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Continuity and change in San belief and ritual: some  aspects of the enigmatic ‘formling’ and tree motifs from  Matopo Hills rock art, Zimbabwe       

      Siyakha Mguni          A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand,  Johannesburg, for the degree of Master of Arts.        Johannesburg 2002 


Declaration           I  declare  that  this  thesis  is  my  own  work  unless  otherwise  acknowledged.  It  is  being  submitted  for  the  degree  of  Master  of  Arts  in  the  University  of  the  Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. It has not been submitted before for any degree or  examination in any other university.                                         

  This           14th          day of            April             , 2002     



Voyage of discovery    This study was motivated by a personal revelatory experience I had when, in April  1995 shortly after I joined the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe as  a  trainee  archaeologist  and  monuments  inspector,  I  first  encountered  one  of  the  most  spectacular  rock  art  sites  in  Matopo  Hills  (hereafter  called  Matopo1),  and,  perhaps,  in  southern  Africa.  And  little  did  I  realize  that  this  experience  heralded  my future career. This site is Nanke Cave on the eastern part of Matobo National  Park.  Ironically,  although  I  had  read  about  the  Drakensberg  paintings  as  part  of  my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Zimbabwe, I had never heard of or  seen a picture of Nanke paintings.     It  was  a  two‐hour  walk  to  the  site,  but  one  filled  with  surprises  as  we  strolled  through  dramatic  ‘castle‐kopjes’  and  gigantic  ‘whalebacks’  called  dwalas  (isi‐ Ndebele word for bare granite domes, Plate 1) typical of this landscape. Located in  Matabeleland South Province of southwestern Zimbabwe within the granite belt of  Zimbabwe  (Map  1),  Matopo  (Appendix  1  Map  1)  comprises  3,  000  million  years  old granites. These are interspersed with intrusions of other rocks, such as quartz,  dolerite veins and dykes. Altitudes range generally between 1 200 m and 1 500 m  (Moger,  no  date).  This  hilly  landscape  covers  an  area  of  2  180  km².  They  spread  from  the  Mangwe  River  in  the  west  to  Mbalabala  in  the  east.  It  contains  a 


The origin of the word ‘Matopo’ (Anglicised version ‘Matopos’) is obscure. Some argue that it is a  corruption of a Kalanga word ‘Matombo’ (stones), referring to rock outcrops. Others say it derives  from se‐Sotho, meaning ‘bald heads’. Legend has it that Mzilikazi (Ama‐Ndebele King ca. 1830‐ 1868), used an analogy of bald heads of his indunas (council of advisors and military commanders),  in astonishment at the jumbled mass of bare domes and balancing rocks, to describe this landscape. 


profusion of  overhangs  and  hemispheroidal  shelters  (Plate  2,  Walker  1995,  1996).  Along the way we inspected a few smaller overhangs and shelters with small but  interesting panels. Walking this distinctive rugged landscape of repeated hill‐and‐ valley scenery is difficult. It requires negotiating one’s way along these valleys to  avoid high and impossible hills and dwalas.     Within this hill‐and‐valley landscape is a wide variety of flora and faunal species.  Micro‐climatic  conditions  have  given  rise  to  vegetation  types  that  change  markedly  over  short  distances.  Open  woodland  areas  on  the  valley  sides  and  scrubland  comprise  Terminalia  sericea,  Brachystegia  spiciforms  and  Collophospermum  mopane  species  while  localised  thickets  and  forests  make  up  valley  vegetation.  Every so often we would spot plains game that dominate the area and diverse bird  species, but the more specialised fauna that live in circumscribed environments are  not easy to spot. The Matopo climate, conducive to this species diversity, is argued  to have remained relatively unaltered since the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 13, 000  years BP, Walker 1995; Cooke 1964c). This environment has provided sanctuary for  human  habitation  for,  at  least,  the  last  100,  000  years  (Walker  1987,  1995).  We  assume  that  people  have  been  painting  in  the  hills  for  most  of  this  period  of  habitation, but our direct dating evidence shows that most or all of the surviving  art  dates  from  the  Holocene  period  (Walker  1987,  1996)  to  about  1,  500  BP.  Occupation evidence and painting is abundant in sites such as Nanke Cave. Tens  of thousands of painted images are contained in these sites, recently estimated to  be around 3, 500 in number (Walker 1996: 60).   

The District is now called Matobo. I have chosen ‘Matopo’ because this is how the locals today call  their area.  


Nanke Cave is an east‐facing, very large shelter of about 80 m in width, 15 m high  and 12 m deep. It is situated high up, about 50 m above a small river at the bottom,  in the middle level of a large whaleback running in a northerly‐southerly axis. A  dense  thicket  of  vegetation  masks  the  shelter  such  that  only  the  lip  forming  the  drip  line  can  be  seen  from  a  distance.  An  ashy  deposit  that  bears  evidence  of  prehistoric  occupation  covers  the  floor.  Potsherds  and  ostrich  eggshell  beads  are  still visible on the surface.     Looking up on to the painted surface, I was struck by the amount of imagery and  the  level  of  over  painting  covering  an  area  of  about  30  square  metres.  But  even  more  awe  striking  is  the  central  image  of  a  polychromatic  design  of  outstanding  beauty and exceptional complexity (Plates 3, 3a). Not far from it are three paintings  of plants. I contemplated this image and discussing it with my colleagues, Kemesi  Ncube and Edward Sibindi, who took me to the site, they admitted to not having  heard  any  plausible  explanation  of  this  design.  Dumfounded  by  the  image,  I  became  highly  motivated  to  investigate  it  and  I  began  an  intellectual  voyage  to  discover its hidden mysteries.      

Matopo is profuse with these paintings of curious ovoid or oblong designs called  formlings, which I define in Chapter One. Nicholas Walker (1996: 32) notes that the  care and detail lavished on formlings is unsurpassed anywhere in the rock art of  Zimbabwe, suggesting that, for these painters, this was a very significant class of  imagery.  Peter  Garlake  (1990:  17)  estimates  that  the  whole  of  Zimbabwe  (Map  1)  has  many  hundreds,  and  probably  thousands,  of  formlings.  Associated  with  formlings are trees and plants, also abundant in Matopo. The abundance of these  motifs  and  the  greater  archaeological  visibility  of  the  area  (Walker  1996:  13) 


resulted in researchers concentrating their work in Matopo. Yet, despite the great  attention  and  interest  these  motifs  have  held  for  many  writers,  they  remain,  relative to other motifs in San art, elusive.    One  of  the  pioneers  in  the  interpretation  of  formlings,  Leo  Frobenius  (1929:  333),  wrote,  “…oddities  occur  which  are  completely  outside  our  understanding.  There  are  large  forms,  shaped  like  galls  or  livers,  into  which  human  figures  are  painted…”  Thirty  years  later,  his  student  and  assistant,  Elizabeth  Goodall  (1959:  62),  remarked  that  formlings  are  “not  easily  explained”.  Recently,  Walker  (1996:  73) wrote, “It is impossible to be certain what they represent” while Garlake (1995:  96) argues that within the range of these motifs “none has easy visual equivalents.”  Uneasiness and pessimism concerning the interpretation of these images has thus  lingered  into  the  present.  Some  writers  still  hold  that  formlings  are  mysterious.  Explanations of these motifs to date are thus widely divergent.     By comparison, trees and plant motifs have been uncontroversial in that it is clear  what they depict. But, these motifs have been superficially explained as depictions  of  landscape  features  (Frobenius  1931;  Breuil  1966).  This  view  has  not  taken  us  anywhere nearer to their symbolism and meaning. Some writers have elided these  motifs  completely  from  consideration.  My  review  of  published  literature  and  re‐ investigations of some previously studied sites raise a significant observation. It is  evident that while writers have noted the frequent co‐occurrence of formlings and  trees  and  other  plants,  none  has  examined  closely  this  association  and  its  significance.  In  my  interpretative  study,  a  fundamental  tenet  is  that  the  close  association of formlings and trees holds the key to the unpacking of the complex  symbolism of these motifs.    


My aim therefore is two‐fold:   1. To  extend  the  understanding  of  Matopo  San  art,  with  specific  reference  to  formlings and trees and,   2. To show that this art fits well within the wider southern African context of  San rock art.   I  show  that  these  images  are  explicable  through  the  analysis  of  their  painted  contexts  and  San  ethnography,  which  provides  fruitful  insights  into  this  art.  I  combine  San  supernaturalism  with  other  elements  of  their  cosmology  to  give  a  detailed  explanation  of,  first,  what  formlings  depict  and,  secondly,  what  they  symbolised for the Matopo San. Formlings and trees may be a peculiar feature of  rock art in Zimbabwe, but they embody core concepts within the broad San belief  system,  shown  to  exist  in  southern  African  San  rock  art.  I  examine  these  motifs  within  the framework of our understanding that the  Matopo art tradition is very  old and possibly indicating the antiquity of the San belief system. While it is true  that specific details and nuances vary in different regions, I show, using formlings  and  tree  motifs  in  Matopo  art  as  an  example,  that  there  are  more  commonalities  between San art in South Africa and Zimbabwe than has been allowed.     In eight chapters I go through different stages of my study and the interpretation  of formlings and trees.               


Acknowledgements         I thank the University of the Witwatersrand for its support in various ways, and especially  the  Rock  Art  Research  Institute  for  placing  resources  at  my  disposal.  The  Swan  Fund,  Oxford  University,  funded  my  fieldwork  and  research.  Their  generosity  is  gratefully  acknowledged.  I  am  especially  indebted  to  Professor  David  Lewis‐Williams,  former  Director  of  the,  then,  Rock  Art  Research  Centre,  for  supporting  my  study  proposals  and  the  project  from  its  inception.  His  inspiration  and  advice  has  been  instrumental  in  the  success of this project. I also gratefully thank my supervisor, Dr Benjamin Smith, for very  insightful advice, encouragement and support. Professors T.N. Huffman and L. Wadley in  the  Archaeology  Department  (University  of  the  Witwatersrand)  have  also  been  very  supportive,  and  I  thank  them  sincerely.  My  colleagues,  Jeremy  Hollmann  and  Geoffrey  Blundell,  whom  I  have  had  useful  discussions  on  rock  art  in  general  are  also  sincerely  thanked.  Other  members  of  the  Institute  namely,  William  Challis,  Jamie  Hampson  and  Ghilraen Laue are also thanked for their help during fiekdwork and in other ways. I am  also grateful to visiting scholars I have discussed rock art issues with, namely Dr Patricia  Vinnicombe (Australia) and Professor Patricia Bass (Texas).     From the associates of RARI, I especially thank Dr Christopher Chippindale (Cambridge  University)  for  his  encouragement  and  constant  insightful  advice  right  from  the  early  stages of the project. I also thank Dr Janette Deacon for her inspiration in many ways and  knowledge I have gained from fieldtrips with her. Mr. Edward Eastwood has encouraged  the  project.  I  extend  my  gratitude  to  Drs  Megan  Biesele  and  Tilman  Lenssen‐Erz  with  whom I separately had useful discussions. I also thank individuals in Biological sciences  that  have  shared  their  opinions  and  expert  advice  on  some  aspects  of  the  project.  These  include  Mrs.  Caroline  Crump  (Wits  Zoology  Museum),  Dr  M.J.  Byrne  (Entomologist,  Animal, Plant & Environmental Sciences at Wits) and Dr Anthony Cunningham (Botany &  Ethno‐botany–Australia).  I  thank  sincerely  Mrs.  Wendy  Phillips  for  making  bromides  of  the re‐drawings and Ms Janet Tinniswood for helping with CorelDraw graphics. I am also  grateful  to  the  goodwill  and  assistance  of  some  property  (farms)  owners  in  the  Matopo  area  and  the  Waterberg  District  in  South  Africa  who  allowed  me  to  see  rock  art  sites  in  their  properties.  I  wish  to  thank  the  National  Museums  and  Monuments  of  Zimbabwe,  especially  the  Executive  Director  and  his  Deputy,  Mr.  Dawson  Munjeri  and  Dr  Godfrey  Mahachi for their support of this project. The Director of the Matobo National Park, Mrs.  Moyo,  is  also  thanked  for  her  advice  on  issues  relating  to  the  research  work  within  the  sanctuary  area,  procurement  of  research  permits  and  her  expressed  interest  in  rock  art.   Last  but  not  least,  my  family  (Mr.  J.  Mguni,  Mrs.  S.  Mguni,  Bhekinhlanhla  and  Banele),  especially  my  father,  who  has  developed  a  thorough  fascination  with  archaeology,  particularly rock art and the San through my involvement, is gratefully thanked for their  unwavering support and in many other ways.   




Voyage of discovery  







List of illustrations   


Chapter One  

San rock art in Matopo Hills 


Chapter Two 

Searching for ‘meaning’ in San rock art   


Chapter Three 

San notions of potency and trance dance   


Chapter Four 

Representation and ‘abstraction’ in San rock art  


Chapter Five  

Formlings and their ‘natural models’  


Chapter Six 

Painted contexts and ethnographic information  


Chapter Seven 

Trees and plants in Matopo  


Chapter Eight 

God’s House: nuances, subtleties and symbolism  





Appendix I  

219‐236   Illustrations 

List of Maps  




Plate 2. A typical gigantic spheroidal shelter in granite landscapes   


Plate 3. Shaded polychrome formling from Nanke Cave 


Plate 3a. Black and white rendition of Plate 3   


Plate 4. Kalahari Ju/’hoan trance dance in the 1950s 


Plate 5. Usual ovoid/spherical shapes of termitaria 


Map 1. Granite belt of Zimbabwe with rock art concentrations  List of Plates  Plate 1. Silozwane dome and the rugged landscape of the area 

Plate 6. A formling with pronounced crenellations on top 


Plate 7. Oval formling with crenellations, orifice and insects   


Plate 8. Formling with vertical sausage‐shaped cores and dots      List of figures 


Fig. 1. Trees or possibly mushrooms grow on an oval formling  


Fig. 2. A tree next to a circular motif enclosing flecks and two fish   


Fig. 3. A formling with villiform shaped cores   




Fig. 4. A formling with human figures, equipment, flecks and antelope 


Fig. 5. A typical tree motif without details of leaves 


Fig. 6. Tree motif with an indeterminate antelope underneath  


Fig. 7. A shaman, people and spirit creatures during a dance  


Fig. 8. An infibulated elephant therianthrope surrounded by bees   


Fig. 9. A human figure, a formling with an orifice and insects  


Fig. 10. A formling with 7 crenellations around its edge  


Fig. 11. A formling with cores, microdots and crenellations 


Fig. 12. A formling with five crenellations, flecks and microdots    


Fig. 13. A formling with cores, large orifice and insects  


Fig. 14. A honeycomb motif with microdots and human figures 


Fig. 15. A swarm of ‘insects’ swells around a ‘flowering’ tree   

123 152 

Fig. 16. Flying termites around a tree/plant form 


Fig. 17. A tree laden with fruits   



Fig. 19. Two men with equipment are juxtaposed with a tree   


Fig. 20. A pair of kudu (one browsing) is juxtaposed with a tree 


Fig. 21. An oval formling conflated with a ‘sprouting’ plant form 


Fig. 22. A plant with two stems and branches with human figures    


Fig. 23. A therianthrope holds a tree while a squatting figure claps    


Fig. 24. Two therianthropes, a tree, two people and an animal  


Fig. 25. A man climbs a tree juxtaposed with two animals above  


Fig. 26. A tree, people, therianthropes, flecks and animals 


Fig. 27. A formling, therianthrope, feline and human figures   


Fig. 28. Diagram showing San cosmology with two intersecting axes 


Fig. 29. Therianthropes on a line, perhaps in the spirit world      List of illustrations in Appendix I 


Fig. 18. A pair of kudu browsing from a tree 

Map 1. Matopo Hills and surrounding commercial and communal zones    219  Fig. 1.1. A complex formling with trees, a plant, and a ‘rain creature’ 


Fig. 1.2. Geometry terms that can help understand basic formling shapes   221  Fig. 1.3. Kudu depictions showing different San ways of embellishment    222   Fig. 1.4. Underground section of termitaria with the exterior chimney 


Fig. 1.5. Typical interior features of termitaria   



Fig. 1.6. Typical exterior features of termitaria   



Fig. 1.7. Common representations of honeycombs in the art    


Fig. 1.8. Trees, buffalo in the middle and human figures 


Fig. 1.9. Conceptual relationships in San cosmology                                         228   Fig. 1.10. A tree motif painted in white                                                               229  Fig. 1.11. A tree motif painted in yellow pigment   Fig. 1.12. Two trees and a breeding pair of kudu  



Fig. 1.13. An anthill with a tree growing in the middle  


Fig. 1.14. An anthill with a large tree and smaller bushes growing on top   232  Fig. 1.15. An anthill with secondary mounds forming a series of domes  


Fig. 1.16. A fig tree growing on a rock formation  



Fig. 1.18. A polychrome giraffe painted in the context of a formling   


Fig. 1.19. A reclining human figure associated with a formling    


Fig. 1.17. A formling motif conflated with a plant form  


Chapter One San rock art in Matopo Hills Rock art in Matopo drew the attention of writers from the early 1900s (White 1905; Hall 1911, 1912; Arnold & Jones 1919; Jones 1926; Armstrong 1931; Frobenius 1930, 1931; Tredgold 1968; Cooke 1969). The research interest was fuelled by the profusion of rock art sites in the area, most of which are easily accessible. Terence Ranger (1999) suggests that it is the special ambience of the rocks that drew early European travellers, missionaries, hunters and even the modern tourists to Matopo. The distinctiveness of Matopo would have fascinated prehistoric populations who, for millennia, made ‘pilgrimages’ to the area and painted in many of the shelters. Matopo is estimated to contain around 100, 000 images (Walker 1996: 60). Although southern African San rock art is broadly similar, Matopo abounds with peculiarities that are rare in other areas. These motifs, formlings, trees and plants, are more concentrated in Zimbabwe (Cooke 1969, 1983; Willcox 1984; Walker 1987, 1996; Garlake 1995) than in other art regions. Aside from these unusual motifs, the numerically dominant subjects in Matopo art include: human figures, giraffe and large antelope, such as, kudu, tsessebe (usually indistinguishable from hartebeest, e.g., Fig. 6), and smaller antelope, such as, impala and duiker (Walker 1996: 31). Less frequently depicted species include: zebra, sable/roan, warthog, hares and baboons (or monkeys). Buffalo, waterbuck and elephant are rare, but their representation increases farther to the north. Eland, unlike the position in South Africa, are also rare in Zimbabwe. Only a few shelters in Matopo, such as Gumali and World’s View, contain eland

2 paintings (Walker 1996: 188). Drakensberg-type shaded-polychrome eland are very rare. One exception, Nanke1 Cave2, shows a procession of eland below a large formling. These exhibit very similar colour combinations to the formling.

Plate 1. Silozwane dome viewed from Pomongwe Hill and the intervening rugged landscape of hill-and-valley portions


The Anglicised versions ‘Inanke’ or ‘Inanki’ arose from a misunderstanding of local isi-Ndebele phonology where the reference to place names entails prefixing ‘e-’, such as in, ‘e-Nanke’ (at Nanke). 2 Matopo does not have underground caverns such as the Franco-Cantabrian karst landscapes famous for their Palaeolithic art. Cave here refers to huge and deep hemispheroidal shelters.


Plate 2. Spheroidal shelters are common in granite landscapes (Matopo)

Matopo also has a range of unusual painted species that include insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians. While Zimbabwean rock art exhibits bi-chromes, trichromes and shaded polychromes (Goodall 1959), nearly all on granites, it is generally monochromatic with differentially faded hues of red, brown and yellow. Formlings stand out in this respect because they are often depicted in multiple pigments, such as the polychromatic Nanke Cave motif (Plate 3).

4 Formlings, trees and plants

Formlings and their associated tree motifs are the most striking and vexing of the rock art motifs in Zimbabwe (Frobenius 1931; Goodall 1959; Walker 1996). From a casual judgement based on their visual dominance and elaborateness, formlings appear to have been a significant feature for Matopo San artists. Despite many publications on Matopo and its art, these images have remained, by and large, superficially studied. One reason for this lacuna in research is that most of the archaeologists who have worked in the area have been lithic specialists (e.g., Armstrong 1930; Jones 1931, 1949; Robinson & Cooke 1950; Walker 1996). They have thus focused on excavated Stone Age sequences. No dedicated rock art specialists have spent extended research periods here. The area has therefore lacked a focused rock art research strategy. In 1999 I began field research into formlings and botanical motifs in Matopo. Informed by three strands of evidence, which have hitherto not been considered in tandem, I bring new insights to the interpretation and understanding of these images. My integrated tripartite approach encompasses: 1. A formal study of formlings aimed at identifying the natural model from which they derive; 2. An analysis of the painted contexts and associations in which these motifs are found; and, 3. An analysis of the San symbolic system and relevant beliefs, rituals and myths1.


Other Khoekhoe-speaking groups also share some of the San beliefs, myths and rituals

5 This approach is informed by Alison Wylie’s (1989, drawn from Bernstein 1983) distinction between chain-like and cable-like arguments in scientific reasoning. A chain-like argument works from observation, proceeds to generalisations and subsequently interpretations. This concatenate process moves, link-by-link, towards a conclusion. Its weakness, however, is that when one link fails, the entire argument does not stand. A cable-like argument, on the other hand, works with discrete strands of evidence, intertwining them in a similar way to the strands in a cable. Being distinct strands, each one may lead independently to a unified conclusion. The reinforcing nature of the separate strands gives confidence to the conclusions that are drawn in this way. The advantage of this type of argumentation is that when one strand breaks, the argument will stand if other strands can be shown to cover the gap. My thesis, therefore, uses a cable-like argument that intertwines a formal analysis of formlings and trees from a natural history perspective, their painted contexts and San ethnography as three strands that reveal the symbolic significance of these images. Plausible insights from previous studies are important to my interpretations. I weave these allied strands of evidence to argue for a unified symbolism of formlings and botanical motifs. As a prelude to my thesis I present a complex panel illustrated in Appendix 1 Figure 1.1. This panel exhibits many fundamental features useful in explaining formlings and trees. I draw attention to the repeated association of formlings and botanical motifs. Their co-existence is crucial to understanding these motifs. Two indeterminate tree species are painted on the left side of the formling while another plant form grows on its right edge. Additional features include large antelope (mainly kudu cows) superimposed on the formling. Above the formling

6 there is a large fantastic animal (‘rain creature’) that has exudations from its snout. I discuss these features in detail later as I adduce similar painted contexts that reinforce the symbolic significance of these associations.

Distribution of formlings and trees

Although formlings occur throughout Zimbabwe and are estimated to number several thousands (Garlake 1990: 17), many of the most detailed examples are found in Matopo (Walker 1996: 32, 60). They have also been found less frequently as far afield as the northern parts of South Africa (Fig. 3; Hampson et al. 2002) and the Brandberg in Namibia (Mason 1958: 357-368; Lenssen-Erz & Erz 2000). Henri Breuil (1944: 4) claimed that formlings occur in the Eastern Free State of South Africa although he did not illustrate any examples. He might have been referring to the Khoekhoe herder geometric motifs, some of which were copied by George Stow (Stow & D.F. Bleek 1930: plates 25, 43; see new research on these motifs by Benjamin Smith & Sven Ouzman, in press). Numerous sites are now known in the Free State, but no formlings have yet been reported. The validity of Breuil’s claim is, therefore, doubtful. Inasmuch as formlings have been a major focus of attention, botanical motifs have equally fascinated rock art researchers. Tree motifs are common in Zimbabwe, but they constitute a small percentage of the subject matter (Breuil 1944: 4; Garlake 1987d: 60). While it has been claimed that south of “Southern Rhodesia [Zimbabwe] …we do not find paintings of trees” (Goodwin 1946: 16), I have recorded three motifs in northern South Africa (see also Van Riet Lowe 1949; Mason 1958). A few trees are also found in South African rock engravings (Friede 1953: 11; Steel 1988: 24, 27).

7 Frobenius (1929, 1931) considered trees, along with formlings, to be a defining “stylistic” feature of “northern pictures” (Zimbabwe) as opposed to “southern pictures” (South Africa, Lesotho). He compared these rock art regions thus, [O]ne very remarkable characteristic of these [Zimbabwe] styles: the artists knew how to use subjects from the vegetable kingdom. This is one of the features that completely separate them from the other African and European examples. In European [P]alaeolithic art, the plant is as good as non-existent (Frobenius 1929: 335).

Fig. 1. Trees or mushrooms atop a formling with crenellations and associated with oval flecks (redrawn from Garlake 1995)


Map 1. The granite belt of Zimbabwe and rock art concentrations (adapted from Garlake 1995)

Frobenius (1931: 338) also wrote, â€œâ€Śin the northern pictures the representation of trees and plants is almost as frequent and varied as that of animals in the southern ones.â€? Current research shows this remark to be an exaggeration, but the co-occurrence of formlings and tree or plant motifs is real. Trees and formlings occur in exactly the same restricted painting zones. As well as Zimbabwe there is a similar pattern of their co-existence in the Brandberg (see

9 Pager 1989; Lenssen-Erz & Erz 2000). Although botanical motifs are generally scarce in southern African rock art (Willcox 1956: 48, 1984: 142; Woodhouse 1979; Vinnicombe 1976; Walker 1996: 32), this scarcity is not an indication of insignificance. These motifs fall within San art and are an example of regionality in that art. Most can be explained within the context of San beliefs or at least regional variants thereof. I begin my discussion by defining these motifs, particularly, formlings, and specifying their formal constituents.

Fig. 2. A tree, an infibulated man, a circular motif enclosing fish and flecks and a woman kneeling on outlines of formling caps (redrawn from Frobenius 1963)


Definition of trees and formlings

Although often schematised, tree and plant motifs are immediately recognisable because of their diagnostic features (Figs 5, 6, 15, 17-20, 26). This quality has, unfortunately, led to earlier assumptions that their meaning is equally selfexplanatory. By contrast, formlings depict their subject matter in a less straightforward manner. Even the term ‘formling’ itself is not self-explanatory. The original term ‘formlinge’ coined by Frobenius (1931) is not a German word, but a nominalisation of the English word ‘form’ using regular German grammar (Lenssen-Erz, pers. comm.). While ‘form’ is abstract, the suffix ‘-ling(e)’ means a thing or object with a ‘form’ or ‘shape’ that is difficult to specify. Frobenius (1931) used this term to describe a specific range of ‘composite motifs’, which are difficult to define as a result of their complexity and diversity. The lack of a proper definition has inhibited the interpretation of formlings. In defining formlings I will focus on their characteristic shapes and embellishments in order to clarify definitive variables that qualify an image for inclusion in this category. Diversity is a feature of formlings, but there is unity and constancy in the recurrence of their basic formal elements. I group their variations under two headings: •



Shape and decoration are essential defining variables that can enable the identification of depicted subject matter in rock art. As Christopher Chippindale (in press) points out, the shape is primary among several observable characteristics, such as size, colour and orientation in depictions. Although the

11 distinctive shapes of subjects render them recognisable, it is the knowledge of the rules of depiction within a particular cultural setting that help in discerning these shapes. By decoration I mean the features that embellish formling shapes.

Formling shapes Formlings are varied, but they fall within a limited range of shapes (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.2). It is not difficult to identify them because their basic forms are consistent (Garlake 1995: 92). Although some motifs carry most or all of the basic defining features, these are differently represented, in ways that I discuss, in different examples. This inequality is either because of poor preservation or omission at the time of painting. The list below contains the most commonly observed shapes and features.

1. Overall shape of formlings In their diversity, formlings range from circular or spherical to ovoid and sometimes oblong shapes (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.2). As a result of fading, most motifs today can only be inferred from the arrangement of their features to have conformed to these basic forms. Because of these shapes and the tendency towards symmetry in most motifs, formlings have also been seen as abstract geometric motifs (Garlake 1995: 91, 93). Although not all formlings carry outlines, these basic shapes, distinct and distinctive, are often defined by outlines.


2. Outlines of formlings Formlings are often defined by an outline. It is usually a single line although occasionally multiple lines were drawn (Fig. 21). These perimeter lines enclose the typical features of formlings. In some motifs outlines have disappeared or they were never painted at all. But their distinctive internal features remain in positions that give an idea of how the outline would have looked around them. That is, the arrangement of the cores is in a similar manner to the way they are usually curved or tucked to fit into the spaces defined by the outlines in better preserved motifs. It is however difficult to ascertain whether or not outlines, in cases where they are invisible, were executed in fugitive pigments, which have now faded. 3. Formling cores Discrete cores (Fig. 4, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.2) are the basic internal ‘building blocks’ of formlings. These have been likened to anything ranging from ‘sausages’ (Cooke 1964c: 5) to ‘cigars’ (Holm 1957). They are sometimes painted in different sizes and colours. Although cores are usually ovoid-shaped, they may be closer to oblong or elliptical shapes, and depending on type, with their longitudinal sides running nearly parallel (Figs 4, 9-13, Plate 3, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1). Because of this, and that the extremities of most cores are faded, some writers describe cores as rectangular in shape (Garlake 1995: 92). Rather than subsume various core types under ‘ovoid’ or ‘oval’, I refer to them as ‘formling cores’ or ‘cores’ in order to avoid confusion when they assume shapes that are not oval. Cores rarely occur singularly, but are found in groups. A single formling can carry as many as ten cores. A few have even more. Cores are

13 executed as sets, placed in a line vertically, side-by-side, or stacked horizontally, one above the other. By definition, therefore, a formling necessarily comprises stacks or sets of cores. Indeed, as Goodall (1959: 62) stated, Frobenius coined this term to “denote this composite type of forms.” Therefore, a single core cannot be called a formling; it is only a constituent part or unit of the formling motif in isolation. I use the term ‘formling’ in the manner originally intended to refer to a specific category of corebased composite motifs. 4. Interstices between formling cores Sets or stacks of formling cores are often separated by narrow spaces (Walker 1996: 32) that I term interstices. There is an attempt to keep cores as distinct units, although in some regional variants they appear to be contiguous or meshed together to give an appearance of a single block of pigment, such as the motif at Haarkdoorendraai site in northern South Africa (Mason 1958). As these interstices are usually very narrow, the merging of cores may occur as a result of fading over time thereby blurring their edges and their pigments washing into each other. Yet in some motifs, the bases of the cores are clearly merged, without interstices (Fig. 3), but they become distinct as they rise to the top giving an appearance of intestinal villi (or villiform shapes).

Formling decorations Formlings tend to be embellished in particular manners. Their consistent decorations are evidence that they form a distinct category. Not all formlings

14 carry all of the possible decorative features, but there are some decorations, such as microdots, that are extremely common. 5. Orifices on outlines of formlings The outlines that enclose formling cores sometimes have a single orifice or opening (Figs 1, 9-12, Plate 7) that projects outwards. These features are distinctive and in some motifs they are protrusive in the manner of a nozzle or the spout of a teapot (Fig. 13). This feature is found in more elaborately painted and better preserved formlings. 6. Crenellations Well-preserved formlings are sometimes decorated with triangular or linear spiked crenellations on the outer outline edges (Figs 1, 10-12, Plates 6, 7; also Garlake 1987d: 52, 1990: 17, 1995: figs 33, 102, 103, plate XXIII). In Figure 3, these crenellations occur on the tops of some cores while some of them grow from the base of the formling. From the peripheral portions of formlings into their bodies other characteristic features are identifiable. 7. Microdots on formlings Formlings are commonly depicted with decoration throughout their cores in the interior. This decoration comprises gridded lines of regularly spaced microdots (Figs 9, 11-13, 21, Plates 3, 7, 8; also colour plates XXI, XXIII in Garlake 1995). Microdots tend to be standardized in size and are often painted in white. Sometimes they appear in dark red as well, particularly where the background cores are of a lighter shade of red (or white). Perhaps white microdots were

15 meant to contrast with the red background of the cores. White colour may not be a definitive variable for microdots. Microdots are a common feature in formling contexts. In South Africa, however, they are found with a range of images, such as the ‘thin red line’ motif (LewisWilliams 1981b; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1999; Lewis-Williams et al. 2000), therianthropes, human figures, trance buck, animals, and also some types of geometrics (Dowson 1989). Another related feature, often confused with microdots, is flecks (short dashes). 8. Fields of flecks Flecks found in formling contexts are of two different kinds. While they vary in shape, the usual form is based on short slashes or strokes of pigment. By comparison with microdots, these are irregularly placed on formlings, usually covering wider areas that are not confined within the cores. The other kind is oval-shaped (Figs 1, 4, 9, 13, 15, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1), often clustering on parts of or around the edges of formlings. This fleck type is occasionally executed as trident motifs (Plate 7) or winged forms (Figs 9, 13, 15). I consider this type of fleck motif in Chapters Five and Six. Ordinary flecks are not restricted to the formling contexts, but also occur with a range of other subjects, including trees and plants (Fig. 15). Although ovalshaped flecks, ordinary flecks and microdots are allied in formling contexts, I argue that they connote different phenomena. Flecks and microdots found in these contexts have not been defined clearly, as many writers tend to group them in one category.


