The striking human figure in this print was originally photographed by rock art expert Janette Deacon in the Western Cape Province and redrawn by archaeologist John Cavallo. The robust, athletically built male is carrying a hunters pouch and sporting what appear to be large wings. Such part-human, part animal beings, known as “theiranthropes,” were the result of shamans describing their physical transformation during altered states of consciousness. Importantly, the key for entering the spirit realm was the highly energetic ‘healing’ or ‘trance dance.’ According to nineteenth-century ethnographic accounts of southern Bushmen, the ritual took place at night around a large bonfire and involved the whole community. Sometimes the carcass of an eland or some other animal served as the focal point. The women, who rarely participated in the southern San dance, gathered close to the fire in a tight circle and began singing and rapidly clapping ‘medicine songs.’ The pulsing rhythms, together with the heat and flickering of the fire, opened the gates for supernatural experiences.
The men, including shamans and those seeking their first trance journey, began their intense dancing and breathing in time with the rapid clapping and singing. The ritual is said to have lasted up to 24 or more hours. After several hours of sustained dancing, shamans began suffering the effects of overheating, heavy sweating and exhaustion. The physical stress and dehydration made them stagger about and fall down as they began entering a state of trance. The exertion also caused their delicate nasal blood vessels to rupture and bleed profusely as depicted in many San paintings. Shamans often mixed nasal blood with underarm sweat and smeared it on the bodies of community members in the belief that the smell of the potent blood would drive away evil spirits. When shamans entered deeper states of trance they collapsed and began having out-of-body experiences. They claimed they were transformed into part human-part animal beings that left the “real world” and entered the spirit realms where they harnessed potent forces within certain species of “rain animals.”