The Wounded Roan: A Contribution to the Relation of Hunting and Trance in Southern African Rock Art

By Thackeray, J. Francis | Antiquity, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The Wounded Roan: A Contribution to the Relation of Hunting and Trance in Southern African Rock Art


Thackeray, J. Francis, Antiquity


Introduction

The advantage of studying art in southern Africa is that ethnographic and linguistic data are accessible as parts of belief systems that are likely to have developed over very long periods of time. The continent now has evidence for art extending back at least 70 000 years, represented by engravings from Blombos (Henshilwood et al. 2002) and from recent excavations at Wonderwerk by Beaumont (Mitchell 2002). Figures depicted in southern African rock art such as those discussed in this paper, appear to have expressed concepts of the control of humans over animals. Their development may have involved the use of animal skins in hunting contexts (Thackeray 1983b), a form of sympathetic hunting magic (Thackeray 1986), or beliefs associated with trance during which medicine-men gained access to 'supernatural potency' (Lewis-Williams 1980, 1981). In this paper I explore the possibility that the 'trance hypothesis' and concepts associated with sympathetic hunting magic are not mutually exclusive.

Sorcerers and antelopes

A rock painting at the Melikane cave in Lesotho (Figure 1) includes three human figures bending forward, adopting a quadrupedal posture (Figure 2). In the nineteenth century, the figures were interpreted by San ('Bushman') informants as 'sorcerers' attributed with controlling powers over game (Bleek 1874; Orpen 1874; Bleek 1935, 1936). In a groundbreaking study Lewis-Williams (1980, 1981) interpreted the Melikane painting in terms of San concepts of control associated with trance-dances during which medicine-men accessed 'supernatural potency' of the kind expressed by the 'Bushman' terms n/um or !gi. The 'Bushman' term for a medicine-man, !gi: xa, incorporates !gi which Bleek (1956) defined as 'magic', but which also refers to concepts associated with a desire for success in hunting, as discussed here. The Melikane figures have been associated with 'medicine-men' of the kind known by a 'Bushman' term !gi: xa, which is phonetically and conceptually similar to the Xhosa (Nguni/Bantu), the term for a ritual functionary known as an igqirha or 'diviner' (Botha & Thackeray 1987).

[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]

The Melikane therianthropes (man-animal combinations) had been previously considered to represent disguised hunters (How 1962), although this was questioned by Woodhouse (1968). The use of animal skins may take advantage of 'curiosity behaviour', stimulating an animal to turn en face towards the hunter, and on occasion to walk towards the disguised hunter within the range of hunting weapons (Thackeray 1983b). Notably, one of the Melikane therianthropes is depicted en face, looking towards the observer of the rock painting itself. Recognising the importance of control as a concept expressed in the Melikane painting, it is pertinent to note here that below the therianthropes is a representation of an antelope apparently pierced by the tip of an arrow or spear.

The actual use of an antelope skin costume and the adoption of a quadrupedal posture by a human figure bending forward with two sticks, strongly similar to the imagery in the Melikane painting, was photographed in 1934 by W.H.C. Taylor at Logageng, north of Wonderwerk Cave on the southern margin of the Kalahari desert (Figures 3 and 4). Unfortunately Taylor's photograph lacks contextual information, apart from being entitled as a 'buckjumper' at Logageng (also known as Logagani), which served to control the spread of foot and mouth disease at that time (Thackeray 1993). Detailed examination of the photograph suggests that the 'buckjumper' was a human figure wearing the skin and head of a hippotragine antelope, probably roan (Hippotragus equinus) which have prominent erect manes and curved horns (Figure 5a), and which are widely distributed in woodland savannah regions on the African continent (Figure 5b) (Dorst & Dandelot 1978; Skinner & Smithers 1990).

[FIGURES 3-5 OMITTED]

Broad stripes, probably painted, appear to be represented on the side of the antelope skin worn by the 'buckjumper' (Figure 3). …

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