A Procession of Sandawe Bushman Trance Dancers


This unusual painting in this print was traced from a rock shelter in the Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania. It depicts a long line of highly stylized human figures of varying sizes facing in the same direction that appear to be participating in a Sandawe Bushman version of a trance dance. Twenty-eight of them are extremely short in stature and holding bows while eight others hold straight vertical sticks, including the lone figure below the main group who is wearing a cap. According to Lewis-Williams’ interpretation of Wilhelm Bleek’s and Lucy Lloyd’s ethnohistorical accounts of the southern /Xam San Bushmen during the 1870s, archaeologist John Cavallo reports that the physical attributes of some individuals depict some of the visual and physical experiences reported by shamans in various stages of altered states of consciousness, including their transformation into part-human, part- animal beings called “therianthropes” during trance. For example, eight figures are abnormally elongated. Beginning at the left-hand side of the painting, the first three tall figures, including a headless one-legged individual, are standing in line and towering over the smaller individuals in the long procession. The lead figure is not only highly elongated but has a long, snake-like body and narrow head that is topped with an enormous haystack of hair. The fourth individual from the extreme left is tottering on one foot and appears to be falling or stumbling forward. The fifth tall individual is headless with very short arms and long, thin legs. The sixth figure with only one leg also appears to be falling forward and has three vertical lines emerging from the back of its head.

Toward the center of the painting are two more tall individuals floating in mid-air. The first has a long sausage-like head like the lead figure but is lacks legs and has tiny arms. Like the headless floating figure to the right of it, it also has a snake-like body. To their immediate right are two very small, abstract figures floating in the air. The one on the left has no arms and its legs seem to be attached to the neck and shoulder of the tall standing individual with the three lines on the back of its head. The figure immediately below it has only one arm attached to one of four vertical parallel lines and has a unique, long, forked (bifurcated) line coming from or into its head. Importantly, there are several unusual graphic elements concentrated in the area of the headless, snake-like floating figure on the far right. Most prominent are two sets of concentric circles and two small grids protruding from the upper set of circles. Two lines extend from the right-hand grid and connect with the spike-headed floating snake-like figure. A third line curves downward through the upper set of circles into one of the figure’s outstretched arms. Immediately below these figures and geometric designs, in the path of the two small bowmen below, is a set of vertical nesting half circles. The final elements are seven sets of double, vertical, parallel lines concentrated within and around this grouping of figures and designs.

Applying Lewis-Williams’ model to this composition is revealing. His recognition that San art was not simply depictions of everyday life lead to the development of his “shamanistic model,” that revolutionized the study of Bushman rock art. His research led him to conclude that much of the southern Busman art is shamanistic in origin—that is, depictions of their rituals and hallucinatory experiences in the spirit world while in altered states of consciousness during the trance ritual. Having established this link, Lewis-Williams and his colleague, Thomas Dowson, turned to the extensive contemporary neuropsychological literature that provided “very precise descriptions” of the visual, audio, and physical hallucinations experienced by patients in drug-induced altered states of consciousness during controlled clinical experiments. From this body of information they identified six universal images that reoccur during the early stages of trance. Known as “entoptic” images, meaning “within the human optical system,” these geometric forms are produced by the neural architecture of the human brain. Lewis-Williams argued that since entoptics emanate “from the consciousness, regardless of cultural background, all people are liable to perceive them.” The underlying assumption here is that Later Stone Age people possessed neurologically modern brains. Figure 1 shows the entoptic images most frequently depicted by southern Bushman shaman-artists and reported by clinical patients. They include: the grid pattern, parallel lines, dots, zigzag lines, curves (frequently nested) and filigrees (thin meandering lines). These basic forms can occur as a grid (or broken down like a ladder is a form of a grid), integration (a combination of two or more forms), superposed (one form appearing on top of another), juxtaposed (forms appearing next to each other), replicated (multiples of forms) and rotated.

As you can see, several entoptic forms and therianthropes are clearly present in this painting along with many individuals expressing outward physical and sensory effects of the ritual as reported by Bushman shamans. The most obvious of these are the abnormal elongation of the body. Cavallo contends that they depict shaman’s reports of becoming taller during trance and also transforming into animals prior to their out-of-body journeys into the spirit realm. In this case, they are transforming into snakes. The three individuals on the right-hand side of the mural with snake-like lower bodies are examples of this transformation process. In fact, the first figure on the left of this trio exhibits more attributes of a snake than those of a human. The most striking of these are its unnaturally foreshortened arms that are located more toward the mid-point of its torso; and its lack of shoulders. While the two other individuals still possess some human-like features, the previous individual has nearly completely transformed into a snake. Mary Leakey reports that snakes occur in many myths of the southern San and Kalahari San. In them the snake is considered “an awesome creature that inhabits waterholes and [is] sometimes associated with rain.”
More specifically, the southern San Bushmen recognized a ‘rain serpent’ that is usually depicted by a pair of ears but with the overall characteristics and behaviors of a snake. Another peculiar trait is that its body is changeable and, in some instances, they were said to only be recognizable to a shaman. For example, in 1874 when Joseph Orpen showed his San informant Qing a painting depicting the capture of an animal that appeared to be a rhinoceros or hippopotamus, Qing stated “that animal which the men are catching is a snake.” The other physical sign of trance experienced by shamans in the print is present on the two elongated individuals with huge layered haystacks of hair. This unusual attribute is unique to Tanzanian rock art and led Mary Leakey to contend that: “In Tanzania the hair generally appears to have been worn long, sometimes braided and sometimes with decorative plumes. The southern Bushmen paintings, on the other hand, show relatively close-cropped heads, often with head-gear of one kind or another.” However, my readings of an early account of the Hadzabe residing in Kondoa during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s by the German explorer Ludwig Kohl-Larsen makes no mention of them wearing their hair in the manner of the painted images. Instead, the numerous photographs of the Hadzabe he studied show only men and women with close-cropped hair and a few examples of them wearing simple feathered hair ornaments. Additionally, my rough count of human figures depicted in Leakey’s book show that the majority of individuals have unadorned hairless heads. This would be expected for any group of hunter-gatherers. For practical reasons alone, long hair in the wooded terrain in which they lived for thousands of years would have frequently become ensnared in thorn bushes or served as a dense nesting ground for numerous parasites. A more likely explanation of the painting is the San shamans’ descriptions of feeling their hair growing longer during trance. Cavallo also notes that the copious amounts of hair could also represent the manes of adult male lions that the shamans are said to transform into during their major ritual known as “simbo,” which translates as “the state of becoming a lion.” According to nineteenth-century southern Bushman ethnographies, the short lines emerging from the tiny round heads on several dances in the print probably represent their spirits leaving their bodies just prior to their out-of-body travels into the spirit realm; something only other shamans in altered states could see. (Redrawn by J.A. Cavallo from M.D. Leakey, 1983).
PRINT NUMBER: 20
40 x 65 cm






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