san-painting

The San & The Eland

This is a basic but close look at the importance of the eland, a type of antelope, to the San hunter-gatherers of southern Africa. It was inspired largely by reading J. David Lewis-Williams’ pioneering work on southern African rock art, Believing and Seeing, which I came across as a result of my obsession with prehistoric rock carvings and paintings. This piece is mostly a summary of some relevant aspects of Lewis-Williams’ book. I don’t claim to be an expert on San culture, or to be presenting a comprehensive account. I merely want to expose some interesting information to people who may not come across this rather specialist and hard-to-find book.

Through looking at this culture, and its relationship to the eland, I’ve tried to examine an example of what the West lost long ago: an intimate, sophisticated bond with the animal world, one in which the rigid separation of the ‘sacred’ and ‘mundane’ spheres of existence has not yet manifested. It’s telling that when Lewis-Williams asked some San people how they go about hunting animals, they “began to describe hunting techniques and rituals as if there were no difference between the two.” Change “as if there were” to “because there was”, and I think we’re a step closer to understanding these people’s world.

When the Dutch began to settle in southern Africa in the 17th century, they called the indigenous hunter-gatherers the San. ‘San’ is a word used by the native cattle-herding nomads of the valleys of the Cape of Good Hope to refer to the peoples of the higher grounds and mountains. The Dutch also used the term ‘Bojesman’ to refer to these people, which turned into ‘Bushmen’; this term became widely used in the West. Because of the racist and sexist connotations of this word, current anthropologists prefer the term ‘San’.

Many different, but intimately related cultures are embraced by the term ‘San’, and they cover a large area of southern Africa. The names of individual San tribes are mostly ‘given’ titles—for instance, the !Kung1  call themselves the Zhun/twasi, ‘the real people’. There are strong cross-connections between the different San peoples in their religious beliefs and social lives, but the information I’ve used here is from the !Kung in the north and the /Xam to the south.

The San live on a diet of gathered plants—roots, berries, fruits and nuts—and hunted game animals—antelope, giraffe, warthogs and birds. Women do most of the gathering, though sometimes they kill smaller animals. Men do most of the hunting, but like the women they possess an extensive knowledge of the local plants—the !Kung are known as superb botanists and naturalists.

Awareness of the special relationship between the San and one type of antelope, the eland, has been heightened by rock art research. The Drakensberg Mountains, in Lesotho, contain one of the greatest concentrations of prehistoric rock paintings in the world. The closest contemporary San people to this area are the /Xam, but information from the !Kung has also been integral to shedding light on this art, demonstrating the common cultural bonds across space and time among the San. No San continue to produce rock art, but through examining interviews with San from the 19th century onwards, rock art researchers have begun to elucidate some of the probable meanings behind paintings done by the San long ago. San culture has been forced to change over recent centuries, because of the influx of white settlers and because of their increasing interaction with pastoral cattle-herders. Nevertheless, the survival of traditional ways of life has been strong enough to carry some of the psycho-mythical patterns of ancient San rock-painters into the present.

This essay will be necessarily simplified, as my main aim is to look at the ways in which testimony from modern !Kung and /Xam, and the testimony of past San left painted on rocks, reveals the specifics of how San relate to the eland. Our core concern here is how the eland as a physical reality—its behaviour, physiology, and the process of hunting it—stimulates and meshes with the eland as a vital symbol in San social and spiritual life.


Figure 1: Rock painting from Fulton's Cave, Giant's Rock, Lesotho
Figure 1: Rock painting from Fulton’s Cave, Giant’s Rock, Lesotho

The eland is not the only animal hunted by the San, but they prize it highly. It is central to many ceremonies, and seems so important to San rites de passages (like a girl’s first period and a boy’s first kill) that Lewis-Williams has called it the San animal de passage. The rock painting in fig. 1 should be familiar to readers of Towards 2012 from Chris Knight’s article on menstruation and the origins of human culture. It was originally thought to represent a burial rite, but evidence from San people implies that it is most probably a ritual based around a girl’s first period.

In such !Kung rituals, the girl lies beneath a kaross, an animal skin robe, secluded in a specially constructed hut. There is an association between this ritual and what is known as “eland sickness”—for the !Kung, the symbolic importance of illness and menstruation are intimately related.2

The !Kung’s Eland Bull dance is performed for this event; women clap their hands and dance around the menstrual hut, mimicking the mating behaviour of eland cows, swishing the ‘tails’ they wear. All these elements can be read into the Fulton’s Rock painting. In the dance, one or two elder men imitate eland bulls, using sticks as horns, sniffing the dancing women. This is seen as the climax of the ceremony, and the whole dance “is so beautiful that the girl in the menstrual hut weeps, overcome by the wonder of it.”3  During the dance, an eland is said to appear—symbolically, but as a living reality for the participants. The faded figure of an eland can be seen in the bottom left of the Fulton’s Rock painting.

