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

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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. …