9. Caps on formling cores Formling cores often have the appearance of domical or rounded extremities because of the caps on one or both of their ends (Figs 9, 11, 12). Garlake (1987b: 23) describes them as comprising “dark rectangular core[s]” “with white semicircular caps at both ends.” Sometimes these caps appear in the same monochromatic colour as the rest of the cores. Occasional rectangular shapes result from the fading of these caps, which are usually depicted in lighter fugitive pigments, contrasted with their nearly parallel-sided middle sections. Caps are also repeated as a series of domed or rounded tops (Plates 3, 3a, Fig. 3, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1; see Garlake 1995 for what he interprets as cusps of ovals) that are placed atop of some formlings. This feature is an extended or exaggerated version of the caps on formling cores. Variations exist in the shape and decoration of formlings. Figure 3 is a formling from the Northern Province of South Africa. Its vertical cores merge into one another from the base to the middle and then divide at the top to form irregular, villiform shapes. A few similar motifs have been found in parts of Zimbabwe (Garlake 1992: 534, 1995: fig. 127) and also in the Brandberg (Pager 2000: Naib 5 plate 1 fix A 13). On some of these villiform shaped cores in Figure 3 there are small crenellations (tapering linear spikes and on others taking the form of conical appendages) growing on the edges. These features also appear at the base of this formling. Such variations are common in San rock art; animals, for example, are painted differently in different areas although the defining characteristics remain visible. The consistency of the formling characteristics and their contexts in different regions could suggest spatial and temporal continuities in the associations these motifs had for the artists in the southern Africa.

17 Other variables

Colour and size are less useful in the analysis of a subject such as formlings. In San depictions these variables are often less naturalistic and hence are difficult to use in defining subject matter. While microdots on formling cores are usually painted in white (Garlake 1987d: 23), this may be because the artists contrasted them with the commonly darker (red) cores over which they are painted. I treat colour and size as secondary in my analysis of formlings. The significance of colour could be introduced in a secondary phase of analysis to consider broader issues of San colour symbolism. Some writers have stated that colour seems to have carried no significance in San art (Garlake 1987d: 10). This seeming insignificance of colour may, however, be due to our lack of knowledge of why colouring choices in depictions were made in San art. Similarly, scale differences in depicted subjects might be an artistic device to focus attention on points of meaning rather defining them. Significant elements might be emphasised by making them very large or very small. The previous superficial attention given to basic morphological features of formlings coupled with inadequate definitions has made it difficult for us to understand such variations within these motifs. From the consideration of the difficulties introduced by the lack of proper definition of formlings, I now turn to problems in the history of southern African rock art research as whole. I consider, first, at a general level, rock art studies in Matopo and Zimbabwe within the wider southern African research context. Secondly, I focus specifically on the interpretations of formlings and tree motifs.


Research prior to the 1980s Rock art studies in Zimbabwe prior to the 1980s belong to a phase in southern Africa that has been referred to as ‘gaze-and-guess’ (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1999: vi). The explanations (Lewis-Williams 1985: 51) of this period were largely aesthetic and narrative in nature. Many writers believed that the art was a direct response of the San artistic desire or what Miles Burkitt (1928: 110) called “an innate artistic tendency” to recreate objects or things they saw in nature. In this view, San artists were motivated by a wish to paint for the pleasure of it (Cooke 1969: 25-27, 148-150). Researchers also believed that images merely constituted literal and anecdotal documents of reality, or were direct and simple depictions of material phenomena (Goodall 1959; Cooke 1969: 150; Willcox 1963, 1984; Lee & Woodhouse 1970; Woodhouse 1979). Writers did not expect San art to be structured and to contain elusive obliqueness in meaning or to carry any further metaphoric allusions beyond the obvious. Views in this early paradigm hinged on a flawed supposition that meaning in San motifs would be self-evident to anyone,









preconceptions (largely Eurocentric) guided their reading of subject matter. Many writers focused on the obvious motifs, often defined in terms of hunting, archery, fighting, weapons, dancing, domestic scenes, and so forth (Cooke 1964b, 1969; Willcox 1978). Hence, they looked for “straightforward, simple, explicit and general observations” (Lewis-Williams 1990b: 64). Along with this interest was the making of inventories, which were largely subjective, concerning subject matter and categories of San depictions (e.g., Cooke 1964c; Lee & Woodhouse 1971). This approach gave precedence to subjects (e.g., humans, kudu, giraffe, birds, bow and arrow, flutes, etc.) and, therefore, stifled, albeit unconsciously, the

19 search for meaning beyond the ordinary or identifiable subjects. Few even recognised the importance of analysing the painted contexts in which these identifiable subjects occurred. Since these studies made little attempt to go beyond simple identification of subjects, meaning ended with descriptions of pictorial ‘themes’ and ‘scenes’, themselves defined in ways that are no longer acceptable. The recycling of the same sites further exacerbated the cursory nature of these studies. This practice did not permit exploration of ‘new’ imagery and novel ways of appraising more complex panels. Among current writers, Garlake has been criticised for this practice. David Erwee (1999: 57) notes that Garlake bases his work “primarily on larger sites of Mashonaland, but in doing so he has tended to select only the biggest and best.” The implications of such practices are clear and disconcerting. Complexities of San art were deliberately omitted because they did not fit the perceptions the writers had about the San. Two panels (Fig. 4, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1) from one site in Matopo can be used to illustrate this debilitating practice. Writers have used repeatedly the less complex Figure 4 to infer apiary activities in San art. The nearby panel, (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1), which, as we shall see later, exhibits greater complexity, with trees and a plant, antelopes and a grotesque creature, and thereby carrying an enormous potential for the interpretation of formlings has always been completely ignored. Figure 4 was recently argued to depict two human figures dipping arrows of potency into flecks (Garlake 1995: 155). No evidence is adduced to support this inference and whether or not it is based on San beliefs. While San beliefs about ‘arrows of potency’ are numerous there is no mention of their use in this manner. Without a direct tie to San ethnography this, seemingly more plausible, view

20 caries many of the same methodological flaws as the older explanations. This pattern of selectivity by researchers is not unusual. Writers concentrated on the simple and apparently straightforward panels because they appeared more amenable to the kinds of superficial inferences produced within the ‘gaze-andguess’ paradigm. Inevitably, the outsider’s view failed to penetrate the true subtlety and complexity of San art. Richard Hall (1912) wrote the first description of paintings in Matopo. He started research on San art following strong criticism from the academic community of his racist theories on Great Zimbabwe (Garlake 1992). That it was Hall, after a demeaning experience in the contested studies of Zimbabwe Ruins, who wrote the first description of these paintings betrays the perceptions of the San, their culture and rock art prevalent at the time. The ‘primitive’ stereotype of the San as child-like, simple-minded savages was widespread. The San were said to be amongst the most primitive of cultures upon earth. Breuil (1955: 14-15) made explicit denigrating statements to that effect. This colonialist, racist stereotyping of the San was carried even into later writings (e.g., Willcox 1956; Pearse 1973). Because the San were relegated to evolutionary infancy, their ethnography was seen as not worthy of detailed analysis. The lack of interest in San ethnography was also deeply rooted in the archaeological discipline as well. Lewis-Williams (1983: 3) contends that such prejudicial views were implicit even in disciplinary attitudes in the 1970s and 1980s, hence the emphasis on San subsistence practices rather than on their rituals, belief and symbolic systems. This view explains why San rock art studies have long occupied the periphery of the mainstream archaeology (ibid.: 3). Because of the perceived unscientific status of rock art, it was generally considered a leisure-type and not a professional-type

21 study; rigour was not essential. Anyone could make unsubstantiated inferences about the art with impunity. Therefore, in the early years of Zimbabwean archaeology, rock art studies provided solace for Hall, since it was conceived as uncontroversial in either the scientific-academic or the political discourses. It is unsurprising then that Hall’s writings, and indeed those of many of his contemporaries, although they pioneered the field and stirred interest in the subject, were largely descriptive, literal and often derogatory. The marginality of rock art was still apparent in later studies. Burkitt (1928), the renowned Cambridge prehistorian, adopted a more empiricist position in his study of rock art in Zimbabwe and South Africa. He set out a view of San art as little more than wallpaper, “something intensely personal and, as it were, extra and not essentially necessary to the business of living” (Burkitt 1928: 110). Yet, in remarking that rock art was “one of the most fascinating branches of prehistoric study”, he conceded the point that it is an archaeological concern. He envisaged value in studying sequence and chronology in rock art. In his view, such studies could be conducted in a similar manner to the stratigraphical and typological seriation of stone tool industries (Burkitt 1928: 111). The idea of sequencing rock art in its various forms grew from these views and has remained a strong component in Zimbabwean rock art studies (Armstrong 1931; Cooke 1963, 1969; Walker 1987, 1994). Even in South Africa, Burkitt’s influence lasted a long time. Breuil (who was Burkitt’s mentor and friend, Garlake 1992), and Van Riet Lowe had a similar persuasion. Their view was that an understanding of San rock art would only result from the most careful study of superpositions and regional distributions of colour and styles. Concluding his analysis of Pelzer Rust in South Africa, Van Riet Lowe (1932, in a letter of 22 February to D.F. Bleek, RARI Archives) further suggested that it could be said with certainty that from the

22 Zambezi to the Cape, yellow is older than red and that yellow was first used by a Middle Stone Age cultures while red was first used by early Later Stone Age people. This shows how far southern African writers were willing to advocate the broad sweep of Burkitt’s ideas of sequencing rock art colours/pigments in the region. In spite of the overwhelming influence European scholars had in southern African archaeology, some writers remained cautious of the validity of colour and ‘stylistic’ schemes. As D.F. Bleek stated, “I have seen so many caves full of paintings and watched their sequence without finding any definite order that I am a bit sceptical of Abbé Breuil and Burkitt” (D.F. Bleek in a letter of 09/02/1932 to Van Riet Lowe, RARI Archives). In accord, Garlake (1995) rightly stresses that such studies have not, as yet, been productive in interpreting San rock art. While southern African researchers now generally eschew studies of colour schemes and ‘stylistic’ sequences (Lorblanchet & Bahn 1993), some have been more successful in other regions (Chippindale & Taçon 1993). Although southern African research now employs new ideas of sequencing rock art stratigraphy (Loubser 1993; Mguni 1997; Russell 2000; Pearce 2000), problems have been encountered in tying in these ideas with interpretation of San art. Following Burkitt, from 1928 until the early 1930s, Frobenius made comparative studies of rock art in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia. He considered the art in Zimbabwe to be “static” in contrast to the South African “style of motion”. In this view, formlings and plant motifs were static landscapes. Employing an interpretative component that drew on ethnological studies his approach was more rigorous than most contemporary studies. Frobenius believed that some of the art could be linked to local Shona folklore and mythology in spite of the fact

23 that Margaret Taylor (1927) had earlier cautioned against the usefulness of various myths that were prevalent in Mashonaland. Taylor (1927: 1058) discounted the possibility of there being any connection between the art and Shona myths. Nevertheless, Frobenius proceeded to argue that the static landscapes of trees and formlings carried funerary symbolism based on Shone legends. He also defined the “Wedge Style” figures common in Zimbabwean art as associated with formlings. Frobenius (1929, 1931) argued that these figures indicated ancient exotic influences from “Mediterranean Phoenician higher civilisations” in the rock art of southern African. Contemporaneous with Frobenius’s studies was Breuil’s work on southern African rock art. Drawing largely on earlier studies (Balfour 1909; Obermaier & Kühn 1930), Breuil perceived San rock art as motivated largely by ‘sympathetic magic’ and ‘art pour l’art’. In the former view, rock art was said to be a product of rituals associated with hunting magic while the latter view was that it was done for the pleasure of the artist and his contemporaries. Although these ideas lingered until the 1970s, other writers refuted them right from their inception (Stow & D.F. Bleek 1930: xxiv). Breuil (1948, 1952) also corroborated Frobenius’s views on exotic influences of Egyptian and Cretan origin in San art. Although these studies publicised San art, they took us no nearer to its meaning; rather they seemed to lead us ever further from it. Many later writers were, however, inspired by, and in some ways extended, these early views. In the 1950s and 1960s Lionel Cripps (1941), Elizabeth Goodall (1959) and Cranmer Cooke (1959, 1969) recycled and further propagated the narrative landscape and funerary readings of San art. Some writings entrenched the aesthetic view (Willcox 1956). The tenacity of these far-fetched and subjective

24 explanations lasted until the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed into the 1990s (Willcox 1982, 1984, 1990; Lee & Woodhouse 1970; Woodhouse, pers. comm.). As some writers have rightly argued (Vinnicombe 1967, 1972a: 132; Maggs 1967; LewisWilliams 1972: 60-64, 1985: 50) these views were completely out of keeping with San imagery and ethnography, which has now allowed more profound understandings of San art. The tenacity of superficial views on San art probably stemmed from the absence of a sustainable interpretative theoretical framework. Although some early writers occasionally stated that San art was symbolic (Frobenius 1931) and not simply decorative (Cripps 1941: 345), their interpretations remained superficial and largely narrative. This tendency of alternating between acknowledging the symbolic nature of San art and explaining it simplistically persists today. One problem is that, as Chippindale (in press) points out, there is “no collected frame of thinking and working archaeologically with the images.� This assessment that rock art lacks an accepted methodology is true, but some regions have established their own methods of study as applicable to those regions. World rock arts are not only spatially separated, but are also temporally diverse. Equally, they derive from diverse social and cultural contexts and have endured varied taphonomic circumstances. Hence, a unified approach to their study might not be possible. Specific approaches in those areas for which they are developed seem to hold out most potential.

Fig. 3. Formling with villiform-shaped cores that are merged at the base and split towards the top from a site from the Northern Province of South Africa (overleaf)


Interpretations of formlings

The early studies of southern African San rock art concealed productive avenues towards the meaning of this art. Writers sought explanations from their own preconceived and prejudiced ideas about this art and the artists’ culture. Art motifs were perceived literally and meaning seen in narrative terms. The fatality of lacking proper understanding of San artistic conventions and knowledge of their culture can be demonstrated by early views about formlings, to which I now turn.


The first landscape suggestion was by Hall (1912: 595) who said one formling from Matopo (Plate 3) depicted Victoria Falls. He claimed that it showed “streams of white water falling over red cliffs, the sides of the Devil’s cauldron, and a pillar of spray rising from the foot of the falls to two feet higher than the top, and blowing off the west.” This view shows a writer’s fantasy without any basis. The comment, however, captivated research interest on the subject, but it was not until the 1920s that more detailed research on formlings was initiated. Coining the term ‘formling’ in the 1920s Frobenius (1929: 333) interpreted this new image category as depictions of the granite castle-kopje scenery of Zimbabwe. He regarded “subjects from the vegetable kingdom” found with formlings as evidence for complete landscapes. Breuil (1944: 4) countenanced the idea of formlings having “a topographical origin—granite hills and rocks.” Calling them “ellipsoids”, he designated them “topographical designs” (Breuil

27 1966: 115, 116, 119). While arguing that some formlings departed from naturalistic figuration, Revil Mason (1958: 363) endorsed these views that some motifs are “more readily identified as such.” The landscape interpretation prevailed as dogma in many later writings (Goodall 1959: 41, 60-66; Cooke 1959, 1969; Lee & Woodhouse 1970: 140-142). Some writers, however, maintained that San art showed “little interest in depicting plant life and almost none in scenery” (Willcox 1984: 255). Perhaps the reputation of Frobenius and Breuil had a bearing on the perpetuation of their views. In Garlake’s (1992: 15) words, Breuil’s work in Zimbabwe is a “sad and cautionary tale of the results of fame, of decades of unchallenged authority”. Even within the new understanding that physical features of rock shelters were significant in San cosmology (Deacon 1988) as contact zones between the natural and the spirit realms (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990; Lewis-Williams 1998b: 199), the previous view of formlings as depicting rocks is untenable. Their features and embellishments are inexplicable in terms of rocks or boulders.

The “Kings’ monuments”

A few early explanations went a little beyond simplistic assertions and allowed a symbolic element in the art. Frobenius (1931) considered that formlings were symbolic and that ethnological studies would aid their interpretation. But, he mistakenly associated the art with burials that he found within painted shelters. Designating these places the “king’s monuments”, he argued that formlings decorated the ancient tombs of dead kings or chiefs. He suggested that the kneeling or recumbent human figures (his ‘Wedge Style’ figures) associated

28 frequently with formlings represented kings, which he termed the “pietas”. Frobenius (1931: 28) concluded that these depicted the exequies or burial rites of the dead royals. Later, in the 1950s, Goodall (1959: 98, 100-101) followed Frobenius, her mentor, and interpreted some panels as depicting “ceremonies for the dead”. Cripps (1941: 35) also employed this explanation when he suggested that this art was a kind of memorabilia for the artists’ “leaders and great men and brave men.” The linking of formlings and funerary rites in Frobenius’s interpretation was inherently flawed. The burials in question are Iron Age in date and, therefore, were not contemporary with the bulk of the paintings. Even if some art was made during the Iron Age, the painters were San (Walker 1996: 64) and not Shona (Garlake 1992: 58). Frobenius’s use of Shona myths to interpret the art is thus a red herring. Taylor (1927) saw this incompatibility very early. Whereas Frobenius acknowledged a symbolic meaning in San rock art (Frobenius 1931), his explanations were little more than a recital of local funerary myths with paintings as illustrations or records of those events. He did not elucidate the symbolism that he claimed to perceive, and, therefore, his inferences still bordered on a narrative view of the art.

Material representations

Subsequent writers interpreted formlings in terms of other cultural and natural phenomena. Formlings were read as: grain bins (Holm 1957: 69), cornfields, quivers, mats, xylophones (Cooke 1959: 145, 1969: 42), mud huts and a stockaded village being set on fire (Rudner & Rudner 1970: 86, 87). In the 1940s Goodwin

29 (1946: 17) suggested that certain formlings in Makumbe (northern Zimbabwe) were a “painting of skins sewn together to form a hanging kaross.” The same paintings were later inferred by Breuil (1966: 115, 116) to symbolise pools of water or rain clouds; the associated flecks were said to indicate rain or water. Yet, other formlings were seen as thunderclouds (Rudner & Rudner 1970: 87) or, specifically, strato-cumulus clouds (Lee & Woodhouse 1970). Other researchers admitted to being puzzled by formlings and some to being content with “whatever conclusion the imagination leads the observer” (Cooke 1969: 42). More than 30 years after Cooke’s remark, this unfortunate view has resurfaced in a new publication on the art in Matopo (Parry 2000). It is understandable, for the reasons already stated, that Cooke in the 1960s would have entertained such a pessimistic view. It is astonishing to hear such a view voiced again today. Elspeth Parry allows equal weight to any interpretation. By implication, if Matopo San art is open to any interpretation, then its meaning is, for certain, unknowable. This relativist view ignores the corpus of knowledge on San art that we have gained over the last 20 years. While all agree that many elements in San art are far from fully understood, the idea that ‘anything goes’ in San art interpretation is now utterly unacceptable.


In addition to explanations of formlings as cultural and natural objects, certain writers saw them as depicting apiculture. Cooke (1959: 146) suggested that a stack of vertical ovals in the formling at Bambata Cave, in Matopo, depicted a beehive. He later wrote, “peculiar sausage-like articles in trees may represent bark beehives, whilst dots coming out of holes may be bees” (Cooke 1964c: 5).

30 Writers in South Africa took this view further and provided more plausible examples of beehives or honeycombs from the Drakensberg (Pager 1971: 349-352) as well as prehistoric apiary practices (Guy 1972: figs 2, 3).

Fig. 4. Three people with equipment, oval flecks and two animals juxtaposed with a formling (Matopo)

Harald Pager (1971, 1973) identified apiary practices in rock art from Zimbabwe, South Africa and as far afield as Spain. He argued that out of a large sample from his Drakensberg study area, 76 paintings showed “various aspects of Bushman honey-gathering activities� (Pager 1973: 61) several of which depicted bee swarms, nests and honey gatherers using ladders. The flecks or dots associated with formlings were then argued to be bees (Pager 1973: figs 1, 4, 7; see also Fig. 4, Plate 7). This interpretation became entrenched in later writings (Crane 1982: 22-25; Huffman 1983: 51; Woodhouse 1994: 98-99; Gould & Gould 1995). The

31 apiary view is indeed plausible, especially in the Drakensberg, because the imagery explained in this light exhibits close correspondence with bees’ nests and honeycombs. As Lewis-Williams (1983: 6) points out for specific motifs in the Drakensberg, this view, by contrast to earlier views, “has shown convincingly that they depict hives or nests of bees.” Some of these motifs carry features that closely resemble typical formlings in Matopo. But, this insight was “nonetheless still no more than description or re-description” (ibid.: 6). As my study shows, the meaning of these motifs is deeper than simple depictions of apiculture or bees’ nests and honeycombs. San art transcends simple narratives and is rich in symbolism and metaphor. From this understanding, bees are recognised as a polysemic symbol evoking various meanings (Lewis-Williams 1981a: 8), some of which are neuropsychologically derived (see Lewis-Williams 1997: 817-821).

Early ideas on tree and plant motifs

Despite early reports about trees and plants in southern African San art (Hall 1912: 594; Stow & D.F. Bleek 1930: plate 51; Frobenius 1931; Van der Riet & D.F. Bleek 1940: plate 24; Van Riet Lowe 1949: 37), they have remained largely unexplained. In as much as the imagery of bees and human figures collecting honey from their nests cannot be taken prima facie as a record of apiary practices, botanical motifs similarly need to be explained beyond literalism. Even images of hunters pursuing prey are not simple depictions of actual hunting events, as earlier writers supposed. These paintings are structured on a deeper level and contain complex symbolic messages. The early writings of Hall (1912: 594) described trees and plant motifs in Matopo in the light of a fantasyland. Later, in

32 a similar fashion, Breuil (1966: 24) considered these motifs to be depictions of a “sort of earthly paradise in a ‘Promised Land’” unrelated to local vegetation. Frobenius was one of the early researchers to proffer far-fetched explanations of botanical subjects in San rock art. In northern Zimbabwe there is a panel depicting a bulb with four roots at the base. Above it is a short trunk furcating into several branches supporting an umbrella tree crown. Identifying this motif as a msasa tree growing from an anthill, Frobenius (1929: 335) argued that it represented a species used as a source of tannins for preparing funerary skins and oils for embalming corpses of kings before burial (Frobenius 1931: 338). San ethnography contains no allusion to such practices and this inference falls away with the collapse of the funerary explanation. Later, Eric Holm (1957: 68) remarked that, “There is ample proof of the importance of vegetative associations in Rhodesian paintings…” He described a formling (mistaken for a plant), with six vertical oval shapes and human forms, as “succulents rather than rocks” (ibid.: 68). A tree is depicted immediately to the left of this image, but it is improbable that this formling represents a plant as Holm supposed. Some speculated later that tree motifs laden with fruit in the Brandberg suggested fertility (Mason 1958: 364). As with all other contemporary views there was no ethnographic basis for this assertion. Writing much later, Cooke (1971: 19) said tree motifs represented medicinal herbal plants of importance to the artists. This view is narrative and it is based on the same flawed premise that eland paintings represented an economical source of protein or “the favourite animal on the Bushman menu” (Lee & Woodhouse 1970: 27). Cooke (1971: 19) suggested that a panel (Fig. 23) with two therianthropes and a tree indicated “tree worship”. San ethnography does not

33 support this assertion. Such views are no longer tenable, as it is now clear that San art is deeply symbolic and inextricably interwoven with San religious beliefs and subtle cosmological concepts.

Fig. 5. A typical tree motif depicting branch forms, trunk but without roots, possibly faded (Matopo)

Other writers interpreted botanical motifs differently. Patricia Vinnicombe (1976: 280) recognised the possibility of there being “great religious significance� for trees and plants in the art. Van Riet Lowe (1949: 37) suggested symbolic significance for a specific tree motif said to be a baobab in the Limpopo Valley. For Van Riet Lowe, this identification and symbolism derived from large pendulous breasts (recalling baobab seedpods) in the associated paintings of

34 women in this area. Later I argue that the symbolism of tree and plant motifs is embedded in San folktales, beliefs and cosmological concepts.

Fig. 6. A leafless tree and an antelope (?tsessebe/hartebeest) standing underneath (Matopo)

While the legacy of the former descriptive studies prevailed until recently, it is apparent that they did not advance our understanding of the coded symbolic meanings in San art. Apart from leading us away from the true significance of this art, major discoveries in terms of site locations, content and general distributions were made during the early phase of rock art research. Early writers also created public awareness about San art. Aside from the positive aspects of the early writings, their haphazard manner of guessing was soon to be replaced in the late 1960s, as a new generation of researchers began to seek new and objective scientific ways of studying San rock art. New approaches discredited and removed old subjective readings of San art.


Chapter Two Searching for ‘meaning’ in San rock art With the ‘gaze-and-guess’ methods of interpretation discredited, researchers began to look for new ways of reading and explaining San rock art. In order to understand and assess the changes in formling interpretations that resulted, it is necessary to examine briefly the series of methodological advances that took place in the late 1960s to the 1980s. It was in the context of these new studies that more rigorous and sensitive ways of analysing and interpreting San art emerged. One of the advantages of the greater scientific rigour was that, in the Drakensberg and Western Cape regions, there was a demonstration of patterns in the choice and combinations of painted subject matter. Eland, for example, were confirmed to be the dominant antelope species in the art and this realisation led to a closer examination of this subject. This was the foundation that led, over the years to follow, to a thorough understanding of southern African San art. More specifically for formlings, it contributed insights that have opened up new vistas of knowledge to fill in the previous lacunae in their interpretation. In the 1960s and 1970s, the humanities and social sciences sought a more objective and scientific basis (Lewis-Williams 1983, 1990b: 128). In rock art studies, Timothy Maggs (1967) and Vinnicombe (1967) began to place emphasis on greater statistical rigour and systematisation of quantitative studies. More numerical analyses of rock art were initiated in the 1970s (Smits 1971; LewisWilliams 1972; Pager 1976) and emphasis was placed on numerical databases (Pager 1971). These studies demonstrated patterns in San art from different regions and pointed to new directions in research. They also eliminated the

36 guesswork, subjectivity and unsubstantiated explanations characteristic of the preceding era and showed old assertions to be untrue. But empiricism, as these scientific studies are called, introduced a set of problems that had to be dealt with in order to penetrate the true symbolic meaning of San rock art. In the spirit of empiricism, such aspects of culture as symbolism were generally considered to be epiphenomena (Lewis-Williams 1983: 4). As some have stated, symbolism, ritual and belief were seen as secondarily derived aspects of human culture and therefore analytically irrelevant to the concerns of archaeology (Whitley 1998: 3-5). Active concerns then were subsistence strategies, seasonal mobility (see Lewis-Williams’s 1984: 225 comment; Dowson 1993), settlement and economy. Human adaptation was thought to be explicable in terms of responses to external environmental stimuli. Human agency and cognition (and cultural decisions) were, by and large, overlooked as causal factors in the changes discernible in the archaeological record. Despite archaeologists’ obsession with settlement and economy, the 1970s saw a gradual change of earlier negative attitudes towards San art. A paradigmatic shift towards postprocessual studies paved the way for a deeper appreciation of human cognition and the symbolic nature of San rock art. Post-processualism encompasses interpretation-based archaeological practice that eschews generalizations in favour of historical particularistic approaches (Shanks & Hodder 1998: 70). In the same vein, Lewis-Williams (1992: 7) argues that in order to understand the meanings of San art, we need to “move from quantitative generalisations that sum up the art in many sites to a more particularist position” that considers panels in their own right. Some writers now argue that cognitive processes are integral to human adaptation (Flannery & Marcus 1996). Lewis-Williams (1984) adds that rock art, previously seen as an obscure source of ideological data, is

37 crucial in reconstructing prehistoric ideology. It can supply “ new archaeological data” (Dowson 1993: 642). It was in view of these new understandings that focus shifted towards an exegetical, interpretative approach (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1994: 202). As Lewis-Williams (1983: 5) argues, the significance of quantification in rock art was—ultimately—“a move away from the empiricist paradigm”. Quantitative studies led to the recognition of new problems and a new theoretical orientation (ibid.: 5). Recourse to San ethnography, particularly rituals, mythology and folklore, became a means to penetrate the symbolism of San iconography (LewisWilliams 1972, 1981a; Vinnicombe 1972a, 1972b, 1976). The understanding of San rock art as being religious in nature and redolent with symbolism derived largely from two major contributions to the study in the mid 1970s. These were Vinnicombe’s People of the eland (1976), and in 1977, LewisWilliams’s doctoral thesis that culminated in the publication of Believing and seeing (1981a). It was from the latter work that the now dominant ‘shamanistic explanation’ of the Drakensberg San rock art emerged. Because of similarities in the features of San art and imagery in other geographical areas, such as Zimbabwe and the Western Cape of South Africa, interpretations under the ambit of this explanation subsequently explored and elucidated the nuances and subtleties of San art (Lewis-Williams 1983, 1984; Huffman 1983; Maggs & Sealy 1983; Yates et al. 1985; Manhire et al. 1986; Parkington 1989; Garlake 1987a, 1987b, 1987c, 1987d, 1990, 1995; Walker 1987, 1994, 1996; A. Smith 1994; Mguni 2001). These research projects offered key insights in explaining aspects of San art in wider geographical areas.

38 The demonstration of the sophistication of San art, principally informed by the San ethnographic corpora, and its deeply symbolic structure relegates, or even demolishes, any simplistic narrative explanations. In this understanding, it is apparent that formlings and trees must have multiple and complex richly nuanced symbolic meanings. As Walker (1996: 27) notes, San art “deals with symbols and concepts rather than reality”, and icons, or subject matter, are often easily identifiable (ibid.: 31). Present interpretations work within this framework and, in particular, draw upon San notions of supernatural potency. New work shows that spirit world metaphors and other San sublunary experiences are as central to Zimbabwean rock art as they are to that of South Africa. I now discuss, first, formling interpretations and then end with those of tree and plant motifs.

Post 1980s research: interpretations of formlings

With the new realisation and understanding of the symbolic essence of writers on San rock art have reinterpreted formlings in this new light. Three researchers have defined our current understanding of formlings in recent years. I now turn to review their respective arguments. I begin with Andrew Smith’s “metaphors of space” (1994) and then discuss Garlake’s “symbols of potency” (1987d, 1990, 1992, 1995). I end the discussion with Walker’s (1994, 1996) views, again dealing with San notions of supernatural potency. Metaphors of space

Andrew Smith elevates the literal landscape explanation of the art to a metaphorical level. He argues that, just as animals or other images drawn from San knowledge of hunting and foraging activities appear in their art as

39 metaphors, so would the geographical phenomena of hills, trees and water. A. Smith (1994: 378, 384) proceeds to argue that formlings were “elaborations of exploitation territories, and… metaphorical ‘maps’ of journeys made by trancers in state[s] of altered consciousness.” This interpretation draws from a complex set of San conceptual ideas on how they identify with specific localities and resources therein. These areas are known to the Ju/’hoansi as n!ore (n!oresi pl.). The concept of n!ore relates to a collection of natural resources in an area, including water, plant foods and animals, which are the mainstay of San groups in areas where the traditional foraging economy still operates. While the rights to resources are inalienable and can be inherited through generations, there is no restriction on their use by individuals from other groups. Various neighbouring n!oresi do not have strict boundaries, the exploitation ranges overlap. Some groups, like the G/wi and the !Kõ (Silberbauer 1981: 191-198), are more territorial than others. A. Smith concedes this point; territoriality depends on resource predictability (Cashdan 1983) and how group membership is defined through kinship and residence (Silberbauer 1981: 142). In formlings, A. Smith (1994: 378) concludes that, “the idea of n!ore [is] transferred from the ‘real’ or exploitative world to that of the metaphorical world of the trance.” Formlings are therefore depictions of concepts relating to geographical areas defined by n!oresi. The Ju/’hoan concept of xaro (or, hxaro, Wiessener 1977, 1982), a system of reciprocity, attenuates territoriality and allows for the sharing of resources in times of scarcity. Sharing is fundamental in San communities, as indeed it is with hunters and gatherers in many parts of the world (Hayden 1987: 83-86). Therefore, individuals can have multiple sharing or xaro partners from other n!oresi, thereby allowing for a wider access to resources beyond their own areas.

40 To substantiate this argument, A. Smith adduced a complex formling from Nanke Cave in Matopo (Plates 3, 3a). He argued that this image is reminiscent of the open-endedness and non-restrictive nature of n!oresi. In this view the various animals moving between and across boundary lines (interstices) of the constituent cores of this formling represent xaro.