The girl herself is associated with the eland in numerous ways. Special ‘respect words’ have to be used when referring to either. When asked why it is an eland dance (as opposed to any other animal dance), !Kun/obe, an old !Kung woman, 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 thing and she is all fat; therefore they are called the same thing.”4  Research into steatopygia (supposed ‘excess’ of fat in the buttocks) has shown that a store of fat is necessary in women for the menstrual cycle, and during puberty a girl’s fat store is almost doubled.

For the !Kung, fat is linked with fertility and balance. A !Kung euphemism for sex is ‘to eat or drink fat’. They are greatly interested in the fat of the eland, which is used as part of ointments rubbed on girls during their menstrual rites. Eland fat, particularly fat accumulated around the heart of the male, is one of many things thought by the !Kung to possess n/um, ‘supernatural potency’, which is most effectively transferred or communicated through the sense of smell. They consider the odour of cooking fat, and of the girl during the dance, to be highly pleasant. On coming out of menstrual seclusion, !Kung girls make a mixture of eland fat and certain plants, and go around every hearth in the camp, placing some of the mixture in each fire. Thus n/um is transferred from the eland to the girl, and from the girl to the whole group. This ritual is seen as essential in the maintenance of socio-cosmic balance among the tribe, a balance that ensures enough fat for the girl, food for the people, and rain for the land. But not too much, especially not too much food; a glut of supplies is seen to cause petty bickering.

Another link to the eland is found in an expression used by the !Kung to describe a freshly menstruating girl: “She has shot an eland.”5  She is thus regarded in terms of being an animal and a hunter. The bond is furthered in a custom which dictates that a girl coming out of menstrual seclusion should look down to the ground; then the eland will look down as well, making it easy for the hunters to stalk up on them.


This brings us to the complex of observances and rituals clustered around hunting, especially those associated with a boy’s first eland kill. The core aspect of hunting is the intimate link between the hunter and his prey. This link forms the central axis around which the hunting process revolves.

Figure 2: A rare instance of a San painting showing a hunter shooting an eland, from Lariston, Barkly East, Lesotho.
Figure 2: A rare instance of a San painting showing a hunter shooting an eland, from Lariston, Barkly East, Lesotho.

Arrows alone are not enough to kill large game animals such as antelope; so they coat the tips, which remain embedded after the shaft has broken off, with poison. They must then return to camp, and track the animals the next day to find where it has died.

While walking away from the animal he has shot, a hunter must not hurry. He must walk slowly, because if he quickened his pace or ran, so too would the animal. Back at the camp, he is questioned about his hunt. He will never answer directly. If he has been successful, he will say that he only saw the animal’s tracks, or that a thorn had stuck in his foot; the others will know from this that he has shot an antelope. When a !Kung boy has shot his first eland, he doesn’t return to camp until late afternoon. First, he makes a fire, and uses the ashes to draw a circle on his forehead with a line running down his nose. This imitates the red tuft of hair on the eland’s forehead, deepening his link to his prey as well as signalling wordlessly to the others on his return that he has had success.

Like menstruating girls, boys returning from their first kill are isolated in a hut. The /Xam build a special hut for this, and the hunter is cared for as if he were ill. And he is ill, in a sense, because of his bond to the eland. He must be quiet, and act as if his life-energy, like the eland’s, is ebbing away. Otherwise, the poison may be ‘cooled’—made ineffective.

The supernatural being /Kaggen is a part of many San cultures, and he often intervenes during the period when a hunter is trying to be sedate. He comes in the form of a mantis or a louse, and will try to irritate the hunter in various ways to trick him into waking, lashing out, or otherwise breaking his link to the dying animal. /Kaggen works on behalf of the antelope, and prevents the hunter from becoming complacent about his task of maintaining a bond with his prey.

The next day, the animal is tracked to see if it can be found. When a !Kung boy’s first eland kill is found, he does not approach it directly, “he crouches down behind an old man and places his arms around him; they both then pretend to stalk the animal. . . . [T]he position is like one adopted by a medicine man and a novice when the young man is learning how to go into a trance and to cure”.8 A fire is lit, some parts of the eland are cooked, and the eland medicine dance is danced, “in praise of the fat”. Medicine men go into trance and use the n/um they raise through dancing to heal.

