The Southern San and the Trance Dance: A Pivotal Debate in the Interpretation of San Rock Paintings

By Lewis-Williams, J. David; Pearce, David G. | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Southern San and the Trance Dance: A Pivotal Debate in the Interpretation of San Rock Paintings

Lewis-Williams, J. David, Pearce, David G., Antiquity



The Bleek and Lloyd Collection of the 1870s covers a wide range of southern San lifehistories, foraging strategies, myths and rituals (Lewis-Williams & Biesele 1978; LewisWilliams 1981, 2000; Deacon 1986, 1988, 1996; Guenther 1989; Deacon & Dowson 1996; Bank 2006; Skotnes 2007; Hewitt 2008; Lewis-Williams & Challis 2011). It comprises verbatim, phonetic /Xam language transcriptions that the philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd wrote down and transliterated into English. But the collection does not deal with each and every component of /Xam life and belief in equal measure: when Bleek and Lloyd were taking down the statements that their informants gave, they knew virtually nothing about the San and consequently had no framework within which to formulate their questions. The collection should therefore not be equated with the systematic, theoretically-informed ethnographies of later anthropologists who lived for varying periods with a range of San linguistic groups in the Kalahari Desert.


Among those twentieth-century ethnographers were Lorna Marshall (1999), Richard Katz (1982), Alan Barnard (1992), Megan Biesele (1993), Richard Lee (1968, 1993) and Mathias Guenther (1999), all of whom described the San healing, or trance, dance. Traditionally, this dance is held in the camp and everyone attends (e.g. Marshall 1999: 63-90; see also Katz 1982; Biesele 1993; Katz et al. 1997). Often, it lasts all night. Generally, the women sit in a tight circle around a central fire, while the men dance around them, their feet making a circular rut in the sand. Sometimes the men cut through the circle of seated women and approach the fire. The women's complex, rhythmic clapping and singing contribute to the shamans' entry into trance.

Guenther concluded that "this dance is the central ritual of the Bushman religion and its defining institution" (Guenther 1999:181). Indeed, the trance dance is a key component in a set of beliefs and rituals that have been labelled 'pan-San" (McCall 1970; Lewis-Williams & Biesele 1978; Lewis-Williams 1981; Barnard 2007). This (perhaps misleading) phrase does not mean that all San linguistic groups are identical in every respect, only that certain specific beliefs and rituals are common to all, or virtually all, groups: "[R]eligion is far more uniform throughout Bushman and even Khoisan southern Africa than are material aspects of culture and society" (Barnard 2007: 96).


For some years there has been a growing misapprehension that the Bleek and Lloyd Collection does not refer to the San trance dance and, further, that there is no other evidence that the southern San performed such a dance. In 1996, although conceding there is much in the Bleek and Lloyd Collection about /Xam ritual specialists (Bleek 1933, 1935, 1936; Hollmann 2004), Pippa Skotnes wrote,

Despite the many stories of shamans and medicine people, the thousands of pages of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection taken from /Xam informants make no mention of the trance dance we know so well from the ethnographies of the !Kung... [A]part from the //Ken dance which initiated shamans, we have no evidence from these records that the /Xam practised trance dances at all (Skotnes 1996: 238).

Anne Solomon uncritically took up Skotnes's point. Although she had earlier accepted that an account that the young San man Qing gave Joseph Orpen in 1873 referred to "the trance dance as ethnographically recorded" (Solomon 1998: 273), she later asserted that,

... there is no evidence of a southern San trance dance. The frenzied behaviour of the dancers described by Qing relates to the weakest of the dancers being assailed and overcome by lethal spirits, not the careful induction of a trance state through rhythmic dancing, as in the Kalahari context (Solomon 2007:157).

Recently, Skotnes's and Solomon's view was cited and affirmed by Michael Wessels, who wrote,

Nor do the /Xam appear to have practised trance dancing.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Southern San and the Trance Dance: A Pivotal Debate in the Interpretation of San Rock Paintings


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?