Plate 3. A large and most elaborate formling hailed previously as San artists’ attempt to depict perspective (Matopo)


Plate 3a. A black and white rendition of Plate 3 (Pager copy - RARI Archives)

This panel requires closer examination. The animals in question are three giraffes and antelopes of indeterminate species in a procession facing right, painted over the cores of the formling. Below this procession is another line of three animals, one is a kudu cow with large ears and a long neck, and another is, possibly, an eland because of its pronounced dewlap. The indeterminate animal in the middle may be another kudu cow. A human figure in an oval is depicted above the kudu cow. On the top right of the formling is an eland with what may be a calf; below it is a zebra. The panel depicts also a procession of shaded polychrome eland. To the right are images of an elephant, a tsessebe, elands and human figures facing the formling. A polychrome giraffe, also on the right, gallops away from the

42 formling. Above left of the formling is a roan/sable antelope, below which are several oval flecks. Farther down from these flecks is a line of seven fish, painted in the same pigments as the oval cores of the formling (orange, red and white). They swim following the curves and convolutions of the formling outline, the edges of which have a myriad of oval-shaped dot motifs. Another panel that A. Smith uses to show the symbolic exploitation territory of the trance world is from a site called Snake Rock, in Namibia. Various animals including eland and giraffe, fabulous reticulated (giraffe markings) serpents, a crane, trees and human figures, as well as some ‘non-representational’ motifs, are enclosed in red and white formling motifs. These contexts are charged with symbols of potency. The animals associated with these motifs have special symbolic status in San religious beliefs and cosmology. The eland, giraffe, kudu and elephant are believed to possess particularly powerful potency (Marshall 1969: 351-352; Katz 1982; Biesele 1980: 58-59, 1993: 94-95; Katz et al. 1997, on K”xau’ account of a giraffe that came and “took” him). Megan Biesele (1993: 95) points out that among the Ju/’hoansi, “The figurative powers of these animals help to transcend ordinary human boundaries.” This point explains their symbolic significance and, as I argue later, they were carefully chosen from a range of possible subjects because of their special attributes. Other species in these contexts are also significant. The associated fish in the Nanke formling (also commonly painted in various contexts in the Drakensberg) are known to be sub-aquatic trance metaphors (Lewis-Williams 1988a: 8, 1988b: 142; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1999: 57; Walker 1996: 90; Ouzman 1995). They evoke the “underwater experience of trance”, the feeling of drowning: shortage of breath and altered vision and hearing (Lewis-

43 Williams 1984, 1988a: 8; Walker 1996: 70). In addition to being aquatic trance metaphors, fish, and other creatures, such as snakes (puffadder), tortoises or turtles, some of which are painted in Matopo, are said to be the Rain’s ‘things’ (D.F. Bleek 1933: 301; L.V.6. 4385 rev., in Lewis-Williams 1980: 470) or personifications of the rain divinity, !Khwa (Hewitt 1976: 91-92, 1986: 78) in San ethnography. In this understanding, Walker (1996: 72) suggests that these creatures are connected with “rain symbolism”. Among the /Xam they were avoided as food especially by girls and young bachelors (D.F. Bleek 1933: 303; L.VII.16. 7431 rev.). Painted contexts of formlings with these creatures suggest strong potency associated with the supernatural realm. In sum, A. Smith’s argument is weakened by its failure to account for many of these key aspects of the painted contexts. It also applies an idea, that of n!oresi, from San ethnography the relevance of which cannot be demonstrated in formlings and which seems out of keeping with other parts of our knowledge of San life and rock art. For example, although territoriality is argued to exist amongst some San groups, it is not as clearly defined a concept here as it is within other small-scale sedentary subsistence economies. The relevance of n!oresi and xaro to the San notions of the spirit world, as experienced in trance, is not clearly shown in this explanation. Even considering that the spirit and ordinary worlds interdigitated, there is no allusion in San ethnography that the former is subject to earthly principles of territoriality and resource ownership. Furthermore, this interpretation does not clarify how the formal attributes of formlings were derived. This lack of explanation of the morphology of formlings begs the question as to why the painters chose to represent a not-so-well defined concept, such as territoriality, by way of formling shapes. San territories are not

44 clearly marked or bounded tracts of land. Even among the more territorial groups (e.g., G/wi or the !Kõ) it is only general areas around particular landforms that serve as boundary markers (Silberbauer 1981: 193). Richard Lee (1968) noted that the Ju/’hoan territories are always blurred and it is uncertain where they begin and end. It appears that n!oresi do not actually exist as defined territories. Indeed, the term ‘territory’ itself, with its connotations, is unsuitable for the traditional San concept. Ideas of territoriality are a Western concept of demarcated land tenure systems transposed on an eminently open tenure system. Formlings comprise a category of imagery with distinctive features that are repeated in many motifs. With this point in mind it is unclear why San artists would have chosen to depict physical unbounded territories of no defined shapes in consistent forms. We also do not know how the San themselves conceive of the shapes of their n!oresi, if at all they are conceived to have any particular shapes. Walker (1996: 60) notes that in Matopo “there are no concentrations or patterns of symbols in specific areas or zones that might indicate past social divisions or boundaries.” If A. Smith’s argument is correct, then such social group divisions or boundaries must be identifiable from specific distributions of the supposed “space metaphors”. A. Smith’s explanation is commendable insofar as it transcends former literalist inferences on the art to identify, specifically, the supernatural realm as one aspect of meaning in formlings. Although he gives primacy to the experiences of trance and mentions the harnessing of power (A. Smith 1994: 377), it is Garlake’s explanation that focuses most significantly on this power (potency).

45 Abstract symbols of potency

Garlake (1987d, 1990, 1995) considers concepts that, as he argues, are beyond direct or metaphoric correspondence in the physical world. Garlake (1995: 19) sees formlings as representing “a concept, not an object, an idea or belief, not a realistic depiction of something ‘out there’ in the physical world, or, ‘in there’ in the stimulations of the central nervous system.” In his argument formlings are therefore “abstract designs” (Garlake 1990: 17). In an apparent contradiction to this view, and quoting extensively from Katz’s (1982) material on Ju/’hoan trance beliefs, Garlake writes that formlings represent some human physiological organs. Having declared that, he proceeds to say the art is “an exploration of a culturally constructed world…It is an imagery of ideas, of things believed in rather than of things seen” (ibid.: 150) and that “references to the invisible, metaphysical or supernatural pervade the art” (Garlake 1995: 166: my emphasis).

In the conclusion of The hunter’s vision (Garlake 1995: 166) these pronouncements are reversed as he claims that Zimbabwean San art was not “primarily or even predominantly concerned with trancing, trancers or ‘shamanism.’” Garlake’s reading of formlings as abstract (see Chapter Four) is understandable. Viewers who can think of no familiar iconic referents to formlings necessarily see them in abstract terms. This view, however, suggests the presence of an element (apparently from Western art) in San art the evidence for which is very slight. It is also condescending since its underlying implication is tantamount to saying that San art must, like Western art, have an abstract element for it to qualify as a high or developed art form. Earlier, Mason (1958: 363) held a similar, and in some respects Eurocentric view, when he described some formlings as “depart[ing] directly from naturalistic figuration of people, trees, or animals to

46 forms which do not appear to be based on nature” and invoked the twentieth century Western artists of abstract and cubistic art forms as a comparison. At a different level of analysis, Garlake (1990: 19) argues that formlings have a multiplicity of meanings that “need not necessarily be specific, precise or unambiguous”, although he does not explain the different connotations implied by these terms. He proceeds to say that they embody the realm of supernatural potency and represent aspects of it. Key to this argument is the Ju/’hoan concept of the gebesi (the pit of the stomach in human beings, Katz 1982: 45), which they believe is the main source of potency in the human body. In this view the iconicity of formlings and their outlines represents the abdomen and the internal organs, especially the liver and spleen (Garlake 1987d: 52-53, 1990: 19, 1995: 94, 96, 154). Within Garlake’s own analytical framework formlings are, therefore, not abstract. Formlings are thus symbols of potency, originating in attempts to represent the seat of potency, the pit of the stomach (Garlake 1995: 154). This internal contradiction in the argument shows that Garlake himself is uneasy with the idea of abstraction in San art, an issue that I address later. Trident shapes that appear to go in and out of the orifices on outlines of some formlings are argued to represent the release of active potency. Garlake does not however say what those orifices could represent in the material world or indeed if there is any allusion in the San ethnography, that he draws upon, to the release of potency through such phenomena. The associated fleck or dot motifs covering the formling cores are said to represent latent, but controlled, potency. Spiked crenellations on the outer edges of some formlings are said to depict ‘arrows of potency’ piercing or leaving a trancer’s abdomen (Garlake 1990: 19). It is unclear how this conclusion is derived. Since he sees the trident shapes in Figure 13 or

47 Plate 7 as “our convention [Western] for representing arrows”, it seems that he transposes a foreign construct on a San art convention. That said, Garlake’s argument, contrary to his claim that Zimbabwean rock art is not related to trance, is clearly shamanistic. It adduces San beliefs, metaphors and symbols concerning trance and potency. He even sees ‘trancers’ in this art (Garlake 1990: 19). In addition to associating formlings with San notions of potency, Garlake (1990: 19) further argues that an oval could be a dancer or trancer himself, full of latent potency, or even a community as a whole and that clusters of ovals may represent a community of trancers (Garlake 1995: 97). The Diana’s Vow panel, with two recumbent human figures integrated with ovals, is used to support this argument (Garlake 1987d: plate VIII). A third image used as additional evidence for this explanation from the Lake Chivero area (formerly Lake McIlwaine) is argued to be an oval that has transformed into a human being (Garlake 1987d: 52). With the Chapter One definition of formlings in mind, Garlake considers here single ovals to be sufficient in formulating explanations concerning the generality of these motifs. Single ovals, or any other core type painted singly, are not in themselves formlings, which are necessarily a ‘composite of cores’ (ovals).

One point needs mentioning in as far as the Lake Chivero image is concerned. For a nearby crocodile painting, Garlake (1995: fig. 139) points out that “its unpainted belly is reminiscent of an oval”. Another similar phenomenon is an unfinished red painting of a tsessebe shown in Garlake (1995: plate VII). A few of these hollow-bodied figures also occur in Matopo, and elsewhere in the northern parts of South Africa (Hampson et al. 2002). I contend that these images are no different from the Chivero human figure and can, similarly, be argued to be ovals that have transformed into those animals or creatures they appear to be.

48 Garlake selects only one image from a range of similar occurrences—the human figure—and makes it pertinent in explaining ovals. This selective placing of significance on one image that fits an explanation and the omission of other similar images that weaken the interpretation undermines what I henceforth refer to as the ‘gebesi explanation’. The gebesi explanation, drawing on three examples depicting human figures, omits many repeated features in the painted contexts of formlings and therefore does not cater for their richness. The contexts are more complex and diverse than this explanation allows. Formlings occur in various other associations and conflations in addition to those featuring human figures (which constitute an insubstantial number), a point that some writers have also noted. Walker (1996: 73) says that formlings frequently conflate with other objects (e.g., trees) and “exist outside people, often unassociated with humans”. The association of formlings and their conflations with trees or plants is common (Figs 1, 13, 21, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1), but it is conspicuously unaccounted for in the gebesi explanation. Although Garlake himself notes these associations (Garlake 1987d: 52, 49, 1995: 155, figs 104, 121), he does not say what they might mean. It is, therefore, unclear how these conflations of formlings and vegetal forms fit the explanation that they depict the human abdominal organs or a trancer’s stomach. Similarly, panels showing tree or plant motifs growing on outlines of formlings remain obscure in the gebesi explanation (Figs 1, 9-13, 21; also Goodall 1959: plate 8). Again, the significance of therianthropes and fantastic creatures superimposed on formlings or moving out of orifices of these motifs (Fig. 13) is not explained.

49 The gebesi explanation obscures the complexity of symbolism in formlings that is revealed in their contexts. However, as Chapter Eight shows, this explanation is substantive to my interpretation in so far as it foregrounds supernatural potency. I show that the gebesi is an expression of an idiosyncratic insight into a larger symbolic focus.

Formlings as real phenomena

Working specifically in Matopo, Walker (1987, 1994, 1996) interprets formlings in the light of San notions of potency. In contrast to Garlake, Walker (1987: 141) notes that “abstract signs are very rare” in Matopo art. Arguing that formlings and trident signs “can be interpreted in terms of real phenomena”. He views the beehive interpretation as a correct insight adding that the associated microdots might be depicting cells of bees (Walker 1996: 73) included so as to represent potency symbols. Walker (1996: 73) extends the idea of potency to other insect forms, such as, cocoons (poison grubs) or paper wasp nests, which he suggests might be a conceptual extension of the power of poison. He has also suggested that formlings might depict inanimate subjects that include cultural objects, such as: huts, ostrich egg shell containers and leather bags (Walker 1996: 11). Walker rightly concludes that, although formlings may denote entrapped or controlled power, their function [or symbolism] was varied. Walker’s studies show formlings to occur mostly in large living sites and what he calls ‘ceremonial centres’. The bigger (in size and number of ovals) and more elaborate formlings were found to occur in large well-occupied shelters (Walker 1996: 32). In these large sites, more ovals per cluster were recorded showing a

50 mean of eight-plus ovals at big sites compared to a mean of five at small living sites and about three at special work sites (Walker 1996: 73). Walker notes that giraffe and formlings are often central in these shelters, with large and complex formlings almost invariably high up on walls (Plate 3). A correlation matrix analysis showed, on the one hand, giraffe and formlings to co-vary significantly, while on the other hand, birds and plants occur together. All this, Walker argues, suggests some relationship with the social group, as formling ovals range from one to 20 or more, numbers similar to some painted human group sizes at these sites. Similar to Garlake’s view, he suggests that the number of ovals may have correlated with the number of trancers or site occupants at the time of painting, relating to “the group potency needs” (Walker 1996: 74). While both writers’ interpretations are similar in some respects, Walker, unlike Garlake, explicitly allows that the art in Zimbabwe is shamanistic. But, as he correctly notes there could be differences in trance-related metaphors between the rock arts of Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Interpretations of trees and other plants

Studies in the 1990s reassessed, albeit cursorily, tree and other plant motifs in San rock art. A common conclusion is that these motifs are not simple pictures of landscape features. As with formlings, an emphasis that runs through these studies is the association of tree motifs with San notions of potency. One such explanation argues for a strong association between trees and flecks. These flecks are sometimes painted to look like insect forms (Fig. 13, Plate 7). Garlake (1990: 17, 22, 1995: 103), drawing on Dowson’s (1989) view that dots and

51 dashes are linked to potency, argues that flecks represent the “release of active, powerful and dangerous potency”. He says that flecks focused attention on the “heightened significance” of some images or the presence of supernatural energy “inherent in a situation” (Garlake 1995: 103). The association of flecks with trees (e.g., Fig. 15), therefore, represents a particular kind of “potency that acts primarily on trees as an archetype or epitome of the plant world as opposed to that of man and animals” (ibid.: 105). In this interpretation, flecks are not a part of landscape representation, but are part of influencing it, as “a force that permeates nature and landscape” (Garlake 1995: 105). It must be noted that flecks also occur in association with a wide range of other painted motifs, including formlings (Frobenius 1963: tafels 10, 11, 20, 38; Goodall 1959; Garlake 1995: figs 8, 9, 152, 179, 180). Garlake (1995: 156) notes this point although he maintains that flecks are principally associated with trees. Contrary to Garlake’s (1995: 160) argument that a particular kind of potency would act primarily on trees and not people or animals, San ethnography suggests that man, animal and plant worlds interdigitate. Sometimes human beings become animals or plants and vice-versa, and as the next chapter shows, the potency that permeates these subjects appears to be undifferentiated. The fluidity between these subjects is not restricted to the San folkloric or mythical past (Bleek 1875: 11; Bleek & Lloyd 1911: 5, 107, 163, 187, 216; D.F. Bleek 1932: 48, 1935: 18), it is believed to occur also in the present. For instance, Biesele (1976: 310) was told by “one reliable informant” that “she was not a person or an animal at all, but an edible root called ≠ dwa !k∂ma”. Some medicine specialists are believed to have powers to transform into leonine or other bestial forms (Lee 1967: 35; Heinz 1975: 29; Lewis-Williams 1981a, 1985: 55; Katz 1982: 227; Katz et al. 1997: 24; Keeney 1999: 73, 81, 93, 100). There is no reason, therefore, to argue

52 for an opposition between these entities, so that some ‘special’ potency, said to be represented by fields of flecks, acts only on one of them—the trees, and not on others, human beings and animals. Walker (1996: 71) suggests that, “branches of tree-like motifs also recall forked arrows and often an animal stands or rests quietly or a shaman kneels near one and so they are more probably depicting concepts concerning potency than real trees”. The “forked” or “fletched” arrows, so common in Zimbabwean art, are argued to symbolise potency (ibid.: 71). Hence, in Walker’s view, the focus of meaning in trees derives from their association with another motif that is argued to symbolise potency. However, neither Garlake nor Walker say why trees were a chosen central subject. Although contexts and associations provide ramified meanings to a motif, images also usually stand as symbols in themselves. The explanations of Garlake and Walker thus only attempt to clarify associations between motifs: ‘flecks and trees’ and ‘arrows and trees’. They do not clarify the meaning of trees as independent symbolic motifs. The common method in these explanations has been to focus on motifs associated with trees so as to infer meanings, whereas my approach considers, primarily, the central subjects themselves, trees, and only then do I consider other motifs in the painted contexts. This is an analytical approach that I pursue with formlings as well. Garlake’s and Walker’s observations show that trees occur in contexts that are rich with metaphors of potency, but are not in themselves interpreted for their own intrinsic significance and symbolism. The significance of painted trees as concerning potency has thus been derived from the associated motifs, not from the trees themselves. It is not enough to say that eland possess supernatural potency because they are depicted in association with elements, such as, for

53 example, bees and beehives at Botha’s Shelter or the thin red line in many Drakensberg panels, that suggest strong potency. It should be asked why are eland, and not other animals, shown in these contexts. And at that, LewisWilliams (1992: 14) showed that San “artists were principally concerned with [the eland’s] symbolic associations: it was a polysemic symbol that had resonances in a number of ritual contexts.” Those various contexts were investigated and their symbolic associations demonstrated (Lewis-Williams & Biesele 1978; LewisWilliams 1981a). The eland was highly esteemed as a powerful animal in San thought (Biesele 1993), not from a random association but because of its special intrinsic attributes. Eland, especially bulls are endowed with great amounts of fat, far more than any antelope. Fat (Chapter Six) is a substance the San believe to possess strong potency. In studies that I have mentioned, combined ethnography and ethology showed that, in addition to possessing elements believed to contain very strong potency, the behaviour of eland mirrors that of San trancers and other ritual contexts. In this approach, the exegesis intertwines painted contexts of eland, their natural behaviour and their symbolic associations in San thought. Equally, it is important to understand trees, and their associated formlings, in terms of their intrinsic symbolic associations in San thought and then proceed to their conceptual links with potency as revealed by their varied contexts. In this explanatory process the significance of painted contexts is unquestionable, but they should not, in themselves, be final. The unifying factor in the new interpretations of botanical motifs and formlings lies in their incorporation of supernatural potency as an element in their meaning.

54 Apart from the two recent explanations of trees that I have discussed, there are some views that depart from ideas of supernatural potency as an element for the significance of these motifs among San people. These views consider the chemical properties of plants that the San are said to have valued.

Psychotropic value of botanical subjects

The significance of botanical subjects among southern African San has recently been explored in a new light. One view is that San medicine specialists used the poisonous species of springbuck bush (Hertia pallens) as snuff to induce nasal bleeding (Butler 1997: 83, 85). Although theoretically sound, the validity of this claim is uncertain since such a practice is not documented or observed recently among the extant San groups. Nasal haemorrhage was however a significant feature (but not induced in the suggested way) of San curing rituals. It appears to have been more common among the nineteenth century Southern San (see Arbousset & Daumas 1846: 246-247; D.F. Bleek 1935: 20, 34; Orpen 1874: 10) than it is presently in the Kalahari (Lewis-Williams & Blundell 1999: 17). There is also a proliferation of views that some plants were valued as transformative agents among San people because of their toxic psychotropic properties. Following the shamanic use of psychotropic plants in the northern Hemisphere and South America in trance-induction activities (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1978a, 1978b; Harner 1982; Dobkin de Rios 1989; Drury 1991), writers have explored possible similar plant uses among San groups (Schultes 1976; Dobkin de Rios 1986; Winkelman & Dobkin de Rios 1989). The G/wi are said to have used indigenous hemp to induce trance (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1980: 68), a point which the

55 G/wi themselves refuted (Silberbauer 1981: 203). The Hei//om are argued to use a kind of hallucinogen to trance (Schatz 1993: 12). Still others argue that the Ju/’hoansi use psychoactive plants to induce trance (Winkelman & Dobkin de Rios 1989). In this understanding, some rock art imagery is now suggested to be evidence that Maluti San used a certain aloe-like plant to induce trance visions (Loubser & Zietsman 1994). These authors identify the Caledon Valley plant motif as Brunsvigia radulosa (Loubser & Zietsman 1994: fig. 1), which they note contains alkaloids known to stimulate the central nervous system. They argue that Maluti San valued B. radulosa for its psychotropic qualities to induce trance visions and hallucinations (ibid.: 612). The psychotropic elements of such plants are contained in the alkaloids, resins, glucosides and essential oils found in the leaves, bark, stem, flowers, sap, roots or seeds of the plants (Drury 1991: 40). These plants, often called ‘sacred plants’, are a central feature of shamanism in most Indian societies of South America where they are valued as transformative agents for trancers to gain access into the spirit realm, for example, among the Shipibo, the Cashivo and other Peruvian Amazon Indians (Dobkin de Rios 1989), the Mazatecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca, the Nahua Indians of Puebla and the Tarascana of Michoacan, to name a few (Drury 1991: 50, 52). It has been observed that the regions richest in naturally occurring psychotropic plants are Mexico and South America. In these regions such plants are used extensively in shamanic rituals (Drury 1991: 45). Although a few cases have been documented, psychotropic plants do not appear to be used shamanically to any great extent in Africa and Australia (Schultes 1976; Drury 1991: 41). Reasons for such disparities are not clear, but one explanation might be that there are research imparities in these continents compared to the Americas and northern Europe. In the Kalahari, however, the San themselves deny that

56 they use hallucinogens. Many anthropologists working in this region have also not observed uses of such plants in spite of the claims to the contrary. While the plausibility of hallucinogenic use by the San cannot be discounted, the specific contexts in which these substances are (or were) used must be provided. It has been suggested that the sniffing of smoke from medicine men’s tortoiseshell boxes during dances was the ingestion of hallucinogens (Winkelman & Dobkin de Rios 1989). Although Marshall (1969) is cited in support of this view, her observations of Ju/’hoan use of supernatural and medicinal substances contained in tortoise carapaces do not concern specifically trance induction (Marshall’s 1962, 1969: 360). Whereas sniffing can be one way of ingesting hallucinogens (Cunningham, pers. comm.), medicine smoke from tortoise carapaces was, in Marshall’s observations, administered to people being cured (cf. Steyn 1981: 10, on the Nharo), or to trancers to help them control violent throes of trance. It was also given to trancers already unconscious in trance to resuscitate them and not to induce trance. To let the “unconscious man” breathe in the smoke was “not to transfer n/um1 to him, but to give him physical care…” (Marshall 1969: 378). She also discounted the use of dagga or similar substances for trancing (Marshall 1969: 372, see her footnote 2 on the same page). Later, Katz (1982: 280-294) and Kinachau, a Ju/’hoan healer, discussed a root called gaise noru noru, said to be hallucinogenic. Kinachau acknowledged its effects and occasional use in the past as a teaching aid for novices to attain trance. Yet, even in the past, he argued, it was not used to “do num for healing”. In his own words, “This gaise noru noru is powerful…but the num of healing, the num that boils in our stomachs, is really powerful” (Katz 1982: 293, original Ju/’hoan word for supernatural potency. Formerly transcribed as n/um (Marshall 1969) and num (Katz 1982) and, currently, n/om (Biesele 1993) 1

57 emphasis). In accord, a Kalahari healer said recently, “We do not use any medicines to help us see the light or feel the spirit. The spirit [n/om] brings all the power we need” (Keeney 1999: 107). Another prominent healer, Mataope Saboabue, says, “I do no drink any medicine to enhance the spirits [n/om]. I only use medicine to relieve people’s pains” (Keeney 1999: 60). San medicine specialists believe in the efficacy of the trance dance to activate and generate supernatural potency, which facilitates trance and access to God’s house in the spirit world (Marshall 1999: 133). Trance was achieved through rhythmic dance movements, hyperventilation, intense concentration, and audio driving (Lee 1967: 33; Lewis-Williams 1981a: 5, 1984: 226, 1988b: 135). Medicine specialists also rubbed their stomachs, the source of this energy, repeatedly in what Kinachau called “gebesi work” (Katz 1982: 284). In contrast to suggestions that Dobe San used the psychoactive properties of Pancratium orianthum (locally called kwashi), to hallucinate (Schultes 1976), most writers note the dearth of evidence that San rituals rely on these plants (Lee 1967: 33; Lewis-Williams 1981a: 5, 1984: 226, 1997: 817). Marshall (1969: 372) wrote, “The men induce trance in themselves with apparent ease and without the use of material substances such as mushrooms, alcohol, or narcotics, none of which they have.” Equally, Silberbauer (1981: 203) notes that for the G/wi “No intoxicants or narcotics are used.” In this light (and our knowledge of the non-esoteric nature of San religion) it seems that psychotropic plants may not, for the San, have been as significant as some writers argue. Because the evidence for the use of psychedelic plants by the San is at present exiguous my explanation in Chapter Seven relies on other strands of evidence in the context of San beliefs and cosmology.

58 Current writers on Zimbabwean rock art have adopted interpretative analyses, and they show that San art is subtler and structured at a deeper level than can be discerned at face value. Using an ethnographic, hermeneutic approach, they discard explicitly the narrative interpretations. These writers seek to understand San art from the cultural perspective of the artists, their contemporaries and their extant descendants. A large ethnographic corpus collected in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries preserves a myriad of aspects on San life, their beliefs, rituals and mythology. With this evidence, they have been able to link formlings to San ideas of supernatural potency. Likewise, I examine formlings, tree and plant motifs and their repeated painted contexts in order to penetrate their symbolism. To set the ethnographic platform for my explanation, I first discuss the core elements of San religion—concepts of supernatural potency and the spirit world.


Chapter Three San notions of potency and trance dance The dance is our religion‌The Bushmen have always known the Big God and the way to him through our dance (Tete, a healer, Keeney 1999: 67). When I dance and the people sing loudly, the power comes to my feet. It is the power of the music and the seriousness of the occasion that makes me very hot. Nom is also heat‌I only feel power in the dance (Twele, a healer, Keeney 1999: 70).

In this chapter I set forth the foundation for my interpretation of formlings and trees within San beliefs and cosmology, principally their notions of supernatural potency and its manipulation through trance dances. The centrality of religion and trance for the San is attested in the ethnographies of the nineteenth-century Southern San from the Cape and Maluti regions (Bleek & Lloyd 1911; Orpen 1874) and the twentieth century northern San from the Kalahari (e.g., Marshall 1969; Lee 1968; Katz 1982; Biesele 1993; Guenther 1999). Similarities have been identified in beliefs and religious practices running throughout this collection of San ethnography (Lewis-Williams & Biesele 1978; Lewis-Williams 1984). This congruence in beliefs has prompted writers to speak of a pan-San cognitive system (McCall 1970). Conceptual similarities are also discernible in southern African San rock art and they correspond with San religion, rituals and attendant cosmological concepts (Vinnicombe 1976; Lewis-Williams 1981a; Maggs & Sealy 1983; Manhire et al. 1986). Zimbabwean San art is not isolated from this complex

60 and it exhibits underlying concerns that are similar to those known to exist in San art traditions throughout southern Africa (Huffman 1983; Garlake 1987d, 1995; Walker 1996). Walker (1994) has demonstrated that similar religious beliefs and practices were central to the lives of prehistoric San groups in Matopo, a point that is corroborated by rock art evidence. Most writers agree today that the social and economic relations at the heart of San existence (past and present) are inextricably intertwined with San religious beliefs (see Lewis-Williams 1982). It is even argued that, “Their economy, social system, and religion were an integrated whole which could not be dissected without tragic results” (Lewis-Williams 1976: 33). Richard Katz (1982: 28) points out explicitly that the Ju/’hoansi consider religion as their way of life. Today many San in the Kalahari say the trance dance, a central religious institution and the numinous vehicle for the experience of the spirit world, is “the quintessential ‘Bushman thing’” (Guenther 1999: 181). In this understanding, I now proceed to show that the central notions of San supernaturalism—potency and the trance experiences are key elements in the rock art of Matopo. Religious beliefs occur in all known human societies (Hayden 1987), and they vary widely. This is true for the San of southern Africa. Many writers have observed that there are variations of religious beliefs amongst different San groups (Heinz 1975; Guenther 1981; Barnard 1988), although they all adhere to one broad religious framework. To assess some aspects of these complexities among the San, one needs to understand the concept of religion, which, unfortunately, eludes a straightforward definition. Clifford Geertz (1966, in Lewis-Williams 1975: 424), however, gave a definition of religion that is useful for our interpretation of the San situation as:

61 “[A] system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” On the basis of this definition it can be argued that the locus of San religion and cosmology concerns the nexus between the natural and the supernatural realms. Ritual or medicine specialists (i.e., healers, rainmakers, game controllers, sorcerers or, collectively shamans, see Lewis-Williams 1981a, 1992; Guenther 1999: 7) are the principal mediators of the enmeshed San cosmos. In this intermediary role, altered states of consciousness, in particular trance (Lee 1967; Guenther 1986, 1999), play a significant part, hence the argument that San religion is shamanic (Lewis-Williams 1981a, 1992, 1994). The San believe that their ritual specialists are able to transcend these inseparable realities. Their cosmological accounts “do not distinguish explicitly between ‘real’ experiences and trance experiences” (Lewis-Williams 1992: 57), since they “see both worlds as equally ‘real’” (Lewis-Williams 1986a: 32). Their mediation is achieved mainly through communal trance dances; these are seldom formalised or scheduled rituals. Dances are spontaneous, often initiated for play and amusement by children and adolescents, then joined later by adults (Walker 1996: 66; Marshall 1999: 66), after nightfall (Barnard 1979: 73-74). My interpretation of formlings, tree and plant motifs draws on this significance of supernatural potency, its activation during trance dances and the spirit world experiences. This approach focuses on the multi-faceted San cosmology and a range of associated beliefs. Current writers, as I have shown, associate formlings and trees with potency. Indeed, potency appears to be the unifying concept in

62 San religious beliefs and many subjects depicted in San rock art. To understand formlings and tree motifs I begin with a discussion of potency, and then show how it is activated and manipulated in trance dances.

San notions of supernatural potency

While supernatural potency (n/om) permeates every aspect of San life, it is an elusive concept. That this force is “unpersonified, incorporeal, immaterial, invisible, and powerful” (Marshall 1969: 351-352, 1999: xxxii) is a part of its elusiveness and essence. Marshall (1969: 351) employed the analogy of electricity: like electricity n/om is an invisible powerful force with manifestations in the form of light, heat and kinetic energies. N/om is not diffuse in the universe, nor loose in the air (Marshall 1969: 351); it exists in both animate and inanimate objects. Subjects holding n/om include humans, particularly the ritual specialists (n/om k”xausi or ‘owners of potency’), great meat antelopes (e.g., eland, kudu, gemsbok) and other species such as giraffe, buffalo and elephant. Insects like honeybees and termites contain very strong potency, as do the honey and fat they produce. Obscure species such as aardvarks, mambas, and the redwing partridge also possess potency, albeit to a lesser intensity (Marshall 1969: 351, 1999: xxxii). Medicine plants possess particularly strong n/om and so do the medicine songs and the medicine dances at which the songs are sung (LewisWilliams 1987: 166). Each song and dance evokes a particular subject known to be rich in potency. The list is long, things as diverse as the sun, moon, falling stars, rain, water, fire, ostrich eggs, menstrual blood and women’s breast milk could also be added. Indeed, n/om appears to embody nature itself and defies a

63 conclusive definition. What appears to matter most to the San is not its presence, but its degree of intensity. The ineluctability of n/om is evident in Ju/’hoan views on the concept; when asked to explain n/om and its operation people simply say, “it is strong.” Recent testimonies from the Kalahari explain that n/om “means spirit…It is [the] spirit of the Big god” (Keeney 1999: 115, 105, 107, 109). However, the understandings of the concept are varied and there seems to be no definitive answer as to whether potency is a single undifferentiated or a variable force. Marshall concludes that n/om is differentiated, since “…we were told that the Gautscha people possessed the [n/om] of the medicine songs called Giraffe, but not the [n/om] of the medicine song called Honey” (Marshall 1969: 351, 1999: xxxii). She adds further that the Ju/’hoansi believe that ≠Gao N!a (Great God) has n/om that no one else possesses—the strongest n/om of all (Marshall 1999: xxxiii). Equally this belief could be understood as emphasising the unique intensity of ≠Gao N!a’s potency rather than difference. ≠Gao N!a’s n/om is believed to be menacingly strong, so much so that if he were to be too close to an encampment, it would destroy the camp and its people (Marshall 1969: 351, 1999: 21, 22; Katz 1982: 92). The existence of potency in diverse entities does not necessitate that it is a variable force. Marshall’s own electricity analogy becomes useful here; the use of electricity by different appliances or the production of varied light intensities by different bulbs does not mean that the electricity they use is different. I, therefore, contend that n/om is an undifferentiated force, whatever its effects on various objects. The effects of potency can be diverse, both beneficent and maleficent (Katz 1982: 92). The more strong potency becomes, the less easy it is to control and, when out of control, it can be harmful and hazardous (Marshall 1999:

64 xxxiv). With a great amount of potency comes the potential for greater good, such as great healing power. N/om must be controlled and contained, otherwise a healer is rendered completely unconscious or turns into a malevolent creature, such as a lion. Manipulation of n/om is a skill San healers acquire through years of experience (Katz 1982: 44-49). A healer may struggle to control his potency, but other people present at a dance, both women and men, help to calm or cool down the high potency levels (Marshall 1969: 377-378; Barnard 1988; Biesele 1993: 83-84). All know the dangers of extreme n/om. The word itself is so strong that its utterance may be hazardous (Marshall 1969: 351; Katz 1982: 92). The Ju/’hoan respect word shibi is used to describe strong potency, as it is less likely to conduct harm. The names of medicine songs, such as Trees, Gemsbok, Giraffe, Eland, Puffadder, Drum and others, are equally potent and dangerous. Similar avoidance rules are applied to powerful dances and the Ju/’hoan use a pacifying word n!a (‘big’), as in “the dance is n!a” (Marshall 1969: 352, 1999: xxxiv) referring to its great potency. That n/om is the spirit of the Big God (Keeney 1999: 115) provides clues to the San beliefs concerning the origination of this pervasive supernatural force.

