blood runs from the noses of others whose charms are weak, and they eat charm medicine, in which there is burnt snake powder. When a man is sick, this dance is danced around him, and the dancers put both hands under their arm-pits, and press their hands on him, and when he coughs the initiated put out their hands and receive what has injured him--secret things (Orpen 1874: 10).

Writing of the second of these two similar accounts, Solomon (2007:157) says, "The frenzied behaviour of the dancers described by Qing refers to the weakest of the dancers being assailed and overcome by lethal spirits, not the careful induction of a trance state through rhythmic dancing, as in the Kalahari context." This is a misunderstanding of the Kalahari trance dance. Though the Kalahari dance begins with regular stamping steps (Marshall 1999: 72), it is not as orderly as Solomon believes. When Ju/'hoansi dancers enter trance they "stagger around and lurch into the fire"; some fall headlong; some even "somersault" or "crash full-length onto the ground". As a shaman draws sickness from people, he:

... throws back his head and cries out the n//hara sounds in full voice ... he yelps, then gives the screams and shrieks.... They run through [the fire], leap over it, stand in it, kneel in it, throw the coals over themselves, and thrust their heads into the flames to set fire to their hair ... [T]hey may collapse on the ground or go into paroxysms (Marshall 1999: 59, 86, 87).

Shamans explain this frenzy by saying that "the strength of their n/um overwhelms them" (Marshall 1999: 86). Orpen's account also records that, during their frenzy, "the dancers put both hands under their arm-pits, and press their hands on him". Marshall writes of the Kalahari San: "They take sweat from their armpits and rub him" (Marshall 1962:251, 1999: 60).

There are still other points that indicate that Qing was describing a trance dance. He said that it was circular, it was used to heal people, it was danced all night, the dancers fell down, and their noses bled. All this adds up to a trance dance. Then, when he spoke of the 'song' of the dance having been given by Cagn (the southern trickster-deity), he revealed another parallel: the Kalahari San believe that the potency of a trance dance resides in its song and that these songs, together with their potency, come from god (e.g. Biesele 1993: 67-70).

Finally, Qing said that those who fell were 'spoilt' by the dance and had 'died'. Solomon claims that 'spoil' may be interpreted as mythical transformation (Solomon 1998: 274). But, in the Kalahari, the Ju/'hoan words for 'spoiling' and 'death' are still two ways of talking about people who collapse in trance (Lee 1968: 40; Katz 1982: 99, 116). The Ju/'hoansi use their word for 'spoil', kxwia, to mean 'to enter deep trance' at a trance dance (Biesele pets. comm.; Lewis-Williams 1980: 474). Although Qing elsewhere used the word in its prosaic sense (Orpen 1874: 3-4), he made its metaphorical meaning in this context abundantly clear by saying explicitly that the people were spoilt by the dance.

The importance of the trance dance

All in all, the comments of nineteenth-century /Xam informants, the rock art images themselves, and the frenzy, nasal bleeding and 'thousand cries' that both Arbousset and Daumas and Orpen described combine to show that trance dances similar to those described by twentieth-century ethnographers in the Kalahari were performed throughout southern Africa.

The relevance of this conclusion to an understanding of San rock art cannot be over-emphasised. Writers who ignore or downplay the significance of the dance in San life and rock art should note Biesele's conclusions:

Though dreams may happen at any time, the central religious experiences of Ju/'hoan life are consciously and, as a matter of course, approached through the avenue of trance. The trance dance involves everyone in the society, those who enter trance and experience the power of the other world directly, and those to whom the benefits of the other world healing and insight--are brought by the trancers ... The trancers are known as n/omkxaosi, meaning 'owners of medicine' or 'owners of supernatural power'. They mediate to the community not only healing power but also information about how things are in the other world and how people in this world would do best to relate to them. Great attention is given to trancers' accounts of what they have experienced, and no one's account of a genuinely altered state is belittled ... Through the physical and artistic discipline of the highly structured dance, an altered state of consciousness is produced in some participants which has benefits for the entire community. Contact with the beyond is regularly made, and all who come to the dance experience an uplifting energy which they feel to be a necessary part of their lives (Biesele 1993: 70, 74).

For the San, communication with the other world by means of trance is not an outlandish, peripheral event. On the contrary, the Sans "central religious experiences" are, as Biesele (1993: 70) puts it, accessed "as a matter of course ... through the avenue of trance". Trance and the spirit realm are integral parts of daily life. Barnard (1992: 57) concurs: "The most important ritual for the !Kung, and indeed all Bushman groups, is the trance or medicine dance". Given these circumstances, it would be surprising if the trance dance and the insights into the other world that it affords were not key, and indeed identifiable, components of San rock art. The dance and the art together make visible, and indeed tangible, the interaction of realms that informs so much of San life.


We are deeply indebted to Megan Biesele, the late Lorna Marshall and other Kalahari researchers for valuable discussions over many years. We are also grateful to those who commented on drafts of this article: Janette Deacon, Jeremy Hollmann, Susan Ward and Sam Challis. Anonymous referees offered useful comments. This research is funded by the South African National Research Foundation.


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J. David Lewis-Williams & David G. Pearce *

* Rock Art Research Institute, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa (Email:;
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Author:Lewis-Williams, J. David; Pearce, David G.
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Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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