South African rock art specialist, David Lewis-Williams, recognized a common metaphor among the nineteenth and twentieth-century ethnographies of the southern /Xam San and Malutu San Bushmen, and the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. The metaphor played a crucial role in enabling Lewis-Williams to understand the ritual trance dance and the /Xam Bushman rock paintings. The principal figure in /Xam and Malutu mythology was “Cagn” (also written as “Kaggen”) who is said to have given them the song and the dance. While doing so, he said that “people will die from it and that he would give them charms to raise them again.” Lewis-Williams contends that the word “die,” in this case, does not refer to actual physical death but is “a metaphor for entrance into the altered states of consciousness of trance…” One of the “charms” that Cagn referred to is described as a type of aromatic herb. Among the twentieth-century Sandawe of Tanzania, women attending their simbo or so-called “Lion Dance,” would take a twig of an herb known as “merra,” dip it in beer, and sprinkle it on collapsed (dead) dancers in deep trance to raise them up again from their altered state.
In her 1983 volume, Africa’s Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania, archaeologist Mary Leakey illustrates the two unique individuals shown in this print that she traced from a rock shelter in the Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). She describes them as “Two prostrate humans presumably dead…”; literally meaning they appeared to be physically dead. In their prone positions with arms outstretched they resemble the universal visual representation of dead humans, including Christ on the cross, and even those drawn by children. Their flaccid, rather than erect penises are also meant to convey death to the viewer. However, Lewis-Williams’ shamanistic hypothesis developed to decipher southern Bushman rock paintings enabled archaeologist John Cavallo to recognize that the short bristling lines forming the circular outlines of the two individual’s heads as depictions of their spiritual potency “exploding” in their heads and propelling them into altered states of consciousness. According to nineteenth-century ethnographic accounts of the southern /Xam Bushmen, death was a metaphor for altered states. (Redrawn from M.D. Leakey, 1983 by J.A. Cavallo).