The concept god and the origin of n/om

Despite regional variations in San beliefs (Heinz 1975; Barnard 1988), they exhibit unity and coherence in their conceptual structure. Concerning n/om, most San say that it is linked with the existence of the Great or High God (≠Gao N!a), the lesser god or deity (//gauwa) and the spirits of the dead (//gauwasi). The Great God, living in the sky, is neither intrinsically good nor evil. He is believed to be the

65 source of all potency (Marshall 1969: 352; Keeney 1999: 107). One of his Ju/’hoan names, Goaxa, also refers to his power to create (Marshall 1962: 223, 248, 1999: 8; Katz 1982: 245). It is this power that he used to create n/om. Similarly, the !Ko great god, Gu/e, has a kind of power to create called ‘/oa’, which is also the name of their lesser god, whom Gu/e created (Heinz 1975: 20). The Great God is “the great owner of n/om” (Marshall 1999: 20) or, as some point out, “the ultimate source of all [n/om]” (Biesele 1978: 933; Marshall 1962: 235, 238, 1969: 351-352; Vinnicombe 1976: 199). Supernatural potency is therefore an entity that originates from the highest divinity in San belief and cosmology whose residence is in the sky. Medicine specialists receive their n/om from the Great God, who gives very strong potency to those whom he especially favours and gives less to others (Marshall 1969: 351, 1999: 8). He does this by sending //gauwa with n/om to put into medicine specialists through their backs. Some potency remains in the back, but most goes into the stomach, which the Ju/’hoansi call the gebesi, a little continues up to the head and hair (Katz 1982: 45, 98; Garlake 1995). //Gauwa (also the trickster) is intrinsically ambiguous—good and evil are crucial to his nature. Spirits of the dead are invariably associated with evil, as agents of death (Marshall 1969: 373; Barnard 1979: 71), though their supernatural abilities are not insurmountable. These spirits can also be made to comply with good causes for the benefit of the living people, such as bringing potency and helping healers to cure the sick. Among the Nharo these spirits also help healers to enter trance. Novices receive their potency from experienced ritual specialists who shoot ‘arrows-of-potency’ into their stomachs, thereby transferring n/om (Katz 1982: 44, 168). Their teachers can also take them to the Great God in the sky who then

66 teaches them the techniques of harnessing potency (see Old K”xau’s testimony in Biesele 1975: 151-174). Once put in a person, potency remains in that person for all their life (Marshall 1969: 351). However, potency may lose its strength, or under certain circumstances, it can wane from a person (Katz 1982: 239; also testimonies to that effect in Keeney 1999). Hence, one of the reasons trancers visit the Great God’s house is to replenish and harness more n/om (Keeney 1999: 59, 62, 107). As one healer said, “It [n/om] takes me up to a sacred place where I am filled up again with spiritual strength” (Keeney 1999: 59). The pervasiveness of supernatural potency is explainable in what it enables medicine specialists to achieve in ritual contexts. To the Ju/’hoansi n/om is a “death-thing” (Marshall 1999: xxxiv), meaning that it causes trance or ‘kw !i’ (‘half-death’, Marshall 1962: 250, 1969: 377; Lee 1968: 40; Lewis-Williams 1981a, 1988b: 137-138) and its visions. Generally, trance visionary experiences (see Lewis-Williams 1992: 56-58), therefore, begin with a successful manipulation of n/om. Such experiences include going on trans-cosmological out-body-journeys either to encounter and remonstrate the spirits of the dead (Marshall 1969: 378) in the spirit world or to visit God’s house to intervene and ameliorate the mischievous supernatural interference in the fortunes of people (Walker 1996: 66). Some healers believe that in trance they are able to transform into bestial and avian forms (D.F. Bleek 1933; Katz 1982: 100-101, 115-116; Biesele 1993: 94-98; Keeney 1999; Lewis-Williams 1981a: 71-101) so as to engage in nocturnal hunting activities or to visit distant camps and villages (Keeney 1999: 61; also LewisWilliams 1982). Although such preternatural activities and access to the spirit world can be achieved in solitary contexts, as in dreams during sleep (LewisWilliams 1992; Lewis-Williams et al. 2000: 129) and special revelatory circumstances (Biesele 1975b: 173, 1993: 67-70), the trance dance (see epigraphs to

67 this chapter), perhaps due to its communal nature that creates a ‘pool’ of potency, is the central ritual in San supernaturalism.

The San trance dance

Plate 4. A 1950s Kalahari Ju/’hoan dance (© Marshall photograph - RARI archives)

The trance dance is a key San ritual (Guenther 1999: 181) in which medicine specialists are able to activate and manipulate supernatural potency (Barnard 1979: 72). Marshall (1969: 349; also Lewis-Williams 1976: 40) noted that, “The central ritual event in traditional Ju/’hoan life is the…trance dance.” In

68 Marshall’s (1969: 379-380) view, reiterated by Guenther (1981: 21), the dance works at both “psychological and sociological levels” (see Barnard 1979: 68) to enhance cohesion among individuals and groups. Some authors argue that the dance and its songs are “the basic vehicles of transcendence, enabling curers to achieve trance” (Biesele 1975b: 6). Similarly, Guenther (1999: 182) argues that, “The objective of the curing dance is to achieve the state of trance (or !kia in Ju/’hoan, Katz 1982) and thereby transcend ordinary life and reality.” He notes that the explicit purpose of the trance dance is to heal (Guenther 1981: 21-22, 1986: 253), or as Lee (1984: 103) puts it, “healers enter trance to be able to heal the sick.” Some shamanic rituals other than healing or curing, such as rainmaking among the /Xam, would also have drawn potency from the dance. These key San supernatural activities are achieved through the successful manipulation of n/om. I argue in this chapter that since n/om is activated at the dance, the dance is therefore primary for varied spiritual ends. The Ju/’hoan ritual specialists say that they dance n/om, suggesting that it is the object of the dance, which then allows them communion with the supernatural. The synergy (Katz 1982: 197-201) of potent elements in the dance, such as the fire, medicine songs, and women’s rhythmic clapping (Marshall 1969: 374) are all geared to activate or cause n/om to boil in the stomachs of medicine specialists (Katz 1982; Barnard 1979: 73-75; Marshall 1999: 68). Singing medicine songs is said to “awaken n/om” (Keeney 1999: 38, 41, 47, 60). In Ju/’hoan, ‘gam’ (‘to get up in the morning’) describes the effect of music on potency (Marshall 1969: 352). The dance context is very rich in potency, it is here that the concentration of n/om is stronger than in any other situation in San life (Marshall 1969: 352). Even women sitting around the central dance fire, singing and clapping the rhythm of

69 the medicine songs are sometimes affected by the saturation of n/om to the extent that they may shake as they sing (Keeney 1999: 111).

Fig. 7. A group with a central shaman, people clapping and ‘prowling’ spirit creatures around (Drakensberg)

The dance is also a context in which the “The activation of num in one person stimulates the activation in others” so that it “becomes available to all” (Katz 1982: 198). Medicine specialists in such situations are able to enter trance and healers can then cure other people, or can ‘see’ supernatural elements, such as ‘arrows of sickness’, invisible sickness in people and related mystic features not perceivable by ordinary people. The efficacy of the dance can be explained further by reference to some San beliefs. Its importance does not only lie in allowing the generation and manipulation of n/om, but it also is a context that attracts spirit beings since they

70 love music and enjoy watching good dancing (Marshall 1969: 349). The Great God, or his agents (the lesser god and the spirits of the dead) may avail themselves at dances to dispense more n/om to the healers (Marshall 1965: 271) or just to witness the proceedings (Fig. 7). For the Nharo, the spirits of the dead (g//茫农a sg., g//茫农a-ne pl.) present at the dance may enter into a temporary union with healers to effect trance (Barnard 1979: 72, 75). The spiritual power animals of healers may also emerge during dances (Keeney 1999: 71, 91). It is therefore unsurprising that the trance dance remains the locus of San supernaturalism. The dance draws many people together and thereby concentrating potency (Marshall 1969: 349, 352, 1999: 630; Katz 1982: 198). In acknowledging the significance of the trance dance in the activation of potency in order to enter the spirit world, I do not rehearse its morphology and choreography, as these facets have been widely discussed elsewhere (e.g., Marshall 1962, 1969; Barnard 1979; Katz 1976, 1982). Instead, I attend to elements in the art that have relevance to my explanation of formlings, tree and plant motifs. Although the San social and economic life is inseparable from San religion (all of which feature in rock art, Vinnicombe 1976; Lewis-Williams 1981a; Maggs & Sealy 1983; Huffman 1983; Garlake 1995; Walker 1996), religion seems to be central. Matopo rock art reveals diverse elements that link it with well understood San religious beliefs and practices (Walker 1994, 1996). This body of art exhibits San notions of potency and trance experiences as strongly as it does with other southern African San arts. It depicts metaphors and symbols that characterise the conceptual fecundity of San cosmology and thought.


Matopo rock art in perspective

The understanding of San rock art as largely religious in nature (Lewis-Williams 1981a) relies mainly on the identification of specific features in the art and tying these to San ethnography. Zimbabwean rock art falls within this corpus of San art tradition. While it exhibits similar manners of depiction to the other southern Africa San arts, it contains regional variations in subjects and use of colour. This diversity does not entail incompatibility with the broad San belief system. Regionality is a feature of San rock art; variations occur even in small geographical areas. The Matopo art thus has its own distinctive characteristics. Therefore, differences in depicted subjects and their numerical frequency between areas are to be expected. In Matopo, variations in the graphic metaphors include an unusual emphasis on formlings, trees and plants, and certain powerful animals, such as giraffe and kudu. Depictions of eland and rain creatures, common in the Drakensberg, are relatively few in Matopo. Other smaller and rarely painted species, such as, insects, fish, eels, turtles and snakes are also present. Walker (1996: 90) has identified many features in Matopo art that are related to San religious beliefs and trance experiences. Among the trance related depictions with ethnographic support are paintings of various dancing postures and features. Diagnostic postures include: arms behind the back, hand(s) on head or hip, bending over, squatting and kneeling on all fours. Some of these postures have been widely described and explained from the Drakensberg rock art. Trance related features include: nasal hemorrhage, lines from the top of heads, necks and armpits, extra limbs, hooves on human figures, elongated bodies, hairs standing on end, therianthropes and other conflations, infibulation and others. These postures and features are also found

72 in Matopo and cannot be explained in simplistic and narrative terms. Nor can the ‘anything goes’ approach help us understand them. These are better understood as metaphors and symbols deriving from the San religious beliefs rather than straightforward depictions. Because the painted contexts of formlings and trees exhibit these features, I refer to them in later chapters. These features and postures inextricably tie the art to San beliefs and symbolism concerning potency and trance. Garlake (1995: 199) showed recently that Zimbabwean San art is linked to trance symbolism. He has identified a range of similar features and postures in Mashonaland and called them “emblems” related to trance (ibid.: 199). Walker (1996: 77) concludes that the Matopo art is magico-religious in nature, generally showing trance-related details and religious symbolism. The existence of these features in Matopo art, which has been demonstrated to be several millennia old, implies a great antiquity of San religious ideology and demonstrates continuities into the present San beliefs (Lewis-Williams 1984). This demonstration of broad continuities in San beliefs in Matopo and the ethnographic present comes from the dating evidence. Walker (1987, 1994, 1996) dated the Matopo archaeological record and showed that rock art dates between at least 10, 000 BP and 1, 500 BP. It is therefore probably older than the well studied and well understood South African rock art and even the ethnographic corpus that has informed our understanding of the art. During this time span San religious beliefs would not have remained a static and monolithic ideology. Archaeological evidence shows that the contact period, which in South Africa is the pre-colonial arrival of Khoekhoe- and Bantu-speaking groups from 2, 000 BP and more recently the European settlement in the seventeenth century, became a

73 force that impinged on the San way of life. In the Drakensberg, Colin Campbell (1986, 1987) demonstrated how the arrival of new people transformed Bushman social conditions and formations. And this evidence is strongly represented in South African art. In Matopo, Walker argues that the Khoekhoe herders arrived around 2, 000 BP. Later, around 1, 500 BP, the Iron Age Bantu-speaking agropastoralists arrived and introduced their own finger-daubing art tradition (Walker 1987: 146). The bulk of San art was executed prior to this contact phase (Walker 1987: 143), which marked the end of the Matopo San art tradition. Contact therefore appears to have had an insignificant impact on the bulk of the Matopo art. In spite of the claims that Matopo art also depicts Iron Age material cultural objects (Cooke 1963, 1964a, 1964b, 1965), this art is largely devoid of contact imagery. San art is not simply a record of objects or mundane events, but elements of contact are depicted in some areas where the San experienced sustained contact with Khoekhoe-speakers (Parkington 1984), Bantu-speaking groups and European settlers. Contact imagery in South Africa includes, sheep, cattle, shields, horses, wagons, ships, guns and other introduced material objects (Huffman 1983; Parkington et al. 1986; Yates et al. 1993; Campbell 1987; Anderson 1994; Mguni 1997), but these are rare or absent in Matopo. Even where San rock art does depict introduced subjects, this need not imply fundamental changes in the San ideology and belief systems. Symbolic and metaphorical continuities have been noted in some parts of southern Africa. Thomas Huffman (1983) has shown how sheep in Zimbabwean rock art, like eland, carried symbolic connotations of power because of their fat. Equally, in the Drakensberg, herds of cattle are depicted with eland in their midst (Campbell 1987; Hall 1994: 75-80) and they were placed within a similar conceptual framework as eland. As cattle became increasingly important for the San, they

74 acquired conceptually an equivalent symbolic status to eland (Campbell 1987: 76). A battle painting in the Drakensberg showing European settlers clashing with the San depicts incidents of the late nineteenth-century (Dowson 1993). Literally, it can be regarded as a straightforward record of historical events, but the details show that this, and similar ‘historical scenes,’ are also set within a shamanistic context. Contact imagery was therefore just as constrained and influenced by ritual, belief and symbolism as other parts of the San art tradition. With the introduction of new subjects, the painted contexts appear to have remained constant and evoke the shamanistic character of San art. Formlings are one subject whose manner of depiction has remained fairly constant over time. They also ‘chart’ aspects of the San religious ideology that have remained broadly similar over time and great distances. I argue that their formal and contextual coherence implies that they are based on physical world subjects. Like antelope, because they were based on a natural form, their shape was constrained and therefore not open to significant manipulation through time. However, slight variations occur in their painted contexts and associations, as new (sometimes idiosyncratic) aspects of their symbolism were introduced, but these also would be explicable in terms of a unified conceptual framework. In order to consider the symbolism of formlings, one must understand the San graphic rules of placing imagery in painted contexts. The relationships of different images either in juxtapositions or superimpositions were not random, but were created following rules and conventions, which I discuss in the next chapter. The ethnographic information is crucial in piecing together and understanding these relationships. It is now axiomatic that many elements of San art are unexplainable by superficial juxtaposition of selected motifs with San

75 myths and testimonies. Studies must demonstrate clearly the links and connections between the ethnographic data and individual features from the painted contexts. In this same spirit, Lewis-Williams (1972) used concepts of syntax and grammar in the early 1970s to discern rules that structured San art. He argued that the structure he found showed the construction of sets or layers of meaning within the art. Rather than generating meaning from left (initial element) to right (subsequent series of elements), as grammar does in language, the build-up of images on painted surfaces was at right angles to the rock face. The initial element, directly on the rock, determined what went above and around it. The process of overlying images was called superpositioning and the process of lateral contextual association was called juxtapositioning. While acknowledging the problems of discerning which images are uppermost or lowermost and the time lapse between different layers, a significant realization was that, rather than images developing in a manner like rock accretions in talus slopes, artists deliberately chose which elements went together so as to create symbolic meaning. Later, Lewis-Williams (1992) analysed two panels from the Drakensberg and the Free State layer by layer as developmental graphic statements. He employed criteria of; shared action, linking action, similar paint, similar ‘style,’ and similar subject matter to conceptualise sets of imagery (LewisWilliams 1992: 9). Specific features such as lines also linked the seemingly disparate images in complex panels. Discerning such relationships is crucial in the consideration of what constitutes the painted contexts of formlings and trees. These relationships and the connections they have with the ethnographic data enable the reconstruction of meaning in the paintings.

76 The observation that meaning was constructed in a structured manner was thus made possible. But to tease out metaphors and symbols contained in this structure required more than mere observation. Each must be examined within its context and explained by reference to San ethnography. A part of this process that has attracted criticism has been the way images and image clusters have been chosen for analysis and interpretation. The criticism is that researchers define their sets or ‘units of analysis’ in a piecemeal manner, which then renders their conclusions biased and inadequate. I now turn to this criticism and I show that San artistic conventions of juxtaposing and superimposing elements (as established by Lewis-Williams’s syntactic rock art studies), if properly understood, can guide us into what contexts and associations were intended by the artists and subsequently to recognise the meaning of the paintings.

Defining ‘units of analysis’ in rock art research The major criticism levelled at the new ethnographically informed methodology is the way writers define their ‘units of analysis’ (Nettleton 1985 conference paper), that is, the manner in which specific images or image clusters are conceptualized and extracted from their original panels for analysis. I accept that this can be a problem, for example, many early writers and copyists were captivated by the unusual, the well preserved and the beautiful paintings in the art and this created a serious and detrimental bias within their observations. For example, when Cooke (1971: 19) explained a panel depicting a tree and two therianthropes, he completely overlooked the exaggerated emanations under their armpits. These features, as I show later, are fundamental to understanding the proper meaning of this panel.

77 The omission of fine details either in copying the art or in interpretation can indeed have a serious negative impact on the value of research, but all current researchers accept and work within this knowledge. Our current understanding of San rock art is such that we recognise that it is often detailed features, such as, distinctive postures, erect hairs, streamers, eared serpents, dying postures, epistaxis, and some peculiar gestures, that inform interpretation (Lewis-Williams 1984: 227). Observing features carefully is clearly key, but does this mean we must examine everything together? What are the implications of drawing out particular

elements within a panel for the purposes of analysis? At times, this can also be a problem. A case in point is Pager’s use of a formling from Mutoko to argue that formlings represented “combs of bees’ nests” (Pager 1973: 5, fig. 5). Three years later, Pager (1976: 3, fig. 2) used the same image to suggest that southern African depictions of “bees’ combs” were “extremely similar” to what he described as “four scutiforms” from the cave of Altamira, in Spain. In this later use of the motif, Pager deliberately omitted the outline that encloses the four oval-shaped cores of the Mutoko motif to make it resemble the Spanish “four scutiforms.” Yet, outlines are one of the crucial identifying features of the subject matter of formlings and, when examined closely, they rule out the beehive explanation for most formlings. Mischievous selectivity therefore can certainly undermine interpretation. And yet, almost all writers today work from single figures and single contexts to complex panels and multiple associations. In this, they are consciously selecting sets of imagery or ‘analytical units’ based on specific features needing explication. Unlike earlier studies (Cooke 1964; Lee & Woodhouse 1970), such

78 selection is not random, but is guided by what questions are being asked by which theoretical framework. Yet, uncovering meaning in individual depictions is no easy task. Individual depictions most often have complex contexts, but complexity of context must not be confused with complexity of meaning. Visual complexities of painted contexts can hold the key to understanding the metaphoric complexities of meaning. In this regard, Stone Age and Iron Age studies provide a simple analogy; if a site yields two stone flints or potsherds, it is often not as informative as one yielding large amounts of the same material. Many kinds of analyses are possible in larger contexts, as these offer far more information in their varied associations. Put simply, complex sites are better for the purposes of analysis. If one or two scrapers or potsherds are encountered at a single component site, one can only make informed surmises based on the knowledge learned from their occurrence in other more complex contexts and sequences. In the same way we can hope to interpret small simple rock art sites on the basis of knowledge we gain at larger more complex ones. Layers upon layers of archaeological deposit thus constitute ‘layers of meaning’. In rock art, more complex panels and their varied ‘layers of meaning’ have a firmer chance of interpretation than less complex ones, or single images. Contrary to archaeological stratigraphy where later layers accumulate without regard to earlier accumulations, in rock art later generations of artists took into account the works of their predecessors (see Lewis-Williams 1972) and their own work was conditioned by what had gone before. It is therefore pertinent that I anaylse and tease out ‘layers of meaning’ in the more complex formling depictions with their opulent symbolism.

79 In this approach, complex panels and contexts are conceived differently from the idea of “larger panoramic contexts” advocated by Anitra Nettleton (1985: 52). Nettleton (1985: 50-53) criticises some rock art research for being superficial because of a “tendency to isolate elements from larger paintings”, making “arbitrary omissions and selections”, characterised by “indifference, arrogance or carelessness”. Such criticisms are valid if levelled against earlier descriptive rock art studies. Considering the proficiency of current recording and field methods (Loubser & den Hoed 1991), this inveigh against rock art researchers is misplaced. Drawing on history of art, which Nettleton claims is “fundamentally different” from the archaeological perspective, she proposes an alternative that considers the “compositional totality” of rock art sites. To underscore her point, she selects clusters (not the totality) of imagery from Pager’s copies of Sebaaieni Shelter in Ndedema Gorge. This was based on the assumption that the ‘panorama’ was complete. In the proposed alternative, meaning is argued to lie in “interrelationships within the whole panorama” as opposed to “individual elements of the painting” (ibid.: 52). It is apparent that in this view “the painting” is conceptualised as a complete and self-contained work, the “individual elements” of which can be treated synchronously as a whole. This view is misleading especially when approaching densely painted and complex panels. By contrast, in an archaeological sense, a ‘painting’ can consist of a single small figure or very complex groups that may be up to 60 or more figures (Walker 1996: 60) in an open-ended or boundary-less context. A panel is a combination of a series of paintings, each of which builds, contests and changes the meaning of the whole. We therefore must not see San paintings as completed and ‘packaged’ products (cf. a framed artwork in any modern building) waiting to be tackled in their totality. On the contrary, the art as it appears to us today is

80 a product of generations of artists who engaged in a process of meaning construction that reflects both shared and individual concerns. In response to Nettleton’s criticism, I argue that focused studies on specific imagery, such as of formlings and trees, in the case of the present study, cannot benefit from an attempt to explain every image at sites in which these images occur. Such an approach would be practically impossible and vacuous. Analysing defined image clusters and in some cases individual images in their contexts, reveals underlying conceptual principles and how these can be fitted into the larger conceptual framework of San rock art. In this process an attempt to explain the totality of imagery at sites is not an imperative. One simply applies a carefully conceived systematic sampling procedure that feeds into questions that need explanation. To achieve this, contrary to Nettleton’s proposal, one need not examine or study every single image at a site. Even modern archaeological excavations hardly ever exhume whole sites in their totality, except under special circumstances, to explain some aspects of past human cultures. Equally, and closer to Nettleton’s background, art history does not look at all Western art to explain cubism. Nor does an art historian deal with every detail in a painting. Somewhat contradictorily, Nettleton, in suggesting what a fruitful approach should be, divides what she calls “panoramas” into “four sections” (Nettleton 1985: 53), and perceives “arrangement…in a series of horizontal zones which appear to be kept quite distinct from each other” (ibid.: 54). The perception of such categories evidently hinges upon the same archaeological principles that rock art researchers use to conceptualise their ‘analytical units’. Her own groupings of Sebaaeini Shelter panels are no different from what she argues to be “isolation of elements from larger paintings” in other approaches. She therefore

81 reinscribes in her own platform the very weaknesses she means to transcend as her “zones” or “groups” are essentially defined the same way that archaeologists discern image clusters or panels. Archaeologists approach rock art with questions and, in this, they do not set out to find answers for, or to explain, everything at once. From the identification of a focus of study there follows an attempt to discern clusters, relationships and contexts that would aid interpretation. This enterprise is not always an easy task. In sum, there are no methodological flaws inherent in building an explanation that deals with one image cluster or one type of image at a time. The flaws come in asking the wrong questions or in taking a theoretical stance that is unhelpful to the subject under study. In this study, I therefore focus on formlings and botanical motifs and clusters of imagery associated with them, as collected from my study area, the Matopo Hills. I attend closely to the painted contexts, an element in which many previous studies have not given adequate attention. I use images found in richer contexts and which are therefore more readily understood to offer insights into even those isolated formlings and botanical motifs that are difficult to interpret as individual images. As some have argued, the significance of any representation is in its context (Lewis-Williams 1972: 53). Venturing into discerning contexts and what subject matter is depicted in formlings, requires familiarity with the artistic conventions of San rock art. I therefore move on to a brief formal analysis of the San manner of depiction and the way San artists represent subjects in their art.


Chapter Four Representation and ‘abstraction’ in San rock art One cannot but only speculate on the personality of the artist who created this painting. Here was an extraordinary person, whose mind could leave the naturalistic tradition of his art to reach out into an ethereal world of abstraction, centuries before the time and thousands of miles from the place of Klee, Mondrian, Braque, and other abstract painters of the [twentieth-] century (Mason 1958: 360).

Early researchers, schooled mostly in Western art traditions, viewed San art with the expectation that the pictures should convey subject matter and expected that the subject of a ‘good’ picture should be readily recognisable and apprehensible. If a picture was not ‘mimetic’ or seemed to lack a recognisable subject, then it was designated abstract or a ‘non-realistic’ depiction. Because the import of an abstract image can only be penetrated through direct comment from the artist and informed target viewers, a depiction inferred to be abstract in prehistoric art was therefore unknowable because the San artists and their contemporaries had long since disappeared. Early studies of formlings, trees and plants operated within these general assumptions. Referring to formlings, Mason (1958: 363) remarked that “Perhaps it is best to assume that the artists intended nothing more than a pleasing design as a contrast or background to their naturalistic figures.” As I have shown, even recently it has been restated that formlings are “abstract designs” (Garlake 1987d, 1995). Equally, the fact that trees and plants are usually schematized beyond the possibility of species recognition has led to

83 superficial interpretations, with suppositions that their meaning has been lost in their abstraction. In contrast to these approaches, I show that resemblance was not a necessary condition for representation and also discard the notion of abstraction in San art. I suggest a useful approach that foregrounds San picturemaking conventions, specifically for images with subject matter that appears impenetrable, such as formlings.

San picturing conventions

An understanding of the picturing conventions governing San depiction and cultural apprehension of their art is the necessary starting point for any reading of San rock art subject matter. Picturing conventions are the principles concerning the logical choices that artists make in turning a subject into a picture. Prehistoric image making principles have been explored using an archaeological framework in a forthcoming paper “The A-B-C of rock-art: geometric fundamentals to the archaeological study of ancient pictures” (Chippindale, in press). In A-B-C formalism the fundamentals are sated thus: a 3-dimensional shape of a subject (A) is subjected to a systematic transformation (B) to generate a 2-dimensional shape (C), as a picture of (A). This creates a ‘picture problem’, how to turn a 3-dimensional shape (A) into a 2-dimensional shape (C). To transform a shape that has volume into one that does not have volume is necessarily reductive. Some elements of the subject must be lost in the picture. The artist’s choice then concerns what information to retain and what to lose. However, depiction also allows the addition or emphasis of features. Small but significant subjects can be made bigger, while powerful things can be omitted or dealt with in a special way. In this enterprise, artists of different cultures deal

84 with the ‘picture problem’ in different ways depending on what a depiction is intended to show. Some writers argue rightly that the choice of how depictions are executed is dictated by the need to achieve purpose (B. Smith 1998: 213). In analysing formlings the understanding of conventions chosen by the artists is one way of getting to the subject matter and symbolism (B. Smith 1998: 219). Formal analysis in A-B-C formalism is ideal for pictures whose subject matter is known or self-evident, in which case, B can be recovered by seeing how (A) was adapted to make (C). Formlings present a special case for this analysis in that they stand as (C), our archaeological given picture, and (A), the subject matter, is unknown. (B) can be discovered by(A). For formlings we have (C), we can work out (B) (based on our knowledge of principles used for subjects such as, for example, kudu and eland and other common subjects in the art) and thereby discover (A).

To consider the (B) of San rock art, I begin with a consideration of Jan Deregowski’s (1995, but see reviews by Clegg 1995b; Halverson 1995; also B. Smith 1998) views on picture making. Deregowski (1984, 1995) invokes Attneave’s (1954) principles of typical outlines in which, it is argued that points of rapid change in outline depictions contain the greatest amount of information on the subject. Corners of a triangle, for example, are points of rapid change in the direction of its perimeter and they define, geometrically, the shape of the outline. According to Deregowski the “amount of information at any point of [the subject’s] surface is proportional to the rate of change of curvature of the surface at that point” (Deregowski 1995: 5). Outlines passing through such points of information concentration on the object, therefore, represent it better than those passing through other less informative points. Hence, their transfer onto a

85 flat surface makes a better picture. While the subject orientation in familiar aspects may be essential for its recognition in a depiction, the more of these points are in a depiction, the more typical and recognisable the subject becomes in a depiction. I argue that picture making is more complicated than this, and that this is especially clear in the case of formlings.

According to Deregowski, a ventro-dorsal longitudinal section through an antelope creates a ‘better’ picture since it passes through more points of information concentration. Side-on animal views do indeed dominate most arts. Deregowski also argues that the frequent viewpoints of reptiles and amphibians depicted from above can be explained in the same way. Some might say that such small creatures are painted from above because they are often viewed from above, but this does not hold for all things seen from above. Cats and fish are seen from above but are painted side-on. Although very often, Deregowski’s predicted planes are those depicted, this is not always the case. These planes are ‘normal’ (Clegg 1987; B. Smith 1998) and not universal. In fact there are many examples of arts around the world that do not use the normal plane. As Halverson (1995: 14) points out what constitutes a good picture depends on what is wanted, and “maximal points of concentration are not necessarily optimal.” Deregowski’s argument is premised on the supposition that picture making involves mimicking “as closely as possible” the subject. This may be true for many art traditions, hence the common depiction of Deregowski’s predicted planes. But, the picturing purpose is rarely as simple as a wish for mere depiction. Other factors are at play and these can have a strong influence on which aspects of the subject are chosen for depiction. Sometimes subject recognition is not desired, such as in Cheŵa Nyau or Chinamwali rock art where

86 the messages are secret and the art is designed so that it cannot be read by outsiders (B. Smith 1998, 2001). Our (B) can therefore hide as well as reveal. As well as superficial subject matter, most subjects carry multiple levels of deeper symbolism. Picturing allows symbolic aspects of the subject to be highlighted or hidden. (B) can thus be a complex process full of choices conditioned by the picturing purpose, itself operating within an understood framework of conventions. With this mind, let us now look at the (B) of San rock art. With the understanding of symbolism in San art came the realisation that San depictions are contorted in different ways to emphasise significant aspects in known subjects with symbolic value. Features are painted to look odd because they are being emphasised. One example is the gross exaggeration of dewlaps in most depictions of eland. The dewlap is a distinctive feature of eland, but it was also important because of its large amounts of fat, hence it was emphasised visually. The large dewlap also connotes the anomalous nature of eland relating to their sexual ambivalence (Dowson 1988: 122-124); eland are the only antelope where bulls possess more fat than females (Lewis-Williams 1981a: 72). In the same way that all great symbolic mediators in San cosmology the eland is an ambiguous animal, and its symbolism did not lie with how naturalistic the depiction was. This symbolism lay in the emphasis of specific features of significance. In addition, Thomas Dowson (1988) noted that other features in the depictions of eland, albeit less commonly painted, relate to the dying metaphor of trance. These include the extended hind leg, lifted tail and defecation (Dowson 1988: 118). These behavioural traits are known zoologically (Pager 1971: 18) to accompany the death of an eland. These variations would have been well

87 understood, as they are congruent with the San cognitive system and the artistic conventions. Another example is that of kudu, the most depicted antelope in Zimbabwean rock art. Kudu are largely conventionalized through depictions of large nearrhombic ears and elongated necks for cows while bulls carry twisted horns and thickset necks covered in exaggerated mane (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.3). In the southern parts of Zimbabwe and northern parts of South Africa specific and consistent conventions were employed to emphasise aspects of kudu symbolism. Artists used colour to draw attention to features that carried symbolic meaning. The inner parts of the ears are often accentuated with red pigment while the genital areas of kudu cows (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.3) are emphasised in red pigment (Eastwood & Cnoops 1999: 114). During oestrus, the vulvas of real kudu cows become slightly swollen and acquire a reddish tinge (ibid.: 114). Artists therefore exaggerated this feature and painted over areas that exceed the confines of the vulvas. These features, together with some diagnostic postures, such as the lowered heads for females, add to the conventions used by the artists to emphasise a unified complex of beliefs and concepts concerning fertility and marriageability within San gender relations. For northern Zimbabwe, Garlake (1995) has suggested that an exaggerated mane on kudu bulls connotes a quality that transcends maleness, such as aggression signifying a heightened state of n/om, since their large twisted horns, primary male sex markers, are also shown. Kudu, like eland, possess /k:รถnde, an excessive and harmful concentration of potency (D.F. Bleek 1932: 237; Marshall 1957). On botanical motifs, roots (geotropic elements) and branches (phototropic elements) are exaggerated (Figs 22, 23). Details of leaves and flowers are seldom

88 painted, but the accuracy to species exhibited in one motif (Kirkia acuminata, see Coulson & Campbell 2000: fig. 91) shows that artists were capable of rendering such detail with precision. So, the emphasis of some elements of the subject, and not others, relates to their significance in San thought. Another feature in addition to the presence and absence in San art that can aid subject recognition its embellishment. In Matopo, a line motif embellishes depictions of trees and plants. Perhaps this motif, dividing the root forms from the trunk and branches, draws attention to the underground and above ground realms. The embellishment of images shows that the repertoire of San artistic skills was not restricted to reproducing typically informative outlines or views or photoperfect naturalism in depictions. Artists embellished their depictions using salient subject features that would not normally be visible from the plane of observation used in the rest of the picture. Moreover, some of these features were non-physical in character. These would include, for example, infibulation on men and the line motif, now understood to depict the commonly held San beliefs about “threads of light” and shamanic journeys (Lewis-Williams et al. 2000: 131). In the south-eastern mountains this motif is embellished with white dots on the edges, probably to capture the essence of the entoptic phenomena of “endless chains of brilliant white dots” (ibid.: 133) that are integral to these shamanic pathways. In the Western Cape and parts of Zimbabwe (but see Garlake 1995: fig 40), this motif is indicated only as a red line without dots. Similarly, in the Drakensberg and some parts of the Eastern Cape, paintings of cattle snouts embellished with small projections have been observed (Hall 1994: 80). While these could be thongs or similar attachments, our knowledge of San beliefs about capturing and controlling rain-animals using reins or thongs

89 reveals that these represent concepts relating to rain-making (ibid.: 81). Similarly, lines emanating from the mouths or snouts of antelope, human figures and a dying antelope-eared snake in the Linton Panel would have been understood in terms of the non-ordinary reality of trance. Indeed, more examples of San ways of depiction can be drawn, but I now turn to ethnographically recorded San picture making. This case reveals that in order to understand San depictions such as formlings, we must avoid guessing at their subject matter based on our outsiders’ worldview and expectations of how representations should look. In the 1960s some !Kõ boys were asked to draw plants, and as it was during a drought they drew from memory (Heinz & Maguire 1974: 18). Their drawings were assessed as “vaguely resembl[ing] the intended subjects”, and that they incorrectly depicted characteristic morphological features of drawn plants (ibid.: 18). According to these authors, the drawings had “serious scientific shortcomings” (Heinz & Maguire 1974: 19) “in terms of conventional representation.” They were thus unable specifically to interpret the figures. But, upon showing the drawings to other !Kõ for comments in the absence of the drawers, in every case they were specifically identified and immediately related to the appropriate plants depicted (Heinz & Maguire 1974: 18-19). Maguire, had (on a separate instance in 1963), requested some !Kõ people to draw a bulbous plant (Dipcadi sp.) and a finger drawing on the soft sand was promptly made. It comprised a “circle, and surmounting the circle but clearly unconnected with it, three equally spaced short, vertical and parallel lines” (Heinz & Maguire 1974: 19). Later still, on another occasion the same drawer was asked to illustrate the same plant, as her earlier “coarse illustration” markedly deviated from “any conventional representation” and “without hesitation she

90 repeated exactly her earlier illustration of the plant” (ibid.: 19). In the light of my opening sentence to this chapter, these observations are interesting. The despair of these researchers was borne out of their expectations that San picture-making uses principles that are similar to Western depiction; hence their repeated phrase “conventional representation.” However “unscientific” or non-representational the !Kõ drawings appeared to these authors, their folks recognized the intended subjects immediately. This point reinforces the idea that San artistic conventions structured depictions in ways that we must understand prior to interpretation. Early studies of formlings were unsuccessful largely because of their lack of appreciation of this factor. Most writers erroneously sought superficial resemblances to match formlings without first examining the principles of this art and their conclusions were accordingly flawed. Perhaps therefore we have difficulties recognizing formlings because their depiction was conditioned less by the desire to produce facsimile copies of the subject of than by the wish to capture those elements of the subject that had deeper symbolic meanings.

Aesthetics and abstraction

Two points arise from this consideration of Deregowski’s ideas that require further discussion. These are notions of, a. aesthetics and, b. abstraction. Early writers fore-grounded aesthetics in southern African San rock art. Even as late as the 1990s some writers argued that the finesse and detail in the art meant that it could not have been executed for anything other than pure pleasure (Willcox

91 1984, 1990). The beauty of this art is beyond dispute, but its beauty does not explain its meaning and purpose. The aesthetic view presents a twofold problem. It downplays metaphysical symbolic values, which transcend the extent to which motifs retain fidelity to nature. Again, because finesse was measured against naturalistic figurative qualities, if a prehistoric image was inferred to be ‘unrealistic’, the implication was that it was subject-less. Although unstated, this view was premised on a structuralist dichotomy that a naturalistic image which equals ‘realism’, and occurs in opposition with, a non-naturalistic image equals ‘abstract’/schematic. This neglects the subtlety of San picture making, it ignores the complex set of picturing choices that operate in San art. This view left most early research inevitably superficial. In contrast to this reading, I argue that, for the San, images meant what they meant whether or not they possessed naturalistic features. Let us consider the specific implications of the reading of some San art as abstract because this is of concern to my analysis of formlings.

Subjects From our current understanding of San rock art it is evident that subject matter may be non-physical as much as it may be physical. There is no strict boundary between these two worlds for the San. Even in instances where depicted subjects can be discerned as evidently non-physical (e.g., fantastic creatures), there still is, to some extent, adherence to the material world in the sense that the forms are amalgams of recognizable real world attributes. This should be expected, as the visions of the spirit world seen by San trancers, just like our dreams, are derived from every-day experiences. Like physical world depictions, spirit world images

92 indicate a great amount of constancy in their conformity to San picture-making conventions.

Fig. 8. An infibulated therianthrope carrying a bow, ?quiver, several fly switches is surrounded by bees (Pager copy- RARI archives)

An example is a motif in San art that is, for want of a better term, called ‘infibulation’ (Fig. 8, Breuil 1948; Willcox 1978, 1984: 142, 260) or the ‘penis

93 emblem’ (Garlake 1995: 49-50, 58, 82, 136), or penis additament (Willcox 1978; Walker 1996: 89, 90). Although their shapes and embellishments vary widely, these motifs are usually depicted as bars across or appendages on the penises of human figures. In spite of the allusions these terms suggest, this varied motif does not have natural or cultural material correlates amongst San communities. Can it, therefore, be justifiably referred to as abstract or non-depictional because, to us, it appears to lack naturalistic subject matter? This motif may have been a straightforward depiction of a metaphysically informed subject, as real to the San as the kudu (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.3), termites (Figs 13, 15), bees, therianthropes (Fig. 8), rain creatures (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1) and trance buck that are common in the San art of southern Africa. This collapsing of the physical with the metaphysical, of iconic/non–iconic or mimetic/non–mimetic exposes the concept of abstract as permeated with foreign art values. In San beliefs, tales, cosmology and iconography, the visionary and the physical clearly interdigitate. ‘Infibulation’ is one case where caution must be heeded that, if we think we can recognize the subject of a depiction, we can be wrong and the subject may have a non-physical origin or context and special symbolism none of which we can read without insider knowledge (Vinnicombe 1976; Chippindale in press). The idea of subjects without physical world manifestation brings me to another significant element in San art, the use of geometric designs. Formlings have been read as “geometric designs” (Garlake 1995: 32) and, therefore, as abstract. I now turn to consider the use of geometric forms and abstraction in San rock art. Those geometric forms that occur in the art have mostly been shown to be entoptic designs. B. Smith and Ouzman (in press) have recently shown that Khoekhoe

94 groups made those geometric designs that do not fit into the entoptic repertoire, they argue that other than entoptics, San art does not have a geometric component. Entoptics are mental images generated by the human central nervous system under altered states of consciousness (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1988). They include zigzags, dots, grids, lines (meandering or sets) and catenary U-shapes. The range of these forms has been established in laboratory experiments, and all people are capable of perceiving these forms. In San art, both in engravings and the paintings, geometric motifs have been identified that follow these mental geometric forms (ibid.: 205). B. Smith and Ouzman note that although entoptics are found throughout the San rock art distribution they are not numerous. Although entoptics are geometric they are not in the true sense of the word abstract, like other things in San art they were ‘seen’ by the painter. For the San these were things seen en route to and in their spirit world. Formlings do not appear to follow any of the six key forms that are known as entoptic phenomena (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1988). There may be elements in their form that enclose or resemble entoptics as there are in many subjects (e.g., beehives, giraffe markings etc.), but these are not pure representations of entoptic forms. Even if one accepts that formlings comprise geometric elements, such as, oval, elliptical or oblong cores these are not entoptics. To the entoptic repertoire Dowson (1989: 91-92) added some dot and fleck motifs. He intertwines neuropsychology and San ethnography to argue that these motifs represent potency. About these dots and flecks, Dowson (1989: 92) states, “there is no reason to assume…that shaman-artists chose, arbitrarily, some abstract form to symbolise supernatural potency”. Instead, he argues that this is an

95 example of how San art motifs are comprised of entoptic and natural forms and amalgams of the two. The San cosmos is an inseparable amalgamation of the natural and the spirit realms. Many spirit world creatures look the same as creatures as found in this world (Biesele 1993: 94). Spirit eland and other supernatural creatures are said to come to the dances (Beisele 1975a: 170; LewisWilliams 1981a: 52) and the trancers, or at times even ordinary people present at dances may see them (Keeney 1999). Ritual specialists believe that they can also ‘see’ the animals after which their n/om is named lurking in the darkness beyond the dance firelight (LewisWilliams 1980: 472). Even the gods and the spirits of the dead come to witness the dance proceedings and trancers can see them. With this intermingling of ‘spirit world’ and ‘material world’ beings and creatures, it should be no surprise that the artists juxtaposed imagery from both realms in their depictions (Figs 7, 8). San paintings therefore do not show abstract designs. Although visionary things may appear ‘abstract’ or ‘non-realistic’ to outsiders, to the San these were real objects (Lewis-Williams 1986a). San rock art is now understood largely to concern religious metaphors and symbolism. Formlings and tree motifs can therefore be expected to be vehicles of symbolism. And symbols are not arbitrary in San art (and many other art traditions). Graphic natural forms through which symbolism is expressed are based on the natural properties of those physical subjects chosen by the artists. Although we do not fully understand the nature of how symbolism and related natural models operate in San art, more knowledge has been gained in recent years. Faunal species are symbols in San beliefs (Lewis-Williams & Biesele 1978;

96 Biesele 1993) and have been shown to be powerful graphic metaphors and symbols in rock art (Lewis-Williams 1981a). In rock art animals are often attended by diagnostic characteristics that derive from their natural behavioural traits or the San understanding of these behaviours in terms of the non-ordinary reality of trance. It is common to find depictions of antelope, birds, snakes and other animals with features such as: lowered or raised heads, raised tails, crossed legs, hairs standing on end, entoptic phenomena incorporated into their bodies, reclining, emanations and many others. Therianthropy, also common in the art, shows animal-to-human, animalto-animal and formling-vegetal conflations (Figs 8, 21). Juxtapositions of people with naturalistic or contorted antelope depictions connote the shamanic ‘taking on of potency’ from those powerful species. To understand how natural subjects become vehicles of symbolism, I now consider the concept of ‘natural models’ using cross-cultural examples.

Natural models

In explaining how formlings and trees are vehicles of symbolism, I advocate the idea of ‘natural models’ as an epistemological tool to penetrate their symbolism. One researcher who has linked symbolism with natural models is David Whitley (2000). Whitley and his colleagues (1999: 223) argue that ‘natural models’ provide an interpretative key for unlocking aspects of prehistoric belief systems and religions. ‘Natural models’ are physical phenomena (organic or inorganic) with observable characteristics that structure cognitive processes in some societies. The properties of these phenomena model societal values and ritual processes.

97 The notion of ‘natural models’ has long been accepted in archaeological thought (Vinnicombe 1976; Lewis-Williams 1981a; Wilbert 1997), however, these studies have not explicitly defined this notion. It is only in the recent work of Whitley and his colleagues in Mojave Desert that the idea has been formulated so that its true value is revealed. Whitley and colleagues offer a key insight that religion and symbolism are founded not on irrational beliefs or psychological impulses, but instead on logic that is based on the observation of the operation of natural systems. In this section I explore the derivation of symbolism from nature and their encoding in the cosmology and belief systems of societies including the southern African San. Current anthropological research shows that “traditional symbols, beliefs and rituals have their origin in observations of the physical properties of the ‘natural world’” (Whitley et al. 1999: 222). These studies discard the belief within the empiricist and processual paradigms in anthropology and archaeology that the so-called unquantifiable cognitive or epiphenomenal aspects of symbolism, belief and ritual, were sterile grounds for research. On the contrary, the logic upon which systems of symbolism and belief in traditional societies are constructed and structured is built on models provided by natural phenomena and their palpable physical properties. Therefore these cultural systems are “as logical as the workings of an ecological system, because it is just these kinds of natural systems from which they are…conceptually derived and organized” (Whitley et al. 1999: 222). Where symbolic art traditions have developed, as amongst the San, it is evident that the focus on conceptual associations expressed in the imagery was highlighted by a graphic emphasis on elements from natural phenomena. Artists were not working within a naturalism in which mimicking the natural form was the end point; yet they were not free and unconstrained. Rather, they

98 were working within a different, but also strong, defining and robust natural order and sense. The southern African San chose subjects from natural phenomena—animals and plant forms—to convey symbolism. Their cosmology or worldview defined the process of symbolising. To understand the cognitive complexities of San cosmology, and therefore of San perceptions about animals, trees and plants and their ecology, it is important to examine the way the San interpreted their universe. For the San, not only were the animals and plants important economically as sources of food, water and other secondary resources; they were also spiritually significant subjects. Even the various by-products from these natural subjects are conceived in ways that far transcend material functions. Recently, Biesele (1993: 94-95) noted that amongst the Ju/’hoansi, “The attitudes toward animals’ powers connected with trance seems a natural concomitant of general Ju/’hoan attitudes toward animals.” The list of “animal materials” used in ritual contexts includes “fat, marrow, certain bones, certain muscles, horns, tails, blood and urine.” It is also noted that a “particular species of animal providing the material is an important indicator of the substance’s particular power” (Biesele 1993: 94-95). The “Connection to a supernatural source of power has much to do with connection to the power of a metaphor” (ibid.: 96). The San attitudes to animals and natural phenomena around them are borne out of close attention to the properties and behavioural traits of the object selected. San “use of metaphoric animal power to influence environment gives us clues about how they regard their environment and their relationship to it” (Biesele 1993: 96). Their knowledge of varied ecologies and the biological forms they contain has been commented upon frequently (Stow 1905: 78; Huffman 1983: 49). For

99 example, the G/wi are noted for their depth and accuracy of knowledge of the physiology, ethology and ecology of biological species (Silberbauer 1981: 76). Heinz and Maguire (1974) come to the same conclusion regarding the !Kþ ethnobotanical knowledge. The San themselves tell us that they observe survival strategies of animals and their interaction with botanical forms. Mabolelo Shikwe, a Ju/’hoan healer, stated the relationship between people and animal survival modes in San thought when he said, We watch animals‌to see what medicines they use. We study their stomach contents and watch what plants they eat. Then we try them ourselves. This is how we learned about some of the medicines of the world. The gemsbok and other wild animals have taught us many things about healing one another (Keeney 1999: 31). Even the insects are conceptualised in a similar manner and related to people and aspects of their cultural experiences. The recognition of the workings of nature, which in turn inform belief systems and symbolism, is not unique to the San. Other small-scale societies make similar observations of and place values on organisms and, in some of these groups, symbolism so derived also finds itself into various powerful graphic expressions. One example is the South American Pre-Columbian iconography found on decorated burial vessels. Studying high-status cemetery sites in central Panamanian provinces, Linares (1977, in Flannery & Marcus 1996: 358-360) found that Panamanian chiefdoms had a rich symbolic system that drew on bestial metaphors. As warrior chiefdoms, these societies selected animals from diverse humid tropical species to use as metaphors, and ignored others. Humid tropical species have evolved a set of complex and varied inter-specific and intra-specific

100 patterns of interaction, that include predation, commensalism, mimicry, and elaborate signalling systems (Linares 1977). Such aspects of animal behaviour mirror[ed] the complexity of human behaviour, providing abundant raw material for use as symbols and iconographic expression (ibid.). Species that people ate (these are well represented in middens) are notably absent in the iconography because of their perceived undesirable qualities in the context of warrior values and political competition. By contrast, the common selection of man-eaters, predators, raptors, aggressive fighters and species with effective and peculiar defences reinforced desired values of fighting prowess, bravery, rank, and warrior status. The naturalistic depictions of species on funerary vessels were attended by an artistic precision showing body parts, such as teeth, claws, spines, pincers and other organs, used in fighting, defensive and predatory habits in each animal. These features communicated qualities of aggression and valiance in the iconography. In contrast to values of military prowess and political influence, some societies selected natural phenomena that mirrored aspects of their cosmology, religion and spiritual beliefs. Beliefs and spirituality of Warao Indians in the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela provide a case for the use of serpentine ‘natural models’ in their cosmological conceptions. Among these people, the anaconda, which lives in water and forages on land, is the primary ‘natural model’ in their trance hallucinatory tunnel imagery (Wilbert 1997: 317-318). The logic of their beliefs is based on the fact that this gigantic serpent can swallow a fairly big animal or even a person. The Waroa thus imagine themselves wedged inside its bowels floating on water. The Warao cosmos comprises the earth, which is imagined as a disk anchored

101 and kept afloat in the middle of a world ocean by the curls of a serpentine goddess. This goddess resembles an anaconda. Two other colourful species of large boa constrictors found in the Orinoco Delta form secondary models of Warao cosmic serpents. In Warao altered states of consciousness (induced by ingesting tobacco extracts), various natural attributes of these reptiles are hallucinated and they evoke serpentine symbolism that allows exploration of the supernatural (Wilbert 1997: 317-318). Warao cosmology features giant serpents as gods and goddesses occupying various cosmic realms. This symbolic logic is patterned according to observations of nature in the delta and marshland the environment surrounding the Warao. It is evident from these studies that symbolic and religious systems operate not on “irrational or psychologistic impulses� (Whitley et al. 1999: 222). But, the laws deriving from the functioning of ecological systems structure these symbolic systems. Whitely and colleagues demonstrate symbolic associations of quartz for the Mojave Desert Indian (Numic) religious beliefs and practices. These beliefs are shown to be associated with the iconography of the engravings in the same region where quartz was also used as a tool to engrave shamanic imagery. The choice of quartz is because of its intrinsic physical property, triboluminescence, which causes it to glow when struck or abraded. The Numic believe that this is the visible release of supernatural power; their shamanic rituals and production of iconographic images, therefore, associated white quartz with the visible manifestation of supernatural power. Supernatural power, in the form of a luminescent glow in quartz and other crystals, is experimentally demonstrable in accordance with physical laws and uniformitarian principles. The South-western Native Californian ethnography on

102 the use of these so-called “lighting stones” (Whitley et al. 1999: 236) also shows that beliefs and rituals are based on logic that is neither random nor irrational. It is structured in accordance with careful observations of natural elements and their operation. The demonstrable triboluminescent properties in quartz (absent in other common rocks in Mojave Desert) provided a ‘natural model’ upon which shamanistic beliefs were formulated (ibid.: 236). Characteristically, then, the physical objects and creatures, which carry these important symbolic meanings and expressions, are striking phenomena amongst the bestiary and physical objects available to the society from its ecological settings. Examples of these include: quartz for the Numic of North America; eland, giraffe and kudu for some San people, elephants for others; predators and raptorial birds for the Pre-Columbian Panamanian warrior chiefdoms; anacondas and boa constrictors for the Warao Indians; beaver for some indigenous North American societies; dingoes and crocodiles for some north Australian Aboriginal peoples and whales, it is now proposed, for some Neolithic people of Western Europe (Whittle 2000). The concept of ‘natural models’ reveals that a system of symbols and metaphors is based on a rational and selective logic. People make observations of intrinsic properties and behavioural traits of natural phenomena. In this view, iconographic motifs similarly carry encoded metaphoric messages that are informed by the natural subjects they depict. Although formlings might appear prima facie to be non-iconic I postulate here that, like all other San art motifs, they have a natural correlate and that they carry symbolism that is based on their subject matter. It is to an examination of which natural model and what symbolism of formlings that I now turn.


Chapter Five Formlings and their ‘natural models’ In the previous chapter I argued that a reconsideration of San painting rules and purposes shows that abstraction, contrary to the perceptions of some writers, is not a feature of San rock art. San depictions as vehicles of symbolism invariably derive from creatures or physical phenomena which act as their ‘natural models’. Even in the conflations of varied features, such as is seen in the depictions of fantastic creatures like trance buck, therianthropes (Fig. 8) and rain creatures (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1) each element depicted derives from natural phenomena. The same should be true for formlings. Although some features in San art appear to be entirely metaphysical in their derivation, as they, to modern viewers, appear to lack natural correlates, they are in fact aspects ‘seen’ in altered states of the mind. These include lines emanating from the top of human heads or the digits of their fingers, the microdot-fringed lines, tusk-like protrusions on human figures and animals that naturally do not have tusks, and infibulation (Fig. 8). San rock art is not concerned with simply iconic depiction of subjects, but exhibits images of religious significance fraught with symbolism (LewisWilliams 1981a). San rock art images served different purposes, and the artists’ interest to communicate symbolism influenced their choice of angles and details of a depiction in those specific features of selected ‘natural models’. It is in the choices

(B. Smith 1998) of features and their angles of projection on depictions that the significance of formlings will be found. The consistency of formling features implies that they derive from a physical constant in the natural world. A crucial

104 question is, therefore, what is the ‘natural model’ in formlings and which features of that subject were chosen for depiction and from what perspective? It is important to note that, as Chippindale (2001: 261) argues, the relationship between the shape of the subject and the shape of the picture is complex. Even the way a figure is oriented may make it look odd. I approach formlings with this caution and explore possible avenues of perceiving these motifs. The central methodological problem in interpreting formlings concerns, firstly, their origin (what they, as pictures, depict) and, secondly, their symbolism. And “knowing what a figure represents is one thing; knowing what it means is another” (Harris 1995: 5). This is equally true for formlings. Formlings are intricate insofar as their interpretation involves two levels of analysis. Writers have approached this complication in two different ways. Formlings have, on the one hand, been interpreted as “decorative abstract motifs” (Mason 1958: 362-363) or simply as “abstract designs” (Garlake 1990). This view, as I showed, is inconsistent with our understanding of San painting conventions, the range of formling contexts and the corroborative San ethnography. The second approach saw formlings as depictions of natural and cultural phenomena. In many early studies this approach ended with identifying somewhat impossible subjects that formlings were said to depict. In these identifications there was little attempt to demonstrate systematically the iconic correspondence between formlings and what they were asserted to depict. The inferred subjects arose from superficial resemblances and associations. Garlake (1990, 1995), for example, apart from seeing formlings as abstract designs, also infers that their iconic referents are the human liver and spleen. This assertion is not demonstrated beyond an observed human abdomen

105 superimposed with a formling oval core. My study, by contrast, demonstrates point-by-point those areas of correspondence between specific features of formlings and their subjects. I hasten to note that we must attune ourselves to San ways of drawing subjects in order to perceive successfully the ‘natural models’ of formlings. Formling shapes vary, but in that diversity is a remarkable regularity. Their painted contexts show that they constitute a conceptually coherent category. Formlings have consistent typical features and decorations that cannot be explained by reference to phenomena suggested in earlier views. If we accept, as I argue we must, that formlings have natural correlates, their subject must be demonstrated rather than asserted. The multiple features of formlings, such as microdots, oval flecks, orifices, overall ovoid shapes, and crenellations are distinctive features that need to be accounted for in their subject matter. In this analysis one must consider different possibilities and, through elimination, retain one subject that fits closely the morphology of formlings. However, from a preliminary examination of formlings I became curious as much as I was vexed because these formling features stood out in contrast to anything mentioned in early explanations.

Analysis of formling shapes and their subject matter

I preface my examination of formlings with an anecdote. Following my reading of the book Ndedema (Pager 1971) in 1993, I became fascinated with the idea of the existence of rock paintings of bees, their nests and honeycombs. This interest culminated in my 1997 summer visit to nearly all the sites in the Ndedema Gorge that Pager copied in the late 1960s. Most paintings interpreted as honeycombs or

106 bees’ nests appeared convincing to me, particularly those comprising nested or curved lines in association with winged insects. However, in Matopo, where I conducted my own research, there are no such motifs and few formlings are associated with clearly depicted winged insects. The differences in the range of these motifs from these regions are clear. Yet, Pager grouped beehive motifs from South Africa and formlings from Zimbabwe under one over-arching apiary explanation. He argued that Figure 9 depicts a honey-gatherer using a torch to smoke bees out of their nest (Pager 1973: 6-7, 1976: 1).

Fig.9. A human figure with a formling and insects (Pager copy – RARI Archives)

Having seen this panel before and having examined Pager’s copy, I was skeptical, initially, that he had observed correctly the fleck motifs as having wings. I wanted to re-visit this site and examine the details of the original against

107 Pager’s copy in order to verify whether these supposed bees are indeed bees or some other insect form. The year 1999 provided this opportunity as I was part of a group that visited Maholoholo Shelter and Nanke Cave sites. The group comprised experienced researchers and people who have observed San rock art for many years. These were Drs Janette Deacon and Benjamin Smith, Geoffrey Blundell, Alec Campbell, David Coulson and Marcus Peters. Some had seen some sites in Matopo before. On our return from Nanke Cave, I guided the group to the small site of Toghwana where the panel shown in Figure 9 may be found. Standing a few tens of metres from the Nanke path, it is shielded by trees and boulders that easily escapes the attention of passers-by. I considered it to be one of the ‘gems’ of my study and felt it was imperative that I discuss some of its features with experienced people. Using a magnifying glass I was able to confirm the accuracy of Pager’s copy: first, indeed these motifs have wings, and, secondly, they are painted up-side down. A question that had bothered me for a long time was why, if these are wings, were the creatures painted up-side down? Bees and flying insects cannot fly up-side down. I drew this to the attention of my colleagues and we debated it. Dr. Deacon observed that one motif had downward-facing appendages that resembled legs (cf. Fig. 15). So, were these ‘bees’, as Pager argued them to be, depicted only with legs? In the Drakensberg bees are depicted with wings only, never with legs. So, if the Toghwana creatures were bees, one would expect them to either have both wings and legs or wings only without legs. These motifs are therefore something other than bees. Pager (1976: 6) had previously also suggested that formlings could be depictions of biological subjects, such as stingless bees’ nests, while Walker

108 (1996: 73) speculated invertebrate forms, such as wasps. Could they be these forms? Or are they locusts? But locusts, with their pronounced back legs and large heads do not correspond with these motifs. However, if the appendages on some motifs are legs, then a possible insect form that I had been using as a working premise for some time appears to be confirmed. Are these motifs flying termites? My conjecture of a link between formlings and termite nests came from studying Garlake’s copies, shown in this thesis as Figures 1 and 13, and the motifs in Matopo appear to confirm this. Unequivocal flying termites are painted in at least four known sites in Matopo (Figs 15, 16, Plate 3a; Cooke 1964c) including Nanke Cave that we had visited earlier. We had discussed the Nanke termites and the topic was still in the air. Could formlings therefore be termitaria? I now turn to examine this ‘natural model.’


Fig. 10. A formling with horizontal cores and seven crenellations on its outline and a poorly preserved orifice, northern Zimbabwe (redrawn from Garlake 1995)

109 Fig. 11. A formling with microdots and three crenellations (redrawn from Garlake 1995)


Core (in a series)


Are formlings depictions of termitaria?

In analysing formlings I attend to their distinctive shapes, decorative features and their painting contexts (Mguni 2001). Such an analysis is useful in cases where there is limited or no informed knowledge (i.e., direct commentary on the images or ethnographic analogy) to aid interpretation (Chippindale 2001: 262). Available information is only “restricted to that which is immanent in the images themselvesâ€? (Chippindale & Taçon 1998: 7-8). My study therefore combines formal analysis to identify the subject matter of formlings with the rich San ethnography to interpret their symbolism. If formlings are representations of termitaria and flying termites, then what features of these biological edifices are recognisable in the paintings?





Ovals (in a series)

Oval flecks

Fig. 12. A formling (similar to Figs 10, 11) comprises five prominent crenellations at the top end and a combination of dots and flecks placed on the cores (redrawn from Garlake 1995)

Termitaria (termites’ nests or hives) possess architectural complexities that require very close attention (Figs 1, 9-13, 21, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1). Many termite species (Isoptera), which build both epigeous and subterranean nests, occur widely in southern Africa. The most architecturally refined and delicate of all

111 nests are those build by Apicotermes, a fairly widespread genus in Africa (Howse 1970: 97, 113). While most genera construct irregular nest forms, those of Apicotermes are often egg-shaped (or ovoid), with well-defined internal galleries that are also more regular and symmetrical in structure. One species, Apicotermes trägardhi, builds simpler nest forms consisting of small ovoids connected by narrow galleries, although these are often irregular. Two other genera, Amitermes and harvester termites, Hodotermes, build compact and invariably spherical subterranean nests. These nests divide into numerous chambers by horizontal and vertical partitions (Howse 1970: 83). Termitaria vary considerably in structure, even among the same species (Noirot 1970: 110; Howse 1970: 82; Naude 1934), but their basic elements remain constant. While no nest is a replica of another even within the same species, they always possess distinctive features that assist precise identifications. Plate 5 shows the common shapes of termitaria. I now consider feature-by-feature areas of correspondence between the morphological features of formlings and the architectural features of termitaria. Features on termitaria do not necessarily have to appear in their entirety on any given formling. This would not be expected, as San art images do not usually carry all the features of their ‘natural models’. Most often only features essential to the picturing purpose were depicted. Some features were omitted while some were depicted in varying combinations depending on the purpose. At this stage, the co-variation of selected and omitted features and which ones went together is not certain. What is clear in San art is that significant features were chosen and depicted, sometimes even exaggerated. The emphasis in formlings is on the interior structure of termitaria and these features include:

112 1. Overall shape of formlings



Plate 5. Termites nests are usually oval, ovoid, or spherical in shape (A, reproduced after Howse 1970, and B, after Krishna & Weesner 1970)

Generally, formlings assume circular, spherical or ovoid structural forms. This form is consistent with San painting conventions. In the natural world, underground termitaria are built in subspherical cavities (or caves) called copularium. These contain the habitacle, which is the actual nest. The habitacle is typically spherical or ovoid in shape. There is here an equivalent between the general shape of the formlings and a natural object. To understand this correspondence, I now turn to other aspects of this feature, which are also distinguishable in formlings.


2. Outlines of formlings A line feature often defines the general shape of formlings. It is this feature that has been interpreted as the stomach wall in human beings (Garlake 1995: 96). New evidence here suggests otherwise, and points to termitaria for an answer. The habitacles of termitaria carry protective outer clayey shells or walls, known as the idiotheque. These vary in thickness according to termite species. Bellicositermes natalensis build thick and massive outer walls, whereas other species in genera, such as Microceretermes and Amitermes construct very thin walls. These walls enclose a much lighter clayish structure comprising the royal cell, fungus gardens and other chambers (Plate 5). In the paintings, the habitacle is depicted as outlines of formlings. Single openings are often closely associated with this feature, which has also been interpreted inadequately before.

3. Orifices on formling outlines Orifices (or openings), which are sometimes protuberant and elaborately painted (Fig. 13) on formlings, are explicable in terms of termitaria. In previous interpretations these have generally been ignored. Even the view that formling outlines are human stomach walls is unconvincing as it leaves unexplained this distinctive feature of formlings. To explain these orifices, I focus on the underground termitaria. These possess gallery systems with, usually, nearly vertical or upwardly projecting channels at the top, which also connect the cellar near the base (Noirot 1970: 97). In

114 Odontotermes transvalensis, these chimneys project above ground level and can attain heights of 1.3 m or more (Coaton 1947). These features have been suggested to be regulators of climatic control or gaseous exchange inside the nests (Howse 1970: 107), but they also serve as exit ramps of termites or as emergence towers for winged termites (alates) in their nuptial flights (Howse 1970: 92). In other species, such as Macrotermes bellicosus, mounds in well vegetated areas may be quite narrow so as to resemble chimneys or cathedral spires (Howse 1970: 96). This could be another feature informing the pronounced

Fig. 13. An anthill showing a pronounced chimney and has a tree next to it, northern Zimbabwe (redrawn from Garlake 1995)

115 and projecting orifices on the formlings outlines. Ventilation chimneys or special exit ramps are not independent of mounds and therefore the San may not have differentiated these features when they painted them. In Figure 13, the chimney of termitaria is shown very clearly; it is rendered in cross-section. Note that the opening connects with the ‘internal’ cores inside the body of the formling. Winged insects, which could be alates, are shown flowing inside the projecting orifice and in the interior. Plate 7, although with a less pronounced orifice, also depicts a similar association. Furthermore, the presence of a tree, with two perched birds, next to the ‘chimney’ further supports the view of this context as termitaria. Figure 13 thus depicts the interior features of termitaria as well as the epigeous chimney in its usual natural setting. This broadly symbiotic association of trees and plants and formlings is central to my interpretation of these motifs.

4. Formling cores The oblong-, or oval-, or elliptical-shaped formling cores are the characteristic internal features of formlings. In most termite species the interior of their termitaria presents very similar features to these cores. To explain these cores, I draw attention to the elements inside the habitacle. The interior structure of the habitacle in Apicotermes arquieri nests is always developed by divisions into floors, regularly superposed by concave partitions in a generally horizontal aspect (as in Figs 9, 10, 13). These partitions are joined towards the axial part by a complex system of ramps (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.5) that also serve as communication in a vertical direction (Noirot 1970: 114). In species

116 Apicotermes lamani, simple pillars with short ramps unite these partitions. In Macrotermes, the chambers formed by these partitions contain the fungus gardens and, near the centre, the royal cell. As a result of their fungus gardens, the subfamily, Macrotermitinae, is associated symbiotically with a genus of fungi called Termitomyces (Howse 1970: 19). This is also commonly referred to as ‘beef steak mushrooms’. An inspection of Figure 1 shows that this formling was probably informed by Macrotermes termitaria, which contain fungus gardens that occasionally give rise to mushrooms during wet seasons. The formling cores are therefore depictions of chambers or cells that are found in the interior of termites’ nests. Their typical shapes are also very similar.

5. Interstices between formling cores The formling cores, now recognised as the inner partitions or chambers of termites’ nests, also exhibit features that need explanation. These features, the interstices between formling cores, have been completely overlooked in previous interpretations of formlings. I argue that these features, too, are explainable by reference to internal features of termitaria. Formling interstices strongly resemble the walls, often thin, which separate internal partitions or cells (chambers) found inside the habitacles of termitaria. These walls are generally horizontally aligned, but sometimes they are vertical (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.5) as dictated by the general alignment of the chambers in nests.


6. Formling crenellations Formlings often carry features on their outside that further support the identification of termitaria as the subject matter of these motifs. These features, with no close correlate from the subjects suggested in previous interpretations, are crenellations that resemble triangular or linear spiked appendages on the outer edges of some well-preserved formlings. Similar features occur on the exterior of the idiotheque, the casing outside the habitacle. The exterior of the habitacle of termitaria carries a variety of features that differ in details of shape in various species, but are generally similar. The habitacle is supported at the base (sometimes also on the sides and at the top as well) inside the underground cavities (copularium) on conical pillars, which are often regular with points directed away from it [habitacle]. In aged nests of B. natalensis, the central pillars can be hypertrophied to lengths of about 50 cm while the peripheral ones at the bottom of the habitacle remain suspended. These features can “extend into the cave by very thin and fragile filaments” (Noirot 1970: 101) to give the appearance of a crenellated exterior morphology of the habitacle (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.6). On formlings, this feature is shown fringing the edges of their outlines. There is also another possible derivation, particularly from the species Macrotermes natalensis termitaria. Their nests are heavily fluted on the outer walls of habitacles and often carry prominently projecting ‘ribs’ or pinnacles (Noirot 1970: 108). The exterior features of habitacles are thus replicated on the formling outlines.


Plate 6. A formling with crenellations and therianthropes (Matopo)

Plate 7. A formling with triangular crenellations, insects flowing out of the orifice, northern Zimbabwe (reproduced after Coulson & Campbell 2000)

119 7. Microdots on formling cores Regularly patterned lines or grids of microdots very often cover formling cores. Their form/shape and arrangement, however, points to what they depict. While they could represent nymphs, as some have argued before, these microdots are often well rounded to take a form that evokes the pore or slit structures on the idiotheque (or outer shells of habitacles) in termitaria. Prior to swarming, termite species, such as Macrotermes natalensis, construct special galleries between the ducts on the interior and exterior of mounds, which appear as horizontally aligned openings in the wall that are sometimes slit-like (Howse 1970: 50). This system of regularly arranged rows of openings, either pores or slits on outer walls (Plate 5), may indirectly open into the inner chambers. These serve to facilitate ventilation and also as communication with the exterior of the habitacle.

Plate 8. Formling with vertical cores, one of which has reticulated giraffe decorations (Matopo)

120 8. Fields of flecks in formling contexts Oval-shaped flecks have been noted as one feature of formling contexts. They also appear in contexts where unequivocal flying termites, winged and legged insects, are depicted (Figs 9, 13, 15). From this association it can be inferred that they are part of these insect forms, now recognised as termites. In addition, their shape follows the natural form of wingless nymphs and the nymphs of termites, which have barely visible wing-pads. I argue that these motifs depict these subjects, especially where they appear with formlings.

9. Formling caps and domes Sometimes formlings have an appearance of a series of domed or rounded tops where the caps on their cores are followed closely by the formling outlines. This feature is explicable in terms of the exterior of the epigeous termitaria. These domes resemble ‘confused’ clusters of compound mounds (Appendix I Fig. 1.15). At Nanke Cave (Plates 3, 3a) a swarm of termites surrounds a very similar motif (but, with only two domes), which may actually depict a mound. The shape of domed tops is that of mounds rendered in 2-dimensional cross-section as if seen from a lateral viewpoint. This feature can be striking in formlings with edges of unbounded oval caps or where curves and convolutions of the edge are simply delicately outlined (Fig. 3). Yet in others, only repetitive semicircular outlines of oval caps remain (Fig. 2; also Garlake 1987d: 52), as the rest of the motif has now faded. Likewise, in nature, many termite species like Pseudacanthotermes spiniger build similar domed structures above ground (prior to nuptial swarming) from which

121 alates launch themselves (Howse 1970: 92). Even subterranean nests often end up as epigeous forms with visible mounds or domes above ground level. Macrotermes natalensis build especially striking and conspicuous mound nests. Older nests can be gigantic, reaching sizes of up to 6 m high and 30 m in diameter (Howse 1970: 94). These domes can cluster above ground around the original parent nest, as in Macrotermes bellicosus, with the development of accessory nests (Noirot 1970: 91). This termite behaviour results in the ‘jumbled’ appearance of domed nest structures. And when viewed from the side, one gets a perspective very similar to the two-dimensional depictions that we see on formlings tops. Termitaria are not static structures (Noirot 1970: 91), but their growth is an everactive process. They constantly enlarge and alter in shape and form (Howse 1970: 111) according to the age and size of the colonies. Formlings, too, vary in scale from as small as a few centimetres to several metres in length and width. This perhaps captures one of the striking features of termitaria, which, unlike other subjects that have static forms and shapes, constantly alters form and renews itself. In all these features that I have discussed so far one aspect might be coincidental, but for all repeated features to have natural correlates with formlings gives confidence to their identification as termitaria. Aside from the distinctive formling types, there is a specific set, which, although bearing resemblances in some respects to typical formlings, falls outside of the termitaria category. This group, to which I now turn, although less frequent in Matopo, was also significant to San artists in some parts of southern Africa.

122 Formlings and honeybees’ nests and honeycombs

Some formlings vary from the typical motifs that depict termitaria, but a common feature for both is their oblong- or ovoid-shaped cores. These forms (Fig. 14) resemble formlings that comprise rows of elongated ovals or segments of cylindrical shapes. These segments, however, tend to assume a concave alignment. They depict features that can be interpreted in terms of honeycombs hanging down within beehives (Pager 1971: 151, 347-352). These images, found largely in the Drakensberg region, are especially convincing when associated with paintings of bees. They are clearly distinct from formlings. Pager (1976: 2) invoked the apiary explanation for the horizontal cores (Fig. 9), arguing that honeycombs are aligned in beehives this manner. He described the alignment as a “worm’s eye view” of parallel sets of combs seen from beneath. He noted that honeycombs are built vertically (Pager 1973, 1976). These are very distinctive from the horizontal orientation of oval or oblong cores in formlings. A panel in Lewis-Williams (1995: fig. 3b) shows a set of curved motifs, covered in flecks, merged at the top of an inverted catenary form (Fig. 14). This panel, like Figure 9, juxtaposes a human figure on the right side above whose head are lines of insects. Convincing examples of honeycombs occur in the Drakensberg (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.7, Fig. 14). Depictions of small insect forms, usually minutely painted in red (bodies) and white (pairs of wings (see Fig. 8), sometimes faded surround honeycomb motifs. As Figure 8 shows, there is more to these motifs than just a record of apicultural practices. This chapter demonstrated that termitaria and flying termites are the primary models of formlings and that a few motifs overlap with beehives or honeycombs.


Fig. 14. A variation of the honeycomb motif without insects, but the microdots are similar to formling microdots, S. Africa (redrawn from Lewis-Williams 1986a)

While in some formlings the characteristic exterior features of termitaria were depicted, the emphasis was primarily on the interior aspect, shown in cross section. Because the interior of termitaria is unfamiliar to Western observers, previous writers encountered difficulties in recognising the subject matter of formlings. I argue in the next chapter that the artists’ choice of the internal structure of termitaria holds the key to the symbolism of formling. Although there is a degree of similarity between some formlings and apiary imagery, beehives and honeycombs appear seldom. Accepting the apiary view as a substantive component of my interpretation, I explore in Chapter Six the parallel symbolism that the apiary subject matter shares with termites and termitaria.


Chapter Six Painted contexts and ethnographic information I have demonstrated the subject matter of formlings, first, through defining the motifs and, secondly, analysing their morphology and decorative attributes against biological phenomena. This chapter focuses on the third aspect of my analysis—the repeated painted contexts of formlings to interpret what they symbolise. Anchored on the understanding of San picture-making conventions, the analysis showed that formling depictions are structured in a manner that adheres to the principles of San graphic art. Formlings cannot, therefore be anything other than representations of termitaria, their ‘natural models’ and, in some motifs, honeybees’ nests and honeycombs. I now discuss the varied significances of these insect forms and suggest why they, and not other insects, were chosen for depiction. I also discuss the mundane and supernatural values (as honey-fat creatures, see Lewis-Williams 1998a) these insects have in San thought and beliefs in order to elucidate the symbolism of formlings. This symbolism hinges on the understanding of San beliefs concerning termites and honeybees. Since “religious statements are symbolic, not iconic, because they signify by an association of ideas rather than by likeness or similarity (LewisWilliams 1981a: 3-7), I also suggest a San concept that formlings might have signified metaphorically or made statements about, without necessarily being its iconic representation. I now analyse specific painted contexts of formlings so as to determine their symbolic focus. As Lewis-Williams and his colleagues (2000: 123) argue, wellunderstood associated images may place an enigmatic motif in a category of San

125 life and belief. I therefore examine the images which are associated repeatedly with formlings so as to identify the part of the symbolic spectrum in which formlings are placed.

Contexts and associations of formlings

Although formlings are occasionally painted singly, they more often exhibit complex associations with other imagery. In their contexts, juxtapositions and superimpositions of various symbols and metaphors limit their range of potential meanings. Common associations include animals, trees and plants (Willcox 1984: 142) and human figures. Formlings are also found with fleck motifs and microdots. Complex contexts combine formlings with tree or plant motifs growing from their edges or on top (Figs 1, 21, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1, see also Goodall 1959: plate 8; Garlake 1995: fig. 179). As some have noted, “Trees and animals stand on ovals” (Garlake 1987a: 24). More intriguing conflations are of ovals that are enclosed in corms of plant forms (Fig. 21; also Garlake 1987d: fig. 67). About these contexts, Garlake (1987a: 52) remarks, “examples of ovoids [are] enclosed in long lozenges with lines or tufts at one end which look like bulbs, plants or roots.” But, he does not discuss the possible meaning of this association. Yet, such complexities imply rich symbolic meanings. The meanings were not random, but as Chapter Four shows, they were informed by observations of the operation of natural phenomena and ecological systems. To assess these meanings I now describe specific panels that exhibit contexts which are rich in metaphors.

126 The formling shown in Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.1) carries much information because of its particular complexity. The motif comprises eleven vertical oval cores placed nearly symmetrically. The cores on either side are larger than the nine middle ones. These middle cores are darker and merge with one another in parts. At the base of the right-most core emerges a plant stem; it then branches into five clear shoots. Superimposed over the same core towards the top is a blue wildebeest (Gorgon taurinus) and under its forelegs are twenty oval flecks. The wildebeest has eight legs, one set of which could be a vestige of another wildebeest that has now faded. But, this feature of multiple legged animals or several legs emanating from motifs is common in San art, more occur in the Drakensberg (see LewisWilliams 1995: 13-14). On the left of the formling, two leafless trees are painted on a line or ‘ground level’ that connects with the formling. This line branches into five root-like appendages, where it passes the edge (outline) of the formling, then continues inside and fades below the snout of a superimposed antelope. Another partially faded line continues from outside the formling and goes over its cores and terminates in the middle of its body. A finely detailed polychrome giraffe with reticulated marks is superimposed on the same formling in the middle of its body. Three more giraffe are painted to the left, two facing away and one towards the formling. In between two giraffe that face each other there are two vertical distinctive rope-like lines extending above and below the ‘ground level’ line. Five clear kudu cows superimpose the formling. Five other antelope, also on top of the formling, are probably kudu cows as well because of their distinctive long slender necks and, on one of them, very large ears. Painted a little below the formling is a tsessebe (Damaliscus lunatus), with characteristic horns, high shoulders and a distinctive hump. A partially faded line descends from the formling, and then goes behind the leg of

127 one kudu cow and a partial human figure to link the tsessebe. A final, but notable feature on the panel is a partial, large and turgid outlined zoomorphic creature placed on top and extending well above the formling. Although unidentifiable its ears are rhino-like and the body is hippo-shaped. Because of its grotesque features it can be better understood as depicting a rain creature. Similar paintings of fantastic creatures, called rain animals, are found throughout southern Africa (Stow & D.F. Bleek 1930; Woodhouse & Lee 1971; Pager 1971; Vinnicombe 1976; Lewis-Williams 1981a; Woodhouse 1992). These painted creatures fit well with beliefs recorded from the /Xam about rain creatures. In /Xam narratives, such creatures are described as amorphous, conflating features from various powerful animals such as rhinoceroses, elephants, hippopotami and felines. They are linked to rain and water and are controlled by the rain shamans (!khwa-ka !gi:ten), who manipulate them so as to control rain. These specialists caused the rain to fall by capturing the rain-animal (!khwa-ka xoro) (Lewis-Williams 1981a: 103-116) at the pool or well where it lived. The animal was then led across the veld and killed. /Xam informants said that it was “cut� so that its blood or milk spilt and became rain (D.F. Bleek 1933). Four lines exude from the snout of the rain animal in Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.1). Similar lines are found on people and animals in San art, often from the mouth or nose. These lines are argued to indicate the nasal bleeding experienced by ritual specialists or shamans in trance (Lewis-Williams 1981a: figs 19, 20, 21, 23, 1985: 51; Walker 1996: 90). These features link the imagery in Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.1) to non-ordinary reality or spiritual experiences of the San. Note the two trees on the left and the plant form growing on the formling to the right. Trees are a key part of this spirit world symbolism. In the next chapter I explore the detailed

128 symbolism of botanical subjects. For now I merely note their important and informing contexts and their fundamental association with formlings. From the same shelter with the panel shown in Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.1) is a well known, but insufficiently examined, formling (Fig. 4). It consists of thirteen outlined slanting cores, all merged together. Seven of these, in the middle, are filled in with dark red ochre. It appears that these cores originally had white caps, now barely visible. The dark red outline, which appears originally to have followed closely the rounded ends of the now disappeared cores, is still visible. A vestigial silhouette of an antelope, facing to the right, superimposes the formling cores on the lower right hand side. Farther below is another well preserved antelope, possibly a tsessebe judging from its horn shapes. A recumbent man, raising one knee with the other leg stretched out, reaches out to the faded antelope with one hand while the other hand holds a stick pointing it towards the animal’s snout. His equipment is depicted besides him. There is another man above, kneeling on one knee and stretching out the other leg. His equipment lies next to him. He holds an indeterminate object (NB. This object is similar to the ones held by human figures in similar contexts in Figures 9, 16, 19), the front of which is surrounded by oval flecks. Covered within these flecks is a distorted human figure, or an ethereal anthropomorph. These flecks overlap the formling, the head of the faded antelope and the recumbent man thereby connecting them together. In another shelter a few kilometres from the location of panels shown in Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.1) and Figure 4, there is a similar formling (Fig. 9). This one comprises eight concave horizontal (or sausage-shaped) cores, the middle six of which are painted in red with faded lighter-coloured caps at the ends. On the

129 right, near the orifice of the enclosing line, these are covered in grids of microdots. All around, on the inside of the outline, there is a lining of oval flecks. At the orifice, these flecks transform into a row of a mixture of legged and winged insect forms. The row then branches into four separate rows. Below the three upper rows a kneeling human figure holds an object towards the orifice of the formling. This object has lines that flow in the direction of the holding hand1 in the manner of a mop brush. Similar objects occur in some panels in Matopo (Fig. 15) and in two instances are associated with what I have argued in Chapter Five to be termites’ nymphs (or “Bushman rice�, Fig. 4) and unequivocal flying termites (Fig. 16). I therefore suggest that these objects depict the bundles of grass which the San use as plugs to block alates from escaping their termitaria (Nonaka, pers. comm.). A typical feature of formlings shown in Figures 9-13, Plates 7 and 8 is their horizontal or vertical cores. In these examples, the cores comprise red middle sections with white (or lighter pigment) caps on both ends. A consistent feature in these formlings is the bounding outline. Microdots cover part of or the entire surface of some of them. Another element is that of oval flecks, which also take on other notable features that suggest insects. Of these contexts, Plate 7 shows trident motifs flowing in and out of the orifice on the formling. Similarly, Figure 13 depicts winged trident or bird-foot motifs associated with oval flecks entering and exiting a protuberant orifice on the formling. A tree, on which two birds are perched, is positioned next to the orifice. Above the tree is a poorly preserved tasselled bag. A vestigial human figure is visible on the lower most core of this motif. On the lower left part of the formling are painted two oblong shaped


Some writers have suggested that these lines represent flames of a torch that the so-called honey collector used to smoke bees out of their nests (Pager 1973)

130 motifs that contain a series of oval flecks in rows. In Figures 10, 11, 12, Plate 6, the formlings have, appended on their outer edges, conical- or triangular-shaped spikes, varying in numbers on each. In some contexts, human figures, therianthropes and animals are enclosed in formling cores (Figs 11, 21; also Garlake 1995: figs 35, 56) and in between their interstices (Figs 6, Plates 3, 3b, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1). In yet other contexts, fantastic creatures are superimposed on cores, and some appear to move out of them and towards the orifice (Fig. 10), as if exiting from the formling. Bearing in mind these painted contexts in Zimbabwe, I now describe a formling (Fig. 3) from the Waterberg district in northern South Africa. This remarkable motif contains peculiar associations, yet they fit well within the conceptual framework of formling contexts. Various images on this formling may appear disparate and unrelated, but, they are supplementary and they relate and string together a series of symbolic associations. I begin from the left and move to the right, for ease of reference. I do not suggest that the imagery and its meaning developed in this unidirectional, or linear, progression. This set of features places this formling in a proper symbolic context(s) that resonates in Zimbabwean motifs. The left-most part of the formling shows three ornate women, with finely painted bands on their wrists, shoulders and, on one of them, the knees as well. Two of the women wear back aprons. An intriguing feature on one of these women is what looks like minute oval flecks, similar to those commonly found with formlings. The flecks are a little longer than those commonly found in and around formlings and I suggest that, on a human figure, they are best understood in terms of the similar Drakensberg motifs that depict erect hairs (see

131 Lewis-Williams 1981a: 91; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990: 8). The women, like the three other faded women below them, are depicted in front-on view and have raised arms. The formling itself comprises 33 vertical cores with a shape, which although an uncommon form, is still recognizable as a variety of formling cores. Along the edge of these cores is a delicate ashy-white outline that is faded in parts, but that probably originally covered the entire length of the formling. The line follows the curves and convolutions of the core edges and, on some, forming fine hair-like crenellations. Eight of these are on the pointed tip of the fifth core (see close up). It continues, and on the fifteenth core, there are six such crenellations, also at the pointed tip. The line continues farther, until the twentieth core, growing into nine crenellations, all of them spaced nearly equidistantly. Above these crenellations is a small buck, with its legs painted as if they are wedged in between these forms. Finally, the line forms three larger crenellations on the twenty-fourth cores. The base of the formling lies on a prominent fissure that runs across the middle of the shelter. Therefore, as a result of instability of the rock and flaking along this feature, the formling is poorly preserved. Nevertheless, many features are still visible above. A thicker line, weathered in parts, runs along its base rather like a seam, and in the middle section of the formling it grows into thicker, longer and more rounded finger-like crenellations, reminiscent of the smaller and thinner crenellations described already. Although the thickness of these 42 crenellations is consistent, their height varies (see Fig. 3 close up). A total of 72 handprints in dark red, orange and yellow pigments are associated with the formling. Of this number, 50 are superimposed over the formling, while only 7 are placed underneath. Three left-facing hartebeest, one in white and the

132 other two in red, are painted close to each other and above the formling. One is directly over and across two cores, while the other two are placed slightly above the top edge of these forms. Hartebeest/tsessebe are commonly painted antelope in this area; they also appear in other sections of the shelter (see Laue 2000). A few human figures, above the middle section of the formling, move across and in between the interstices of the cores. One noteworthy feature on this formling is a thin ashy-white (and black in parts) funicular line that is visible in sections above and across the formling. The line maintains the same thickness throughout its length. While nearly horizontal in parts, it is also near vertical in orientation. It appears that it was depicted to be discontinuous in parts, but it is also partially broken up by fading. In places, the tips/ends of this line are well-rounded suggesting a deliberate ending in the motif (see Fig. 3 close up) so as to give an appearance of weaving or tacking in and out of the formling cores. This weaving is very much in the manner of tacking in and out of the rock face that has been described in the Drakensberg for a common motif known as the ‘thin red line’ or ‘threads of light’ (Lewis-Williams 1981b; Lewis-Williams et al. 2000). Some sections of the line are superimposed by handprints. This sinuous line, so similar to some motifs in Zimbabwe (see lines on Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1) seems to be an integral component of the symbolism of formlings. Formlings depict termitaria and honeybees’ nests. The next step is to tease out the relationship between these insects and the diverse formling contexts examined above. I begin with associations of termites and honeybees in San thought and beliefs.

133 Termites/fat and bees/honey in San beliefs

While San ethnography bears a lot of information on termites, honeybees are, by comparison, infrequently mentioned (see D.F. Bleek 1928: 7; Marshall 1969: 350353; Nonaka 1996: 35). However, the mere frequency of mention of things is not in itself a sufficient measure or guarantee of greater significance. Termites, even today, constitute a delicacy and a valuable source of fat and protein, as the eland and other meat antelope do, amongst San groups (D.F. Bleek 1933, 1928: 7, 16-17; Silberbauer 1981: 216-217; Hitchcock 1982: 262; Hewitt 1986; Nonaka 1996: 30-31, 1997: 81, 86; Walker 1996: 74; Guenther 1999: 27). Although Marshall (1999: 216) says termites are not important as food among the Ju/’hoansi, she notes that they often say, “Termites are sweet to the taste.” She witnessed an occasion where the Ju/’hoansi picked termites up and ate them “with excitement and relish” for it is a “pleasant and rare taste” in their diet (ibid.: 216). Termites also feature in Ju/’hoansi avoidance observances particularly those associated with coming-ofage. During Tshoma, boys refrain from eating termites, although the reasons for the avoidance were not explained to her. The /Xam are known to have eaten chrysalides of ants (ants’ eggs, //xẽ:, //xe: D.F. Bleek 1956: 635) to such an extent that they became known as “Bushman rice” (Bleek 1875: 10-12, 16; Stow 1905: 59, 68; Marshall 1969: 367; Hewitt 1986: 35, 92, 97, 111, 150; Guenther 1989: 15, 80). George Stow (1905: 59) mentioned that this word is of Dutch derivation, referring to “chrysalides of white ants obtained from the ants’ nests”. ‘Bushman rice’ could refer to the eggs of flying termites, this point needs clarification. In A Bushman Dictionary (D.F. Bleek 1956: 119—NI, Northern Kalahari), one entry: “k“ane” (with variants k“ anisa, k“ ani∫a) is the name for “edible termites”, it is added that these are called “ants”. This is a

134 misplaced association, as termites and ants are not closely related in biological terms; termites are closely related to cockroaches (Howse 1970: 15-16), not to ants. The confusion in transcriptions stemmed from the fact that termites in many languages, including English, are commonly referred to as “white ants” (ibid.: 16). Early writers may have transcribed statements about termites only as ants (cf. Stow 1905: 59, for “white ants”). ‘Bushman rice’ (or ‘ants’ eggs’ or ‘ants’ chrysalides’) therefore meant termites’ nymphs rather than the ants’ (Hymenoptera) larvae. That said, a note on different kinds of ‘ants’ chrysalides’ (Hewitt 1986: 35, 97) might also suggest that, to some degree, they meant actual ants. Ants in central Kalahari today are favoured for their sour taste (Nonaka 1996: 35) although, by comparison, termites are more significant in the diet (ibid.: 31, Nonaka 1997: 81). Although termites are an important food item when available, their intermittent availability entails occasional exploitation (Nonaka 1997: 81). Guenther (1989: 80) notes that, “the /Xam [relished the] highly delectable, larval and pupal forms of ‘ants’ (i.e., termites).” In addition to the dietary importance of termites, just like the eland was (is), their fat was also significant primarily for other symbolic reasons. In //Kabbo’s narration: The rice [nymphs of flying termites] consists of two things, kwari, alive, moving [things], and ssueri ssueri (“fats”). They [/Xam women] heat the kwari with stones and they kill them with burning, with the stones’ heat. They lay them out on a mat and spread them. They become dry. The San women sift them out so that the wind might blow away the “fats’” feet (which they did run with). And then the San women eat real dry fat. The “fats” which have (or get) feathers [wings?], they go to the rice’s ears,

135 when they feel that the sun is warm, in summer, so that they may await the rain, that the rain may fall; that they may fly, going out of the rice’s ears. They go into the rain’s wet ground that they may henceforward be in the earth. The rice waits for new fats; those which are white; those which come back, while they come with the rice’s star. (L II.-35:3150-3236; listed in W.H.I. Bleek 1875: 9, #15, version 2). //Kabbo explicitly shows the subtlety of /Xam knowledge on termites’ behaviour and how this was conceived metaphorically. Nuptial flights are timed variously among different termite species, but generally they occur in summer after rain showers (Miller 1964: 15-16; Howse 1970: 48-56; Nonaka 1996: 30). The nuptials (i.e., “fats” with, or which get, feathers in //Kabbo’s words) excavate and ‘enter’ the ground after courtship to start new nests and colonies. Precisely, ‘entering’ the ground ensures reproduction of new colonies, hence nymphs and fat. There is an oblique reference to the symbolism of fat and potency here tied to the concept of replenishment. The fat of termites was clearly a highly regarded substance. Writing on the Nharo, D.F. Bleek (1928: 16-17, my emphasis) also noted that, After good rains the whole village decamps to the antheaps, in hope that the male white termites may fly out…They are considered a great dainty on account of their fat, in which Bushman menu is often lacking, as only a few nuts of all the vegetable food contain fat, and most smaller bucks have little. Hence, there is great rejoicing over a fat eland or a successful haul of termites.

136 That the fat of termites is compared with eland fat is significant. For many San, fat is a highly significant and desirable substance. In Matopo, Walker (1996: 4243) notes that flying termites, very rich in fat, are plentiful during the early summer season. Because of their occurrence in sufficient quantities, they could be exploited from termitaria in organised harvesting strategies. Drawing on the quantitative data (from Quin 1959), Walker (1995: 43) estimates that from 0.7 grams of termites there is between 7.4-25.2 % of crude protein. Figures 4, 9, and 16 show that the evidence for the exploitation of termites in Matopo comes from rock art as the human figures in these panels hold grass plugs to prevent flying termites escaping from their nests (formlings). Further significance of termites and fat is preserved in the Kalahari San folklore. The first syllable in the Ju/’hoan heroine’s name G!kon//’amdima means termite(s) (Biesele 1993: 148). The link here is fat and potency. There is synonymity between termite fat and the heroine. G!kon//’amdima (with several other names) is always described “as beautiful, and especially as fat, with the smooth skin that comes of having plenty of fat under it” (Biesele 1993: 148, my emphasis). Maidens (and G!kon//’amdima being the maiden par excellence), it must be recalled, possess a duality of being fat and potent. The San believe that girls at menarche are redolent with strong, or even dangerous, potency (Hewitt 1986; see ‘New maidens’ tales in Lewis-Williams 2000). They are also believed to have a lot of fat (Lewis-Williams 1981a: 48). The explanation for this duality reminds us of the San belief that eland possess strong potency due to their large amounts of fat. Ju/’hoan girls’ puberty ritual is the Eland Bull Dance, again demonstrating a clear link between fat (in this case antelope fat) and new maidens. An old woman, !Kun/obe, said “The Eland bull dance is danced because the eland is a good thing and has much fat. And the girl is also a good

137 thing and she is all fat; therefore they are called the same thing” (Lewis-Williams 1981a: 48, 172). Fat is all important. As D.F. Bleek (1928) noted, fat from flying termites is considered a perfect substitute if eland fat cannot be procured. Hence, the association of the Ju/’hoan heroine with termites’ fat is not misplaced; she is synonymous with fat and supernatural potency. The link between termite fat, potency and new maidens is attested in the central Kalahari, where the San possess a ‘termite song’ and ‘termite dance’ used during menarche ceremonies (Nonaka 1996: 31). The termite species, after which these are named, is called //kàm//ặre. Its characteristic “slow fluttering motion” during nuptial flights has become a motif in the ritual song and dance (ibid.: 31). Mentioning fat and its connection with supernatural potency echoes another significant substance in San thought—honey. Associations of fat and honey are conceptually inseparable. In some San languages their names even carry identical lexical forms and related semantic connotations. Fat is variously called, /nai and /khou:, while honey is known by words sharing similar roots, such as, ¯/nai and !khou: (D.F. Bleek 1956: 725, 715). Creation myths also suggest this link between fat and honey. When /Kaggen made his first eland, he fed and anointed it with honey (Lewis-Williams 1998b: 197, from Lloyd’s MS pp L.ll.4.489-493 and 504-514), and it was for this reason that the /Xam said the eland grew up to have more fat and larger than other antelope (see Lewis-Williams & Biesele 1978: 120; Schmidt 1996: 192-194). Amongst the Nama, Heiseb (a trickster deity) created his gemsbok wife and fed her with honey (Biesele 1993: 95). She thus became fat and beautiful. Different characteristic colours of antelope were made through various kinds of honey (D.F. Bleek 1924: 10). These antelope are /Kaggen’s most important creations (Lewis-Williams 1981a: 123), hence their imbuement with

138 potency. Their large quantities of fat, beautiful colours and strong potency, especially eland, resulted from their connection with honey during creation. Honey, fat and creation are central in San thought and ritual. That /Kaggen “wetted the animal’s [eland] hair and smoothed it with honey” (Lewis-Williams 1998b: 197) might also associate the act with sexual procreation (ibid.: 205) for, as Biesele (1993: 86) argues, honey and fat are conceptual mediators between several oppositions, such as between men and women. /Kaggen’s act may also suggest anointing to ward off evil. In rituals and myths, fat and honey are used for anointing; as examples, fat (usually of eland though not always stated) is used in rites of passage for anointing maidens (LewisWilliams & Biesele 1978; Lewis-Williams 1981a: 48-52) and during dances to rub trancers (D.F. Bleek 1935: 2, 23). Fat and honey are anomalous foods that transcend the eating and drinking opposition found in all other hunted and gathered foods. They are the only two kinds of food that people can eat and drink (Biesele 1978: 927, 1993; 86). Being both liquid and solid in state, they unify wet and dry, hot and cold (Biesele 1993: 86). They, therefore, mediate categories and are thus significant as embodiments of potency (Marshall 1969: 351, 1999: xxxiii; Lewis-Williams 1981a: 51, 1998: 201). They are also noted for their scent. In //Kabbo’s account, kudu eats honey, hence its scent that is like that of the eland (Bleek & Lloyd MS L.II.3.466), which was fed on honey after it was created. The San believe this scent to be a vehicle for the conveyance of potency, which these antelope carry. The Ju/’hoan have a concept, ‘≠A’, which is not an ordinary odour; it is the smell of the whirlwind that carries //gauwa (lesser god, trickster) and his potency (Marshall 1962: 239). Therefore, because of their liminality, fat and honey mediated between the ‘real world’ and

139 the ‘spirit world’, and hence their repeated association with creation and other supernatural creatures and beings. The creativity and power of honey (and fat) is, however, counterbalanced by negative connotations. Honey is said to be a sole source of potentially fatal conflicts among the San if rights of beehive ownership are impinged. The Ju/’hoansi go even further to say that honey can cause tension between ≠Goa N!a and //gauwa, if the two happen to favour and lead different individuals to honey from the same hive. ≠Goa N!a likes bees and that burning them when one smokes them out of nests displeases him intensely (just as /Kaggen loves antelope and hunting them displeases him). God’s wife, Khwova N!a among Ju/’hoansi and /Hantu!katt!katten (Dassie or rock hyrax, Procavia capensis) among /Xam, is the “mother of the bees” (D.F. Bleek 1923: 47; Marshall 1962: 245, 1999: 7), and like all other spirit beings, ≠Goa N!a is very fond of honey (Marshall 1962: 245). To kill a person, ≠Goa N!a is believed to convert himself into honey, direct the person he wants to kill to a tree where he would have placed himself as an ordinary honeycomb. The person eats the honeycomb bait and then dies (Marshall 1962: 245). These beliefs show the great extent to which bees and honey permeate San thought and beliefs. Reverting to the painted contexts, I reiterate that their meanings are structured at a deeper symbolic level. Even accepting that some images depict honey gatherers or flying termite collectors, it must be remembered that in such contexts people are not only gathering food, but also significant sources of potency. In one panel (Ebusingata, Drakensberg, Woodhouse 1990: fig. 1), a human figure carrying a piled object, possibly a honeycomb, is surrounded by a swarm of bees. That the figure bleeds from the nose clearly indicates non-ordinary reality associated with

140 altered states of consciousness (D.F. Bleek 1935: 20, 34; Lewis-Williams 1981a: 78, 81, 95-98; Walker 1996: 90). From the same site (Fig. 8; Pager 1976: 75) is an elephant therianthrope in the midst of a swarm of bees. The two paintings both show ritual specialists or shamans in association with bees. As Marshall (1969: 367) stated, “Bees and honey both have [n/om],” indeed the Ju/’hoansi like to dance at the time of the year when bees are swarming in the belief that they can harness their potency (Lewis-Williams 1986b: 175, 1997: 817, citing Wilmsen, pers. comm.). The nature of the art and the painted contexts highlights particular San spirit world experiences and beliefs about supernatural potency. I have described similar painted contexts (Figs 4, 9) from Matopo. Plate 7 from Zimbabwe can be added to the list. The panel depicts a formling with an orifice from which with insects, now recognised as flying termites, are issuing out. Next to the orifice is an ornate woman painted white (unclear in the picture), around whose abdomen are peculiar protrusions that are similar to the wing forms on the insects. Of this panel, Coulson & Campbell (2000: 97) write, “a female with one arm raised …appears to direct the flow of arrows as they enter and exit the oval. Perhaps the figure is the very core of potency.” The white pigment used for this figure is the same colour as the insects. This figure also carries a stick, in a similar manner to other figures associated with formling orifices (e.g., Fig. 9). Similarly, in Figure 13 only a partially faded tasselled bag (women’s) is placed at the orifice with flying termites issuing out. One can infer from this repeated context that there is an association between women and supernatural potency. The relationship of supernatural potency and women is complex; it seems to derive from their strong association with fat (as eland and termites are) and their role as bearers of children. This association also connects women with creation.

141 New maidens are also said to be potent, as it at this powerful stage in their lives when early signs of fertility emerge that they are considered to be full of strong potency.

Associations with other supernatural potency symbols

San ethnography shows that supernatural potency is central to their religious beliefs and symbolism. Notions of potency permeate all aspects of San life, ritual and folklore. These notions also resonate in many ways in the art. Some writers have, therefore, argued that formlings symbolise this potency. I have argued that, what formlings depict (subject matter), termitaria and bees’ nests, contain powerful substances—fat and honey—that the San believe possess supernatural potency. I argue further that various powerful animals often found in formling contexts build upon this association connoting the saturation of strong potency. These include giraffe, kudu, hartebeest, tsessebe and roan or sable antelope. The formling at Nanke Cave (Plates 3, 3a) also features eland. The Ju/’hoansi consider eland and giraffe to be particularly powerful (Marshall 1999: 5). These ‘great meat animals’ possess both n/om and n/ow (Marshall 1957: 235, Biesele 1993: 9495, 108), and some also possess /ko:öde (D.F. Bleek 1924: 10), which is an especially dangerous level of potency. The repeated choice of giraffe and potent antelope (not other animals) is significant in the symbolism of formlings. Some formling contexts feature subaquatic trance metaphors, such as, fish (Plates 3, 3a) and crocodiles (Goodall 1959: plate 8; see Dowson 1988: 120-121 and Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1999: 57 on such metaphors). Walker (1996: 73) associates fish particularly with ‘rain

142 symbolism’. Ouzman (1995) has also argued for the association of fish and rain symbolism. The large rain creature with exudations from its snout in Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.1) further supports this idea of rain symbolism. As Goodall’s (1959: plate 8) copy shows, there is a complex association involving a formling, two crocodiles and a rain creature (see Huffman 1983: 51), which also has exudations from its mouth. The same panel also depicts two crocodile therianthropes with gaping mouths interacting with this grotesque rain creature. The association of formlings with rain symbolism seems particularly strong in these contexts. A thread that runs through all these metaphors concerns supernatural potency and spirit world experiences. Some elements in other formlings bear a set of different metaphors but also point to a similar meaning context. Some features in Figure 3 merit farther attention. One of the women has erect hairs on her thighs and groin region. Similar features are repeated on some villiform cores of the formling. If these are indeed ‘hairs’, they can be explained by reference to the Eastern Ju/’hoan statement, which I return to shortly, that the exterior of Huwe’s house is “hairy like a caterpillar” (Schapera 1930: 184, my emphasis). Elsewhere, ‘erect hairs’ have been interpreted as a metaphor that derives from sensory hallucinations experienced during altered states of consciousness (Lewis-Williams 1981a: 91, 93, 97, 1984: 227). Therefore, the woman with ‘erect hairs’ and the formling with ‘hairy’ forms are associated with a hallucinatory trance experience. This view is supported by a posture that the women on the formling adopt—the raised arms. Ghilraen Laue (2000) has argued that this posture is related to the trance dance. Women also dance during curing rituals (Marshall 1969; Keeney 1999). Among the Ju/’hoansi, 10 percent (or more now) of women are healers (Katz & Biesele 1986). Erect hairs on a woman, therefore, should not be seen as anomalous. Erect hairs are also a metaphor for

143 ‘boiling potency’, and rather than being indications of a trance state, her status as a new maiden might also be shown with erect hairs. The ‘erect hairs’ and similar finger-like crenellations that grow at the base of Figure 3 motif probably associate this formling with a notion of saturated supernatural potency. ‘Erect hairs’ are associated with excessive potency that causes violent trance states (Lewis-Williams 1981a: 97). The /Xam spoke of “lion’s hair” growing on the back of healers in trance (D.F. Bleek 1935: 2, 23; Hewitt 1986: 100, 188) apparently describing violent throes of trance. Recently, a central Kalahari healer said his most powerful trance state is when “fur grows out of my skin and claws grow from my hands”; that is when the lion’s spirit changes his (the healer) mind and body (Keeney 1999: 93). Therefore, the graphic metaphor of erect hairs on formlings alludes to dangerous degrees of potency. Another link between caterpillars and dangerous potency can be found in Central Kalahari. The San of Xade believe that hawk moth caterpillars (Herse convolvuli⁽²⁾) go underground and change into a very poisonous black scorpion (Nonaka 1996: 34). This convoluted belief is not literal. San people are known for the depth and accuracy of their knowledge of the faunal and floral species they interact with (Heinz & Maguire 1974; Silberbauer 1981: 76; Barnard 1988) Therefore, the Xade San must be aware that scorpions and caterpillars are different invertebrates. Rather than it being a mistaken biological association, I argue that it is a conceptual one. Since these scorpions live underground and inflict a fatal sting, it is unsurprising that the ‘stinging’ metaphor is conflated with the ‘growing hairs’ metaphor of prickly hawk moth caterpillars, which, in their life cycle, also go underground (= the spirit world) and have stinging spines.

144 Formlings: extricating the metaphor

If formlings are graphic depictions of termitaria and honeybees’ nests as ‘wombs’ of fat and honey, therefore, they are ‘incubators’ of supernatural potency. Beyond their mediation at the level of ordinary reality involving gender relations, these motifs symbolize cosmic mediation between the ‘real world’ and the ‘spirit world’. Supernatural potency is a force that the San believe makes contact between the cosmic realms (Fig. 36) possible. Healers wishing to transcend cosmic boundaries must draw upon potency. Formlings as graphic metaphors deriving from the ‘natural models’ of termitaria and honeybees’ nests, as ‘potency incubators’, connote concentration or a saturation of strong potency, reminiscent of the ultimate sources of this power in the spirit world. They evoked the power of the realm that San healers strove to enter, where the San Great God, himself the essence or embodiment of supernatural potency, resided. The realm of the Great God is the ultimate reservoir of potency. The saturation of potency in this realm is linked to the presence of ‘Great God’ himself who is “the ultimate source of all [n/om]” (Biesele 1978: 933; Marshall 1962: 235, 238, 1969: 351-352; Vinnicombe 1976: 199). The potency that healers, n/om k” xausi, and people in general possess is from God (Marshall 1969: 352, 1999: 8, 21; Katz 1982: 152; Guenther 1999; Keeney 1999: 107). The presence of powerful beings and creatures imbued with strong potency in his abode saturates potency. I have shown that the painted contexts of formlings suggest a saturation of supernatural potency. The ultimate saturation of potency for the San lies at God’s house. Could formlings, therefore, in some sense be the visual embodiment of God’s house? To answer this I will now consider the San beliefs about God’s house in more detail.

145 San concepts of God’s dwelling place

Beliefs concerning the dwelling place of God and supernatural beings vary amongst San groups (Keeney 1999: 61, 62). The Oschimpolveld San believe that God “lives in a house in the sky to which the souls of the dead are brought” (Marshall 1962, 1999: 18, 21). Their eastern and northwestern cousins believe the same for their God, Huwe or Xu (Schapera 1930: 397). Honey, locusts, fat flies (or flying termites) and butterflies are all superabundant in Huwe’s house (Schapera 1930: 184). There are also large animals: leopards, zebras, lions, pythons, mambas, elands, giraffes, gemsbok, and kudu (Biesele 1978: 933, 1980: 59, 1993: 94) in Huwe’s house. The G/wi believe that termites as well as other invertebrate taxa are N!adima’s creatures and that he protects them (Silberbauer 1981: 75). The Nyae Nyae San believe that ≠Goa N!a lives in a two storey house with a single tree near it in the eastern sky, both of which are associated with the spirits of the dead. //Gauwa’s house (choo) in the western sky has two trees. While its exterior is “hairy like a caterpillar” this house resembles an ordinary San hut. //Gậuab, a Damara sky god, lives in a village resembling a Damara village, but has a shady tree and a holy fire in the middle. In //Gậuab’s heaven life is similar to life on earth except that hunting there is more successful and foraging easier (Vedder 1928: 62; Barnard 1988: 227). Although these varied beliefs are not very precise on the nature of God’s house, it does not differ markedly from the ordinary San dwellings. Interestingly, one can also see the infiltration of foreign elements in the beliefs, such as the concept of a double storey house. Other testimonies even mention corrugated iron sheeting, iron poles and reinforcements. God’s house has a tree or two trees in the middle, powerful animals and other creatures occur in abundance there. The

146 power of the place is what makes it unique, and the presence of supernatural beings and spirit creatures. It is these same features that surround formlings. The repeated association of termites, locusts, giraffe, n/om antelope and spirit creatures are well explained by linking formlings to God’s house. If God’s house is suggested in formling contexts, then, what other features besides the ‘erect hair’ metaphor and superimposed antelope (connoting powerful potency) support this inference? I begin with Plate 6. In this panel, two therianthropes (with pick-shaped protrusions on the small of their backs, and one has a long tail) hold hands and kneel on the left edge of the formling. The one nearest to the formling has streamers under one arm. They also hold peculiar objects that look like hand picks. These figures with their streamers, objects and the tail are so unusual as to suggest non-ordinary reality. On the lower left of the formling there is a tree under which an indeterminate antelope lies. The image is part of an extensive panel, but some have described it as a representation of a San werf or shelter (Walker 1996: 32). Indeed, in accord with the belief that God’s house looks like an ordinary San hut (choo), the image resembles a shelter. Its features of rectangular cores, microdots, flecks, arched multiple bounding lines and crenellations place this motif in the category of typical formlings I now return to paintings in Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.1) and Figure 3 to discuss the sinuous or funicular line weaving through the cores of the formling. Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.1) exhibits similar lines associated with the formling and linking different images in the context. Unlike the ‘thin red lines’ found mainly in the Drakensberg (Lewis-Williams 1981b; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990; Dowson 1989; Lewis-Williams et al. 2000), these lines do not have microdots on their fringes. But, the contexts in which they occur suggest that they are conceptually

147 related. San healers describe cords that hang from the sky (Schapera 1930: 184, 188; Marshall 1962: 238, 1999: 21; Biesele 1980: 55-56; Guenther 1999: 188) and that lead, ultimately to God’s house. Lewis-Williams and co-writers (2000), quoting the San, now call these motifs “threads of the sky” or “threads of light” as described by San shamans. Healers climb on these threads during trance to visit God’s house (Marshall 1962: 238, 241, 242; 1999: 25; Keeney 1999: 61, 62). The line motif in Figure 3 also emerges and disappears under handprints that are superimposed on the formling. This association may not be accidental. Handprints probably, different from painted figures holding or walking on such “threads of light”, suggest the holding of the cosmic “threads” en route to God’s house. If this inference is correct, then the panel may suggest the San conception of God’s house and the healers’ access routes to it. The painted contexts of formlings also feature therianthropes and human figures (Figs 4, 9, 21, Plate 6) crawling towards, or moving out, or kneeling on or near them. In a complex example (Garlake 1995: fig. 121), two typical formlings are juxtaposed and their orifices face each other. In between are seven plant forms, with shapes that recall the domical caps of formlings (Garlake 1995: 103). Winged insects, which I have argued represent termites, hover around these plants in a similar manner to Figures 15 and 16. Nearby are antelope. The formling on the right has an unusually enlarged orifice, out of which comes a human figure with a “leaf shape” on its navel. Other formlings have similar human figures or therianthropes emerging from their openings on the boundary lines include Figure 10. Garlake’s (1995: 155) note that, “spirit figures appear to crawl towards and gather strength as they approach some formlings” recalls the Ju/’hoan belief that supernatural beings walk the spirit realm as people do on earth (Marshall 1999: 3). In keeping with these images of people seemingly visiting God’s house,

148 San medicine specialists describe in detail their journeys to this place (Marshall 1962, 1999; Biesele 1975a, 1980, 1993; Keeney 1999). To understand the logic of the God’s house interpretation one must look carefully at the ‘natural models’ of formlings—termitaria and honeybees’ nests. These natural phenomena, like God’s house, are located underground (= spirit world) or in trees (or trees growing on termitaria), which, in Chapter Seven, I argue comprise a significant component of the spirit world (see Appendix 1 Fig. 1.9). Potency appears to be the thread that connects these seemingly disparate contexts with termites and honeybees being the key natural models in the expressed symbolism. While formlings are depictions of termitaria as powerful symbols of the zenith of supernatural potency epitomized by God’s house, some artists conceptualised this house or seat of potency in idiosyncratic ways. For example, Garlake (1995: Plates XXXI-XXXII; see Appendix 1 Fig. 1.19) identifies a small formling superimposed on a human abdomen as symbolising the seat of potency in human beings. But, formlings in general transcend the human source of potency in the gebesi. I have suggested a realm of potency that is much more unified and diverse than its individual constituents, of which the gebesi is part. In this realm, very potent entities are compounded to produce a powerfully saturated and ultimate source of potency; this realm is God’s house and the spirit world. San beliefs also show that trees are a crucial element of this house. I now turn to the paintings of trees and plants from the rock art of Matopo.


Chapter Seven Trees and plants in Matopo There are not only trees or plants shown in these pictures, but also mountains, lakes, rain – whole landscapes and representations of scenery (Frobenius 1930: 335). It is possible‌that a greater religious significance was attached to specific plants by the Bushmen north of the Tropic of Capricorn than by those who lived on the open grassland further south (Vinnicombe 1976: 280).

To understand better the symbolism employed in formlings, now demonstrated to be representations of termitaria (termite nests), I focus on the depictions of trees and plants. There are an integral part of formling contexts. Not only do these painted subjects co-occur in the same painting areas, they are also examples where trees and plants are conflated with formlings (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.17) or are painted growing on top of formlings. I have discussed already some previous interpretations of trees and plants. Building on that background I now sum up, first, ethno-botanical studies among the San, and, secondly, describe the morphology and painted contexts of the motifs found in San rock art. Thirdly, drawing on the San ethnography, I situate these motifs in their graphic and conceptual contexts to elucidate their symbolic associations. I argue that trees and plants both in the ethnography and in the art point to two major conceptual

151 tropes that are united in San cosmology. Trees are significant in the ethnography from both the symbolic and the ecological perspectives.

Ecological significance of trees and plants

The dominance of plants as food and moisture sources in San diet is well established (Lee 1965; Silberbauer 1965: 44-47; Giess & Snyman 1986: 240; Tanaka 1976: 112-113; Hitchcock 1982: 205-223), but relatively little, until recently, of their role in myths, beliefs and symbolism was known. Little has been written “about the total botanical lore of Bushman groups� (Steyn 1981: 1). Robert Story (1958, 1964), however, studied various uses of tree and plant species in the Kalahari. Some writers (Lee 1965, 1968; Silberbauer 1965, 1981; Heinz & Maguire 1974) also investigated the ethno-botanical knowledge of different Kalahari San groups. While very important, these ecological investigations suggest little allusion to the symbolism of botanical subjects. Even among ethnographers who have worked with the San, there has been no sustained attempt to seek and compile a concordance of references to these subjects in San beliefs and folktales (Biesele, pers. comm.). One exception is Sigrid Schmidt (1980, 1989), who compiled references of Khoisan folklore featuring vegetable subjects from Namibia. This work may not have had the impact in South Africa it should because it is in German. Re-investigating San ethnography reveals a wealth of information on San beliefs concerning trees and plants.

Fig. 15. Flying termites transforming into oval flecks swell around a blossoming tree from Matopo (overleaf)



Fig. 16. Flying termites, a partial tree, a human figure (redrawn from Parry 2000)

Morphology of painted trees and plants

Trees and plants in San rock art take various forms. Although varying in detail and clarity, these subjects are often recognisable as trees, bulbs or tubers. About trees, Garlake (1987d: 60) points out that they “appear as rigid, stylized diagrams”, whereas Taylor (1927: 1058) described them as “conventional trees.” They appear in varying hues of red and yellow ochre. In South Africa a few motifs are depicted in white and black (Appendix I). The significance of colour is, however, not clear in these paintings, as indeed is generally the case with San art

154 imagery. Their common features include branches, trunks, roots, lines and, rarely, fruits or pods. 1. Branches Trees are usually depicted showing branches only without foliage. Their morphology ranges from rounded to umbrella and weeping crown forms that are connected to the trunks. On the basis of elements in the crowns, Breuil (1966: 24, 116, 119) argued that eleven motifs from southern Zimbabwe represented a kind of palm. He noted that most of them comprised a “single vertical line for the trunk and two symmetrical lobes hanging down from either side of the trunk to represent the leafy crest.� 2. Roots One of the distinctive characteristics of tree and plants is the roots. These motifs are often painted complete with roots, which are usually exaggerated at the base of the trunks or stems. These roots range in number between one and four. Although they are often painted vertically, they are also shown extending laterally in some motifs. 3. Fruits and flowers In a few examples, trees are embellished with faithful detail. These include depictions of fruits (Garlake 1987d: 41, 60, 1995: fig. 64), seedpods (Frobenius 1963: tafels 34, 35, 40, 42; Pager 1989: 276, fig. 1-Fix A) and flowers or what looks like blossoming (Fig. 15).


Fig. 17. A tree, probably ficus sp. judging by its adventitious branches hanging down from the trunk and fruits clustered around the branches (Northern Province, S. Africa)

In northern South Africa, I recorded a tree motif laden with fruits (Fig. 17). The fruits have the appearance of rounded nods attached to the branches. Although leaves and flowers are usually absent, they have also been recorded (Goodall 1959: fig. 25). In circumstances where leaves, flowers or fruits are depicted possibilities occasionally exist for identification. For example, Goodall (1959: 76; Coulson & Campbell 2000: figs 67, 91) identified the bichrome tree with leaves painted naturalistically as the Bastard marula (Kirkia acuminata). Crossreferencing with photographs of this species in van Wyk and van Wyk (1997:

156 442) I am convinced of the correctness of the identification. This motif, like some examples in this thesis, grows on top of a formling.

Fig. 18. Two kudu and a tree (on the left is a file of three kudu cows and a calf) from (Matopo)

4. Lines Tree and plant motifs in Matopo are usually embellished with a horizontal line motif that divides the roots from the trunk or stem and branches. This line usually retains the same thickness throughout its length. The bulk of the tree is shown above this line and the roots extend below. The appearance is that of a cross-section of a tree above and below the ground. Some motifs depict root-like forms separate from trees (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1). In one panel these forms stem from a ground level line that links two trees with a formling.

157 While all these features are recognisable, their proportions are often distorted. Scale and proportion are not ‘realistic’ in San depictions of trees, as with formlings; features of the subject included are those that focus attention on aspects of meaning. For example, thick-stemmed trees may not indicate baobabs, but rather draw attention to the trunk of the tree. Regarding the species of trees, Garlake (1987d: 60) claims that, “none is certainly identifiable.” One early writer stated that trees and plants in Matopo include “knobby thorns, baobabs, umbrella trees, palms, tree-ferns, euphorbias, kafir (sic) orange, aloes, wind-blown trees, and monkey ropes, as well as aerial and exposed roots” (Hall 1912: 594). As with Hall’s judgment on formlings there is rich imagination at work here. Few of these species can be recognised unequivocally. Although species identification might be useful, the painted contexts of these motifs are sufficient to reveal their intended symbolism. Trees are often unequivocally depicted in complex contexts (Figs 1, 21, also Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1). Writers have noted the association of trees and plants with formlings (Frobenius 1931; Goodall 1959). This relationship was taken to be evidence for depictions of complete landscapes. So, Garlake’s (1987d: 60) suggestion that trees, bulbs, tubers or seedpods are “shown in isolation or in groups and never as part of a scene” or landscape is not valid. Indeed, this claim directly contradicts one of his earlier stated observations in the same publication that, “There are many examples of ovoids with trees, animals and people attached to them” (ibid.: 52). Garlake (1995: figs 104, 121, 179) illustrates some examples of formlings associated with trees. The link between trees/plants and termite nests is crucial.


Fig. 19. Two men with equipment juxtaposed with a tree (Matopo)


Fig 20. Two kudu, a tree and an infubulated man carrying ?sticks (Matopo)

Trees are also commonly depicted with animals, especially kudu, giraffe, and tsessebe or hartebeest (Figs 6, 20, Appendix 1 Figs 1.1, 1.12) and people (Figs 19, 22). In the art, these antelope stand or lie down underneath trees, or browse on their branches (Walker 1996: 71; Coulson & Campbell 2000: 92). In the Drakensberg two panels depict similar contexts, showing eland browsing on tree branches (Willcox 1956: fig. 18; also images in RARI Archives). In some complex panels trees or plants are depicted growing on formlings or on lines that join with formlings (Fig. 1, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1; also Goodall 1959: plate 8). In some panels, ovoid formlings are conflated with bulbous plants that have sprouts at the top and roots at the base (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.17). In one case, to which I now

160 turn to describe in detail, an animal is encapsulates inside the outline of a formling/plant motif (Fig. 21).

Fig. 21. A conflation of a termite nest and a ‘sprouting’ plant (Matopo)

Figure 21 depicts a conflation of a sprouting plant and termite nest. Trifurcating stems with twelve individual offshoots are attached on top of the oval nest. The formling itself is made up of multiple concentric lines that run around it, but are partially weathered on the left where only two remain. At the base there are three root-like appendages. Garlake (1987a: 24) has noted similar motifs in which “Ovals form the core of tuber-like plant forms with sprouting ends.” Inside the

161 oval there is a small indeterminate buck in the middle of two partially faded oval blobs, which are surrounded by dots, at the top and the bottom. To the left are two further small indeterminate buck, one facing away from and another towards the sprouting form. Next to the roots is a cross-legged human figure that is clapping in a similar way to the figure in Figure 23. At the top right is a bizarre clawed and thick-tailed creature. Figure 22 (also Frobenius 1963: tafels 43, 56; Goodall 1959: plate 32) depicts a tree with several roots, two thick stems and many branches. Two human figures, one depicted between the stems and another juxtaposed with the roots, suggest a connection between these features and the figures. More importantly, the figure next to the roots adopts a typical arms-back posture and is slightly bending forward. These panels, like the other complex painted contexts I have discussed, suggest the non-ordinary reality of trance and complex symbolism: images do not simply depict material objects. Their peculiar features include: juxtapositions of trees and plants with people, animals enclosed within the cores of termite nest-plant conflations and human figures exhibiting trance diagnostic postures (arms-back, clapping, crossed legs and bending forward). These complexities cannot be explained in narrative terms, but by looking at the San beliefs and symbolism. I therefore draw on the relevant ethnography to elucidate the significance of these motifs.

Trees and plants and their associations in San ethnography Different plants had different magical properties and different uses. In Southern and Northern San ethnographic corpuses trees and plants feature prominently as

162 sources of aromatic herbs. There are complexities in the ethnography relating to these plants. At deeper levels of meaning they often carry powerful symbolism.

Fig. 22. A tree, two human figures, one between the stems and another on the roots (redrawn from Frobenius 1963)

In the myths, trees and plants are very often used for their metaphoric powers as agents for restitution or restoration to an original state or an orderly state (see Orpen 1874). They also reflect a symbolic cooling down of undesirable effects of

163 actions and the pacifying of the wrath of deities and spirit beings (ibid.) and commonly for calming and controlling ‘rain creatures’ among the /Xam. The level of supernatural potency is borne out of the emphasis on the aroma of these botanical species. Smell or scent is a carrier of potency: “Odour, in !Kung thought, is a medium for the transference of power” (Lewis-Williams 1981a: 51). The same belief of smell as carrier of potency is extended to burned fat and aromatic herbs in a zam (Marshall 1969: 360, 371; Biesele 1993: 93-94). The /Xam also had similar beliefs; the rain, among other things, such as, winds, was said to have smell (D.F. Bleek 1933: 300), and hence its power. In its “fresh” aromatic condition, rain would be very potent (ibid.: 300). Therefore, the usual emphasis of aromatic plants centres on their smells which carry potency. I use two associated examples: canna and buchu to illustrate these points.

a. Canna1 In one Southern (Maluti) San tale, /Kaggen restores his son, Cogaz, to life by giving him herbal charms, canna (Orpen 1874: 8). In another, Qwanciquntshaa, a chief, turned into a snake, but was restored to his former self by canna fed to him by a girl. He subsequently married this girl and together with her sprinkled canna on the ground so that all the dead elands became alive again (Orpen 1874: 6-7). Yet another tale recounts an abduction of /Kaggen’s daughter by snakes. /Kaggen struck them with his stick and they all became people. He then sprinkled their skins which lay on the ground with canna and they also became people (Orpen 1874: 5).


Botanical species of this aromatic plant is unclear

164 The use of herbs is also found in ritual contexts. Qing (Orpen’s San guide in the 1870s) told Orpen that canna charms were used to resuscitate “people who have died from the dance� (Orpen 1874: 10). He was here referring to the trance dance (Lewis-Williams 1988b: 137-142). He also related how, during rain rites, charms were used to catch and lead a rain animal (Orpen 1874: 10). Canna was therefore used for its restorative or restitutive qualities as well as calming and controlling rain animals. So far, no unequivocal representation of the former function has been identified in the art. Paintings of people calming down and controlling rain creatures have been identified in the Drakensberg region. This function is attested widely among the /Xam who used buchu.

b. Buchu In /Xam tales, buchu (generic term for plants in the Rutaceae family) was used to charm and calm down rain bulls (D.F. Bleek 1933) and other spirit divinities. /Xam traditions recount that buchu was given to rain creatures living in waterholes from where they would be subdued and then led across the land to desired places for rain rites (ibid.). As a ritual magic, when new maidens emerged from confinement they treated their families with buchu to ward off danger from the anger of !Khwa (rain divinity) and ensure the ultimate return to normality for the band (Hewitt 1986: 198). Because menstruating girls were said to have an odour that attracted !Khwa, they used buchu to counteract this odour and keep danger at bay (Hewitt 1986: 78). Buchu was also used during hunting rites. A /Xam hunter avoided touching the arrow that he had used to shoot antelope (D.F. Bleek 1932: 233), but he would pick the arrow up using a leaf. Although

165 undeclared, this leaf may have implied buchu judging by its function of charming and cooling down the potency of the shot antelope. Unequivocal depictions alluding to such plant uses are rare, but plausible contexts can be cited. In 1873 Orpen recorded a painting of a group of human figures, one of which holds out a plant form towards the snout of a grotesque animal. Vinnicombe (1976: fig. 239) copied this panel in more detail (Pager 1976: 46), and suggested that it depicted sorcerers charming, capturing and leading-out a rain animal. In another panel (Vinnicombe 1976: fig. 240) she inferred similar ritual use of aromatic charms (also Lewis-Williams 1981a: 110). Because of their scents or smells these herbal charms contain supernatural potency. The role that different plants play depends on their potency or magical properties. The G/wi, and indeed most San groups, actually say that plants have inherent powers, which can be automatically and mechanically released when the plant is used or eaten (Silberbauer 1981: 77) as food or medicine. Like animals, each has potency with different strengths and are appropriate for different individuals in different contexts. Generically, trees and plants appear to have held a similar symbolic status in San thought. Particular botanical species are obscure in San oral traditions. Only generic terms, sometimes with several related connotations, are used. For example, the Nharo word ‘hii’ means, tree or medicine (D.F. Bleek 1928: 25-26) and in its shortened form ‘hi’, it means plant or wood (ibid.: 26). Sometimes general plant parts, such as leaves or roots or fruits are mentioned without mentioning particular species, suggesting that specific identity was unnecessary to the symbolic function. Botanical subjects are, therefore, an open class, where general terms like ‘tree’, ‘leaf’, ‘fruit’, or ‘root’ carry related cosmological concepts. In the

166 art, the depiction of a species may not have added any special symbolic significance beyond that given by the genus. Turning to San rock art one finds a similar phenomenon. From my analyses of the art and published material, it seems that the depiction of particular species was, for the artists, not essential in expressing symbolism. Branches, trunks and roots only were depicted to suggest a generic, rather than a specific, class. Although the medicinal qualities of botanical subjects are recognised, it is their level of supernatural potency and their ability to transcend cosmic boundaries that is emphasised. Trees are therefore one of the most significant categories in San art and ethnography (though not reflected by the frequency of depiction and mention) as embodiments of n/om. They occupy a powerful place in the San universe and are therefore intrinsically powerful subjects.

Association of God’s house with trees

In Chapter Six I argued that termitaria, represented in the art by formlings, symbolise God’s house. I also showed that formlings are usually painted with trees and other plants growing on or through them (Figs 1, 21, 27, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1). In the ethnography, trees form an important mystical component of God’s house. In Ju/’hoan belief, a great tree stands in ≠Gao N!a’s house while the lesser god, //gauwa’s house has two trees. Shamans and ordinary people fear these trees. The tree in ≠Gao N!a’s house has strong n/om (Marshall 1999: 21) and “it is associated with the spirits of the dead…” (Marshall 1962: 236, 1999: 21, 314). These trees are not passive entities, but powerful medicine in the transformation of dead souls into immortalised and eternal residents of the spirit realm. They

167 are therefore like a divinity with strong n/om. The etymology of the word ‘n/om’ itself gives clues to the conceptual link between trees and potency. Lee (1967: 33, 1968: 43) showed that the metaphor “boiling ([n/om]―to boil) refers not only to the boiling water, but also to the ripening of plants.” The idea of trees as redolent with n/om and as components of God’s house is supported by the painted contexts in Figures 15 and 16. Figure 15 shows a tree in blossom surrounded by a swarm of termites (? bees) and termite nymphs (oval flecks). The tree has three roots, a trunk and three short branches, all painted in dark yellow. These branches change abruptly to red and widen at the top before terminating in yellow flower-like trifurcating shoots. The insects, painted in yellow, but with red wings, swirl around the tree and some touch the flowery ends of the branches. Below this panel is a sable antelope, to the right of which is a giraffe with an exquisite retiform pattern. These are not shown in the tracing. Similarly, Figure 16 depicts termites swarming around a tree motif. We saw in the previous chapter that termites and bees (= fat and honey) have very strong potency (Marshall 1969: 351, 1999: xxxiii; D.F. Bleek 1924: 14). The graphic association of flying termites, (or bees) and trees suggests a context charged with supernatural potency. Although no anthill is depicted here, the association of trees/plants with flying termites suggests an association with God’s house, which is symbolised by termitaria [or formlings].

Why trees/plants and God’s house?

To explain the association of God’s house with trees, I first relate a San creation myth. This myth, also shared by some Khoekhoe groups, was collected from

168 eighteenth century San groups of the lower portions of the Gariep River in South Africa. In this myth a tree is directly associated with the primordial creation of people and animals. George Stow (1905) recounts this myth as William Coates Palgrave (He was the West Coast Colonial Administrator) communicated it to him. In the myth, the remote forefathers of the San, Came out of a hole in the ground, at the roots of an enormous tree, which covered a wide extent of country. Immediately afterwards all kinds of animals came swarming out after them, some kinds by twos and threes and fours; others in great herds and flocks; and they crashed, and jostled, and pushed each other in their hurry, as if they could not get out fast enough; and they ever came out swarming thicker and thicker, and at last they came flocking out of the branches as well as the roots. But when the sun went down, fresh ones ceased making their appearance. The animals were endowed with the gift of speech, and remained quietly located under and around the big tree. (Stow 1905: 130131). The tale goes on to explain how the use of fire by people sent animals fleeing in panic, losing, in their fright, all powers of speech, thereby breaking up the family of people and animals. Here, the ‘tree of creation’ is prominent; gigantic in girth, humankind and animals emerged from its roots and branches. The symbolic facets of the tale are explicated by reference to San beliefs about God (who created humankind, animals and trees), trees and their association with the spirit world (= underworld and sky). God among various San and Khoekhoe groups has different names and he is very often presented as a trickster deity.

169 The association between God, trees and primal creation is fundamental among the Northern San. For the Nharo, the creator deity, Hi∫e, is the source of power that healers “worked” with (D.F. Bleek 1928: 24). D.F. Bleek infers that Hi∫e means “spirit of the bush”, since the first syllable “hi” means, tree or bush (D.F. Bleek 1928: 25, 1956: 61; Barnard 1986: 69-71). The full words “hiiba” (masc. sg.) and “hiisa” (fem. sg.) mean ‘tree’ and ‘bush’ respectively (Barnard 1988: 222). The etymology of the word Hi∫e implies that he was “Lord of the Bushes”, in the same way that the Southern San deity, /Kaggen (or Cagn in Orpen’s 1874 orthography), was “Lord of the Animals” (D.F. Bleek 1933; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990: 14; Lewis-Williams 1994: 279; Hewitt 1986: 195-196; Biesele 1993: 94; Guenther 1999: 111). This point suggests Hi∫e’s creation of trees/bushes, which also exist as his avatars, since he is the “spirit” in them. Interestingly, /Kaggen (translated as ‘the Mantis’, Hewitt 1986: 140) was also a generic plural form of the name for berries (D.F. Bleek 1956: 296.). Tricksters and creator deities in Khoisan beliefs are clearly associated with botanical subjects. A variant of Hi∫e is a Nama divinity, Heitsi Eibib (also Heiseb). In this name ‘hei’ means, ‘bush’ or ‘tree’ while ‘eibib’ means, ‘the first’ (D.F. Bleek 1928: 25). Being the first bush or tree suggests that he was the progenitor of the bushes or trees. And because he is the creator, this point links him with the idea of creation emanating from trees. A clearer link is in a tale where Heitsi Eibib is born of a maiden who impregnated herself using juice (or sap) she got from chewing an edible grass (Schmidt 1980: 39-40). Heitsi Eibib is, therefore, a manifestation of the generative powers of botanical subjects. Similarly, the !Kõ believe, their Great God, Gu/e, created people from wood (Heinz 1975: 21).

170 Many San groups believe that trees have spirits in them. The !Kõ say that, apart from living in waterholes and certain inanimate objects, spirits also reside in trees (Heinz 1975: 24). A similar belief is suggested by the word ‘Hei-//om’ (also the name for a San group). This name derives from the Khoekhoe words, ‘heis’ and ‘//om’, meaning ‘tree’ and ‘to sleep’ respectively (Fourie 1926: 49). This suggests that trees have dormant spirits in them. Some northern San even believe that their ancestors’ spirits turn into trees (Vinnicombe, pers. comm.). Similarly, in some /Xam tales the glance of a new maiden turned three men into trees that retained humanoid features and actions (Lewis-Williams 2000: 271-272). By contrast, the Ju/’hoansi do not believe that animals and other earthly things, such as trees and water possess spirits or souls (Marshall 1962: 222, 1999: 4). Generally, in San folklore, trees and animals were people in primordial times until the gods commanded the present order of things. A Maluti San phrase that “The thorns (dobbletjes) were people…” (Orpen 1874: 9) echoes this belief. In the !Kung texts, the trickster /Xụé, like /Kaggen, is able to change back into vegetable persona. He transforms into different kinds of trees and plants (Bleek & Lloyd 1911: 404-413). So, trees and plants are in some ways avatars of these potent spirit divinities. Like San gods, trees and plants transcend different cosmological realms and because of this ability they are powerful San metaphors for the axis mundi.

Trees and plants as the San axis mundi

The symbolic association of trees/plants with God’s house, trees/plants and gods is interwoven with the idea of the axis mundi, the route to God and the spirit world. Supernatural potency is the unifying factor in these associations. I now

171 examine botanical motifs associated with human figures to show how they were important in this San cosmological concept.

Fig. 23. A therianthrope holds a tree while a squatting figure claps (redrawn from Cooke 1971)

I begin with Figure 23 from Matopo. It shows two ethereal human figures juxtaposed with a tree. The figure holding the tree trunk where lower branches stem off is a therianthrope, with horns, large ears and an antelope head that Cooke suggested to be zebra-like. The figure farthest from the tree in a crouching posture is more human in form and is clapping. These figures have grossly exaggerated ‘streamers’ underneath their armpits (NB. Cooke did not mention

172 this feature) and the squatting figure has additional ones from the knees. Cooke interpreted this panel in literalist terms, as a “witchdoctor in disguise” engaged in “tree worship”. It can be read differently if this detail and San ethnography are taken into consideration. Cooke’s view is inadequate, first, because the San are not known to have worshipped trees and, secondly, the figure in question is a therianthrope and not merely in disguise. Similarly, Figure 19 depicts a standing man with one leg raised onto a tree trunk as if climbing into it. One hand holds a branch and the other carries four sticklike objects. Another tasselled or bristled object (may be a narrow bag like a quiver) is strapped on his shoulder (Walker 1996: 32). A second man on the right hand side holds five stick-like objects in one hand, while the other is handing over a curious object to a figure climbing into a tree. A similar context in Parry (2000: 98) depicts a tree with eleven branches. Three grossly elongated human figures, varying in height with the shorter one closest to the tree and the tallest farthest from it, stand to the right hand side of the tree. All three, with stretched hands, hold onto one of the branches. These contexts suggest non-ordinary reality because of therianthropes and human figures with bristling lines. These motifs frequently appear as graphic representations of blood or perspiration. Sweat, which usually exudes from people’s chests, armpits and other places during curing dances, is a significant trance symbol. It is also a key element in curing rituals (Lee 1968: 44). Because sweat is rich in potency, healers rub it onto people during trance dances (Marshall 1962: 251, 1969: 371, 378; Lee 1968: 44) in the belief that it combats evil and sickness.

173 Elongation of human figures in these contexts is explicable by reference to bodily distortions related to trance experiences (Garlake 1995: 151). Trance (or altered states of consciousness) is accompanied by sensory hallucinations (LewisWilliams 1980; Walker 1996: 67, 90). One of these hallucinations is the attenuation and elongation, or the feeling that one’s limbs are being stretched (Walker 1996: 72). These are frequently depicted in San rock art (Dowson 1988: 117; LewisWilliams & Dowson 1989: 76-77). Recently a San healer related this experience thus, “When I dance, I go into a trance, and become very tall” (Keeney 1999: 61). These are called somatic hallucinations (Lewis-Williams 1988a: 10; 1997: 817, 819), and are similar to other bodily hallucinatory transformations described elsewhere as transmogrification (Whitley 2000: 109). In elucidating the symbolism encoded of these painted contexts, I first present the /Xam cosmological structure (Appendix 1 Fig. 1.9). Lewis-Williams (1994: 278-279, 1996: 124-126, 1998b: 198-200) first discussed this concept based on the nineteenth century Bleek and Lloyd corpus. The schema in this cosmos comprises two axes (Fig. 28). On the one hand, the sublunary horizontal axis lies on the surface of the earth that carries all ordinary reality or daily life activities. The vertical axis, on the other, is associated with the spirit beings and supernatural activities. Although this axis splits into two, that is, the underground associated with the dead and the “spiritual realm above the earth that was associated with god, the spirits and also with shamans” (LewisWilliams 1994: 279), these two necessarily constitute a unified realm. The vertical axis therefore joins the sky and the underground, bisecting the horizontal axis at an ambivalent point—the “intermediary water hole” set in the material world. My diagram in Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.9) shows the same information pictorially, but adds the shamanic mediation of this cosmos. Although this schema was

174 formulated on data from the /Xam, related cosmological ideas are also known for the Ju/’hoansi. Marshall (1999: 3), however, notes that the Nyae Nyae Ju/’hoansi do not believe that spirit beings of any kind reside inside the earth. Some groups, like the G/wi, retain strong concepts of the underworld and underground creatures (Silberbauer 1965: 84, 86). Ritual specialists can, by means of various spiritual techniques, traverse these supernatural realms along the vertical axis to encounter supernatural beings and spirit creatures. Mircea Eliade (1964: 259) has argued that the pre-eminent shamanic technique entails the passage through cosmic regions—the earth, sky and underground. To achieve the movement between realities shamans use various means that Eliade called the axis mundi. These may include: rainbow, stairs, bridge, ladder, cord, vine, mountain, and so forth (Eliade 1964: 492). In many societies, these means are metaphors for what is often called the “breakthrough in plane” (Drury 1991: 35) or those access points in the tiered cosmos through which shamans can move. The axis mundi, however it is conceived, facilitates mediation between the celestial heaven, the everyday earth reality and the underworld. One of these means is directly relevant to my interpretation of botanical subjects in Matopo San art. It is the symbol of the “Cosmic or World Tree” that features in many forms among the Asiatic, Northern and Eastern European as well as North and South American shamanic societies. It is conceived of as growing through the “Centre of the World” (Eliade 1964: 120), which is a point of contact, like the waterhole or rock shelters (Lewis-Williams 1998b: 199) for the /Xam and other San (Biesele 1980: 55-56), between various cosmic zones. Trees thus come to symbolise the axis mundi. This concept is not as well documented among the

175 southern African San as it is in the societies in other regions, but the images that I discuss suggest that this apparent lacuna should be closely examined. I begin with a /Xam narrative (Lewis-Williams 1998b: 197-198, summary of Lloyd’s MS: L.II.4.489-493 and 504-514) that shows a tree being a link between different cosmic realms—the underground, earth and sky. In this tale, /Kaggen fights his in-laws, the meerkats (suricates), after they killed his eland. Because they overpowered him, he fled the fight and lay trembling at home, as his head ached. The tree in which the meerkats had placed the eland’s meat and their paraphernalia came out of the ground, flew through the sky, and then came down near /Kaggen’s head, as he lay down. It thus connected the three realms I have referred to. What is pertinent to my discussion is that this is no ordinary tree in a daily life event. This tree symbolises the axis mundi, which /Kaggen, as the original shaman (Lewis-Williams 1994: 279), invokes to right the socio-affinal transgressions of his in-laws. The tree not only provides him with shade, but it brings back what was treacherously taken away from him by his affines—his eland. It plays a supernatural mediatory role. Trees as symbols of the axis mundi parallel the concept of waterholes and rock shelters as cosmic intermediary points of axial intersection. Lewis-Williams (1998b: 211) argues thus: “Like a waterhole, a tree is itself a mediator of realms in that its roots are below and its branches are above the plane of daily life”. Water plays a transformative role in many tales (ibid.: 199). One /Xam tale recounts how an ostrich feather was placed in a waterhole and then grew into an ostrich (Bleek & Lloyd 1911: 137-145). Trees appear to possess the same ability, as indicated in a Ju/’hoan belief of ≠Gao N!a’s use of a mystical big tree to transform dead souls into //gauwasi (Marshall 1962: 242-243). Transformation situations

176 suggest an association between supernatural potency, waterholes, trees and people (also animals). In a Ju/’hoan tale about the python girl and the jackal (Biesele 1993: 124-131) the close proximity of a tree to a spring or waterhole is not coincidental. The narrator said that a big n=ah tree stood near the spring with its broad shadow cast over the well and one of its branches stretched out above the water (ibid.: 124-131). The python girl climbed into the tree to gather n=ah, but she fell into the spring below after being coaxed by the jackal. A kind of transformation occurs in the water in which she later gives birth to a beautiful baby python. In this context both the tree and the water work in tandem to produce a transformation and the symbolic connection between them is emphasized. The painted record bears out the symbolic association between trees and waterholes. In Figure 2, a tree grows on the edge of a circular motif that encloses two fish in the midst of flecks. This context suggests associations of water, literally implying a pond. An infibulated man approaches from the left and a bow lies on the ground behind him. Still farther to the left is a woman kneeling on remnants of formling caps; she holds both her hands on her head (kneeling and hands on the head are trance metaphors, see Lewis-Williams 1985: 54; Walker 1996: 73, 90) while facing the direction of the infibulated man. This context brings in four significant associations, that is, formlings, trees and waterholes. The trance postures on the woman, the infibulation of the man, fish and flecks all point to non-ordinary spirit world experiences within which the mediatory role of water and botanical subjects is embedded. Some Ju/’hoan tales similarly connect ‘real world’ and ‘spirit world’ experiences via the medium of a tree. One tale with overtones of rain-calling rites (Biesele

177 1975a: 178-182, 1993: 124-131) reenacts the mediatory role of trees. !Gara (trickster) avenges the death of his two sons, Kan//a and !Xoma, whom the lions imprisoned in the chyme of an eland that the boys had killed. He tries to call a thunderstorm, first by hanging the neckbones from the eland carcass in a tree so that lightning may come. The neckbones did not work, but the horns did; lightning came and killed the lions. After his revenge, he stood back in surprise and said, “What will I do now…how will I powder myself with sᾶ so that my brains won’ t be spoiled by the killing I have done?” (Biesele 1975a: 181). Trickster !Gara’s action invokes supernatural powers in the sky realm to kill the lions. The mediation for the communication between him, in the material world, and the supernatural in the sky is the tree in which he hangs the eland horns. The tree here evokes the idea of axis mundi, allowing the connection and communication between two cosmic zones. The symbolism in this tale centres on the ‘height’ of the tree. I argue that ‘height’ is metaphoric for proximity to the sky realm and its supernatural beings. !Gara acts out a shamanic role of using a power animal, the eland, and a tree as intermediaries to communicate with the spirit realm. Ordinarily, trees as symbolic cosmic mediators may act as axis mundi to be used by shamans to transfer their persona into other planes of being or to access the spirit realm. At another level, the role of a healer parallels that of trees—both can link various realms of existence, the earth, the sky and the underground (Fig. 28, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.9). Trees as axis mundi thus mirror supernatural abilities of shamans. This connection is echoed in the art. The panel in Figure 24 depicts a context that can be used to show the connection between San shamans and trees. There are two short-tailed therianthropes

178 climbing on one of the two branches of a tree. One climbs above and the other below the branch.

Fig. 24. Two therianthropes climb a tree under which there are two human figures and an animal (redrawn from Frobenius 1963)

To the right are two more human figures; one next to the tree sits upright with one leg folded back and crossing the other leg on the thigh. Another figure, next to an indeterminate antelope, is reclining with one knee raised and the other leg is folded so as to cross the raised one just below the knee. Garlake persuasively argues that these postures are related to trance states (Garlake 1995: 130, 131, 133, 138, 151; Walker 1996: 69). Figure 25 is another panel that depicts a human figure climbing a tree, the branches of which are superimposed by two indeterminate animals. Human

179 figures and therianthropes climbing trees recall the experiences of the Hei//om

Fig. 25. A man climbs a tree next to animals (redrawn from Parry 2000) shamans, who, with the help of an antelope guide accompanying them on extracorporeal journeys, climb up a Lebensbaum (‘tree of life’) to enter the spirit realm (Guenther 1999: 188). The tree is an archetypal shamanic route via which trancers enter preternatural realms (ibid.: 188). Amongst the Ju/’hoansi, Biesele (1993: 72) notes “the threads of the sky” are the things which the trancer climbs to transcend the cosmos. The threads are sometimes described as “cords” connecting the earth and heavens (Schapera 1930) to assist the soul’s ascent (England 1968: 431-32) to the sky. Lewis-Williams and co-writers (2000) explore

180 the notion of “threads of light” for such routes and identify a motif in San rock art that represents them. At Nanke Cave, a long tailed and elongated bending over human figure is associated with two rootless trees (see Parry 2000: 25). This figure’s feet and the bases of the trees share the same level in a pool of flecks enclosed in an ovalshaped motif that narrows in the middle. Tree trunks rise up and partly merge with the bent-forwards human torso just below the armpits. The branches of the trees then appear above the human figure’s shoulders. Walker (1996: 5) describes the figure as a “wedge human” with “tree-like ‘growths’ on both shoulders”. He suggests that the lines descending from his armpits represent potency (sweat) lines. Close examination, however, shows that the lines are the trunks of the trees and that these continue below or above the figure, finally dividing into several branch forms. The bending-forward posture, with arms bending backwards, is diagnostic of trancers (Marshall 1969; Katz 1982: 98; Lewis-Williams 1981a, 1988a: 4) and suggests that the figure is dancing and transforming. The figure bends in a manner that recalls a posture that the San often take due to abdominal cramps resulting from exertion. When this happens and as they enter trance states they use dancing sticks to secure their balance (Marshall 1969: 358; Lewis-Williams 1981a: figs 23 & 40, 1997: 819). The elongated limbs of this figure are a further feature that evokes a hallucinatory trance state. In addition, the flecks, which I have shown to be termites’ nymphs, are symbols of potency (Garlake 1990, 1995). Both the human figure and trees stand in a field of flecks. In Figure 26, a tree is associated with two therianthropes and two ethereal human figures with distended abdomens. One therianthrope, bending over to

181 almost an all fours posture, is antelope-headed with a robust snout, long tail and twisted lines from its head, which are probably kudu horns. The forelegs have hooves. The tree, with fifteen branches and a rounded crown, stands above this figure, as if it grows from its back, although it does not actually touch it. What links the two is a small buck in between them.

Fig. 26. A tree, human figures, therianthropes, flecks and antelopes (redrawn from Garlake 1995)

182 Two ethereal human figures are superimposed on the tree below its branch level. One of these is clearly female as it has breasts. The second therianthrope with a rounded head is a little lower to the right. Associated motifs include a field of flecks, human figures, kudu cows and indeterminate buck on the right of the tree. Another notable feature is a copulating couple that is surrounded by a field of flecks that flow to link it with other images. The panel depicts metaphors of potency (e.g., flecks, Dowson 1989; Garlake 1990), trance posture (bending over) and transformation (therianthropes and ethereal human figures). The bending over therianthrope is placed where the tree roots would normally be. The position of a therianthrope where roots would normally be is not coincidental; it suggests the subterranean spirit realm below the tree, which the figure has accessed. Michael Harner (1982: 32) showed how the Conibo healers of the Upper Amazon travel down to the bowels of the earth by following the roots of a tree. In southern Africa, San “…shamans go into the ground on their out-of-body journeys. They travel underground and then come out again to see where they are” (Lewis-Williams 1988a: 17, 1994: 282). In a myth, /Kaggen sunk himself into the ground and emerged again until he got close to an eagle whose honey he wanted (Orpen 1874: 8). Equally, old K”xau, a healer himself, said his teacher in n/om told him that he would enter earth, travel through it and come out at another place, in his quest for the house of God (Biesele 1975a, 1980: 56). The two ethereal figures could be what Garlake (1995: 108, 109, 143, 158) describes as more than transformation, the “spirits with only the remote residues of their bodies, almost entirely unworldly and ethereal.” More specifically, I suggest that they could be the spirit world residents, //gauwasi, or hallucinatory creatures encountered in the spirit realm.

183 In the panel shown in Appendix 1 (Fig. 1.8) there is an association between three trees, a buffalo, and some human figures. This echoes a metaphoric link between trancers, antelopes and trees that I have highlighted. The buffalo stands on a line, probably the ground level. Although not actually touching it the two trees appear to grow above its rump. The biggest tree on the right, however, extends behind the buffalo’s head and its roots stretch to the level of the buffalo’s forelegs. Thirteen human figures, mostly male, in various postures leap or ride on the back of the buffalo and move around it in a circular formation. These figures could be drawing on the supernatural power of the buffalo to engage in supernatural activities. Similarly, Biesele (1978: 929-933) recounts a testimony of a Ju/’hoan healer’s “trance-journey to the sky using the [n/om] of the supernatural giraffe,” which took him to God’s house (Biesele 1980: 56). The /Xam achieved such trans-cosmological journeys in the persona of the animals they possessed (D.F. Bleek 1935: 30-32). Moreover, the circular formation of human figures around the central buffalo is reminiscent of the trance dance (Lee 1967: 31; Marshall 1969: 356-357; LewisWilliams 1981a). The buffalo, here, takes the central place of the potent dance fire. The fire is a source of, and accelerates the activation of, n/om in a trance dance (Marshall 1969: 357-358). N/om is stronger when hot (ibid.: 353). By taking the role of the central fire, the buffalo, by extension, becomes a source of n/om. It could also be a metaphor for /ko:öde (D.F. Bleek 1924: 10, 1935: 30-35) or a very high degree of potency. The panel may also allude to the efficacious ambience around a large antelope kill, principally eland, where a trance dance might ensue (Marshall 1969: 355) to harness the freshly released potency. The relationship between animals, ritual specialists and the axis mundi—the tree(s) is reinforced,

184 as in the case of Hei//om shamans who are guided by an animal, or ride on its back to climb up a tree of life to enter the spirit world (Guenther 1999: 188). Another metaphoric association implied by a fierce animal, such as a buffalo, juxtaposed with people, is the parallel symbolism of hunting encounters involving fearsome and formidable animals with the trance experience of San trancers. They are not only hunting down large sources of protein, but are also hunting powerful potency.

Trees and flecks

Ideas of potency are extended to contexts featuring only trees and oval flecks (Fig. 26; also Garlake 1990: 17-27, 1995: 103). Elaborate oval flecks take trident (bird-foot) shapes (Fig. 13, Plate 7). Similar motifs have also been interpreted as birds (Petie 1974: 2), rather than bees (Guy 1972; Pager 1973; Woodhouse 1990, 1994; 98-99). In other contexts, some writers describe these as “arrow motifs” (Walker 1996: 71; Garlake 1995: fig. 121). The association of flecks and botanical motifs is known from many sites (Frobenius 1963; Garlake 1987d: 62; Garlake 1995; Parry 2000: 96, 99). I argue that oval flecks that we have seen in association with anthills/termitaria and flying termites are nymphs of termites (Figs 1, 13, 15, 16). Because of their fat, as discussed already, they add to the litany of powerful potency symbols (Garlake 1995: 143-144). In the understanding of San art imagery as concerning supernatural potency, the images that I have discussed were reservoirs of this potency. My analysis of the treatment of trees and plants in the art as well as in San beliefs has thus confirmed Vinnicombe’s suggestion that they had “great religious significance”

185 among the San. Far more can be discerned from San art than has hitherto been allowed. A detailed iconographic analysis shows their painted contexts and associations are fundamental to perceptive understanding of formlings. In turn, this iconographic enquiry leads on to, and demonstrably meshes well, San myth and cosmology. Cosmological concepts are borne out of San beliefs and folklore. My cable-like argument shows that there is a significant physical link between trees, plants, termites and termitaria. Trees and plants grow on and around termite nests, while termites also nest in tree hollows. The art depicts this relationship, where even termite nymphs are shown around trees (Figs 15, 26). The symbolic link hinges on San notions of supernatural potency and San cosmology. Trees and plants represent the axis mundi that lead San ritual specialists to God’s house in the spirit world, itself a concept that is symbolised by formlings (or termitaria).


Chapter Eight God’s House: nuances, subtleties and symbolism In this thesis I have demonstrated the natural models of formlings and presented an analysis of their diverse contexts. Formling shapes and their decorative features are too regularised and consistent to be abstract motifs. Indeed, abstraction appears to be nonexistent in San art, as nearly all imagery derives from natural subjects that are sometimes combined with elements seen during trance states. Formlings should, therefore, like other San imagery, also have natural cognates. My analysis shows that termitaria and, for a few examples, beehives as well, are the natural models of formlings. Ethnographic analysis reveals that these natural models are themselves very potent. As for termitaria, their occurrence underground, in rock crevices and in trees, which are the places that are associated with the spirit world, further reinforces their significance in San cosmology. The painted contexts of formlings and trees, typically featuring potent subjects, such as powerful animal and insect symbols suggest the notion of potency reservoir. These contexts suggest the zenith of potency saturation. This idea of the ultimate ‘womb of potency’ implied by formlings evokes the concept of God’s house in the spirit world. The choice of trees, plants and termitaria (and beehives) was not only because of their inherent potency, but their shared peculiarities also made them significant subjects. However, in this complex some artists perceived termitaria in idiosyncratic, yet conceptually consistent ways, as the stomach, the seat of potency in people, especially the ritual specialists. So, the gebesi, as Garlake’s argument shows, is one idiosyncratic element of formling contexts.

187 Idiosyncrasy in San rock art is a feature that has been observed in some South African sites. As Dowson (1988: 117) has argued, the religious experiences of outstanding and charismatic shamans, albeit idiosyncratic, may become generally accepted as accurately representing the spirit world. This point explains partly the uniformities in concepts that are evoked by both San rock art and revelatory testimonies contained in San ethnography. But not all the reports of spiritual experiences have the same level of success and it the less successful reports that “remain idiosyncratic revelations.” Idiosyncratic depictions would also have been culturally understood, as the “thought processes involved in their creation were necessarily part of the San cognitive system” (ibid.: 118). In this understanding, my argument, based on the consistent painted contexts of formlings, shows these motifs to be representations of a powerful reservoir of potency. Drawing on the same principles and cultural understandings of the symbolic significance of termitaria other artists also interpreted the concept in terms of the stomach. Termitaria and trees are a major component of San cosmology. They evoke the shamanic mediation between the physical and the spirit worlds, and primarily the concept of God’s house. San trancers often describe their visits to God’s house (Biesele 1978; Keeney 1999; Lewis-Williams et al. 2000). Although there are inconsistencies as the exact nature of this house, the San all understand its associations and what trancers can expect to encounter there. This realm contains a litany of powerful animals, creatures and objects, said to be God’s possessions (Biesele 1978: 933). This profusion of potent creatures asserts and bestows the powerful ambience of God’s house. In the paintings, formling contexts feature potency symbols, such as trees, plants, non-physical creatures, felines, antelopes and, principally, giraffe and kudu, two of the powerful “great meat animals” that

188 possess n/om, n/ow (Marshall 1957: 235, Biesele 1993: 94-95, 108) and /k:önde. This conceptual transposition is thus logical in San thought and the metaphoric correspondence with God’s house is rooted in their combined power, which is concentrated in one place.

Beyond the ‘individual’: God’s house concept

The significance of termitaria is borne out of the painted contexts of formlings. These contexts suggest a complex concept that epitomises a source of all potency that San ritual specialists drew upon. To illustrate this point, I will now present a pictorially uncomplicated panel (Fig. 27), yet complex and richly nuanced, that summarises the interpretations that I have provided for formlings, trees and plants. It is a laconic representation of the panels that are illustrated in this thesis. Figure 27 depicts a typical formling that comprises 9 vertical cores, 3 of which retain microdots. Although the outline common to these motifs is missing here, it does not make this motif any less conceptually powerful. To the right of the formling are two therianthropes, a small animal-headed one and, in a stooping posture, a bigger and long-tailed one. There are five more human figures, albeit remnantal and faded, superimposing the formling. Below the two penultimate oval cores on the right there are two small buck. A feline, with a gaping mouth and facing right is in the middle of the formling. Still on the right part of the formling there is a thin and long plant form that bisects diagonally the two penultimate cores before it trifurcates into branch forms at the top. Where this long stem passes through an interstice between the two cores, there is a small human figure clinging, on all fours, onto the stem and climbs towards the top.


Fig. 27. A formling, feline and human figures (redrawn from Parry 2000)

In sum, the main image in the panel is a formling, a motif now understood to be termitaria. It is associated with an elongated stylised tree or plant motif growing through it. Crucially, there is a human figure climbing this tree right across the body of the formling. To understand the significance of this panel, I first draw attention to three features: the feline, tree and therianthropes. First, the gaping feline (probably a leopard judging by its profile and long curvy tail) alludes to the association of dangerous potency. Feline power is associated

190 with negative aspects of potency, especially in its uncontrollable degrees, such as in causing the dangerous throes of trance. So too is the San Great God, whose potency is feared by people, even by the most powerful shamans. Since he is the ultimate source of all n/om (Biesele 1993: 94), he is surrounded by an ambience of dangerous power. Lions and leopards in particular are mentioned as animals found in abundance in God’s realm.

Fig. 28. The San cosmos with two intersecting axes and ‘conceptual sets’ show overlap between realms (adapted from Lewis-Williams 1996)

Secondly, the panel implies the relationship between trees and the concept of the axis mundi. The human figure climbing the tree across the formling cores recalls

191 the Hei//om way of climbing a lebensbaum (‘tree of life’) into God’s house (Guenther 1999: 188). This is a variation of the means that shamans in different cultures use to access the spirit realm. The San also use ‘ropes’ ‘cords’ or ‘threads’ (Biesele 1993: 72; Marshall 1999: 21, 25, 29; Lewis-Williams et al. 2000) that hang from the sky like spider webs to climb into God’s house. Trees attached to formlings imply a variation of cosmic pathways into the spirit world. Their intermediary role comes from the ability to grow from the underworld and reach out into the upper realm. The underground is invariably associated with trees and plants because that is where they grow from. Other species, such as rocksplitter figs (e.g., Ficus abutilifolia, Ficus glumosa), grow between rock crevices and even from the rock matrix itself. Tree depictions emphasise roots probably to show their connection with the underworld. Rocks and rock shelters, like the underground, are spiritually powerful places that are intermediary between the material and spirit worlds (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990; Lewis-Williams 1998b: 200; Deacon 1988). Thirdly, the therianthropes, commonly associated with formlings, suggest, unequivocally, a non-ordinary reality that San trancers often relate from their spiritual experiences. These qualities and associations are unique to these subjects in formling contexts. Figure 27 therefore summarises the concept of God’s house, its special powerful associations and the shamanic mediation through the trees as axis mundi. It also shows the complexity of the San cosmos, in terms of the multi-layering of metaphors.

192 Potency and termitaria

The argument that I presented in this thesis shows that the cognitive areas of religious ideas, beliefs and symbolism are not epiphenomena, as it was generally assumed in the past. Rather, these are primary in understanding the San worldview and, crucially, in deciphering San rock art. Far from being narrative and straightforward records of life events or material phenomena, the images were penetrating symbols embedded in a multi-layered matrix of San religious ideology.











supernaturalism. It depicts how San ritual specialists translated and articulated aspects of the physical and spirit worlds. In this view, the images presented in my thesis are linked through their painted contexts and associations with the way the San perceived and conceptualised various cosmic realms. The formal shapes of formlings show that there are unequivocal depictions of termitaria (and for some motifs, beehives). Through their varied painted contexts and associations, the San construed them in terms of a realm that fuses elements of both the natural and supernatural worlds. A thread that connects these realms is the San notion of supernatural potency and the place of its origin, God’s house. Supernatural potency unites various images in the painted contexts of formlings. Formlings are closely associated with tree and plant motifs, a relationship that is also empirically verifiable from natural history. Both termitaria and trees thrive together in nature and are, therefore, conceptually congruous in San thought. The intrinsic symbolism of trees, on their own, is as complex and varied as that of formlings, but both subjects share similarities and anomalies that unified them conceptually. As key natural models, they were selected for specific traits that constitute conceptual nuclei around which metaphoric and symbolic meanings

193 were made. These phenomena symbolise notions of supernatural potency, especially the place where it is saturated, and access to these reservoirs. The concept of reservoir saturated with power is borne out of the observation that termitaria and trees (precisely hollows in trees)1 contain potent insects, just as God’s house is full of powerful subjects. Some termite species are arboreal and, similarly, bees also nest in trees (Giess & Snyman 1986: 24; Nonaka 1996: 35) and, for other bees, Trigona sp., underground as well. They are also invariably located in areas that are associated with the spirit world, the underground, rock shelters, and crevices. This analysis shows that termitaria are avatars of God’s house. They also, like trees, are capable of transcending the three-tired cosmos (Fig. 28, Appendix 1 Fig. 1.9). San ritual specialists, too, in many ways mirror these supernatural abilities, as they can transform into different personae (or animals) and are able to transcend different realities. They can move between the natural and spirit worlds (Biesele 1978: 930-931). In sum, the thesis has demonstrated that formlings, trees and plants and their painted contexts are explicable through recourse to relevant San beliefs about supernatural potency and the concept of God’s house. The various characteristic features of the contexts found with formlings include: •

human figures, who, judging by their diagnostic postures and features are related to trance experiences (Fig. 29), often accompany formlings and trees;


From which some creator deities, people and animals are said to have emerged in primordial past (see Chapter Six).


Fig. 29. Transformed figures, perhaps in the spirit world and decapitated human parts (Matopo)


therianthropes and related transformations, such as, elongation depicted entering or exiting from formling orifices, link formlings with trance and potency;


human figures are depicted sitting, walking and reclining on top of or next to formlings or trees;


human figures have streamer-like emanations from their mouths, armpits and knees (Fig. 29), which could be bodily exudations experienced by trancers;

195 •

powerful antelopes, principally giraffe and kudu, and felines occur in formling contexts, recalling San testimonies about God’s animal possessions that are concentrated in his sky village;

creatures, such as fish, reptiles and flying termites associated with formlings and trees;

fantastic creatures, including ‘rain animals’ and other animal conflations also occur with formlings;

trees and plants are depicted growing next to or on top of formlings, and sometimes emerging from their sides,

Sinuous and, and sometimes fairly straight lines are also found in formling contexts as well as other imagery (e.g., Appendix 1 Fig. 1.1, Fig. 29) and;

formlings are sometimes conflated with botanical motifs.

All these features in the painted contexts of formlings are congruous with the San beliefs concerning supernatural potency and God’s house. Formlings and trees therefore have multiple and complex richly nuanced religious and symbolic associations. As Garlake (1990: 17) rightly stated, “Interpretations of [formlings] these are the touchstone by which all approaches to the San art of Zimbabwe can be assessed.” These constitute evidence for the multifaceted San belief system and symbolism that was vibrant in Matopo for millennia. In direct contrast to previous researchers, I have adopted the ethnographic hermeneutic method to penetrate the meaning of these images. It is today axiomatic that southern African San rock art is redolent with religious symbolism. San artists in Matopo were not isolated from this religious complex. Being a product of the same culture, and similar conceptual framework (and

196 religious fundamentals) to the recently studied San, I advocate that this approach is the most productive as it reveals connections inherent in the art and San beliefs. Research no longer hinges on demonstrating the sophistication of this art and the validity of San ethnography. Rather, the concerns are to tease out the nuances and subtleties of the imagery to reveal the symbolic meanings contained in this sophistication.



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Fig. 1.10. A tree motif painted in white pigment from northern South Africa.

Fig. 1.11. A tree motif painted in yellow ochre and with a line motif probably denoting ground level.

Fig. 1.12. Paintings of trees with what appears to be a breeding pair of kudu, which is a common association in the rock art of Matopo Hills.

Fig. 1.13. A termite mound with a tree growing in the middle is another feature that occurs occasionally in the depictions of formlings.

Fig. 1.14. This is another example of a termite mound with a large tree and smaller bushes growing on top of it within species-specific clusters encouraged by rich nutrient soils on mounds.

Fig.1.15. An anthill with several secondary mounds forming a series of domes. Some formling depictions seem to bring this feature out as caps or cusps.


Fig. 1.16. A fig tree of the rock splitter species is growing on a rock formation, which could another reason why this subject is significant in hunter-gatherer thought. This peculiarity of penetrative force could account for the specific emphasis of roots in the depictions.

Fig.1.17. Left section of the panel redrawn in Fig. 9, showing a very similar motif to the one in fig. 21. It is a formling conflated with a sprouting plant motif.

Fig.1.18. A polychrome giraffe from a site in Matopo Hills called Nanke Cave associated with the big formling.

Fig.1.19. From a site in central eastern Zimbabwe called Diana’s Vow is this main reclining figure used in the gebesi explanation of the formlings.

Continuity and change in San belief and ritual  

A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand,Johannesburg, for the degree of Master of Arts. 2002, by Siyakha...