Returning to the camp, the boy is praised by the tribe, and the remaining parts of the eland are cooked and shared. Sitting in the centre of the spread skin of the eland, the boy is ritually initiated. He is scarified on his arms, and a mixture of eland fat and plants is rubbed into the cuts; this combination of bleeding and anointing again echoes the menstrual rites. In !Kung terminology, scarification ‘creates’ a hunter just as the Eland Bull dance ‘creates’ a woman. Both are children who have died, to be recreated as members of society ready for marriage.


Marriage itself is connected to hunted animals. If a man desires a woman for marriage, he will leave an animal he has killed outside the huts of the woman’s band, demonstrating his ability to provide food. There are numerous variations on this and what follows, but again game animals, especially antelope like the eland, form a major part of a phase of social and individual transition.

Discussing !Kung marriage customs, where the groom gives eland fat to his bride’s parents and the bride is anointed with eland fat, Lewis-Williams confronts a major question: why is the eland in particular, and especially its fat, so important? He did not reach any conclusions until he discussed it with the !Kung. Apparently, in most antelope species, the female has a greater store of fat than the male. In the eland, this is reversed. The large accumulation of fat around the heart of the bull eland means that males have more fat than females. Lewis-Williams emphasizes that this is a point “which the !Kung themselves find remarkable: it excites their interest and they consider it to be an important distinguishing feature of the eland. The animal is, in their thought, almost androgynous in that, by the male’s possession of so much fat, the usual differentiation is uniquely reversed.”6  And so, menstruating girls are spoken of as hunters; and a boy who has killed his first eland is cared for as if he were menstruating.

Sexual difference is one of the most basic polarities of human life, and of most animal life. It is not, though, a fixed duality; it is a dynamic relationship, especially among humans, where it is governed by fluid cultural categories. Among the !Kung, shifts in these categories are treated as liminal zones, where androgynous symbolism (rooted in eland physiology) signifies transition and sacred ‘betweenness’.


Asked why the word tcheni, meaning ‘dance’, is used as a ‘respect word’ to refer to eland, a !Kung informant said: “Your heart is happy when you dance.”7  Their healing dance rituals are often associated with the killing of game animals, celebrating the sharing of meat and the relaxation of social tensions. Moreover, such dances form the very centre of !Kung social and spiritual life.

Popular perception of ‘shamanic’ cultures often carries with it an image of the shaman as a lone figure who is consulted by the tribe for healing and other purposes—an individual mediator between the tribe and the spiritworld. In !Kung culture, there are shamanic figures, called ‘medicine men’ by anthropologists, who specialize according to the quality and associations of the n/um, spiritual energy, they possess. Thus there are those who possess springbok medicine, eland medicine, rain medicine, locust medicine, giraffe medicine, etc. But despite this specialization, shamanic activity among the !Kung is much more communal—being focused in the collective healing dance—than the situation suggested by the ‘lone shaman’ image. In fact, everyone is encouraged to try to learn to heal, and over half the men, and ten percent of the women usually become healers. Even those who do not attain this status participate actively in the dance. For example, the common form of the dance is for the women to sit around a fire while the men dance around them in a circle, moving one way round then the other. The women’s clapping and singing acts as an inspiration and source of guidance for the healers entering deeply bewildering and powerful trance states. The communal aspect of the !Kung ceremonies is again reflected in the way the dancers will care for each other as individuals enter deep states of ecstasy, often supporting and attending to the bodies of those whose souls have temporarily left to journey into the spiritworld.

The trance state itself is the probable reason that more people do not become healers. It is powerful; sometimes dangerous, often feared. The !Kung hold that n/um is stored in the pit of the stomach or base of the spine. The process of prolonged rhythmic dancing and singing ‘boils’ the n/um, causing it to ascend up the body, and to be excreted in the form of sweat on the upper body. This experience may cause one to shiver and tremble, and can cause nasal bleeding (streams of blood can be seen to emanate from the noses of many dancing figures in ancient San rock paintings—see fig. 3). This blood, particularly its smell, can be used in healing or to induce trance in neophytes. The peak of the trance—full visionary consciousness, associated with ‘out-of-body’ experiences—is attained when the boiling n/um reaches the skull, inducing a state known as !kia. Entering this state is likened to dying. More mature and experienced healers can avoid the bodily collapse, rigidity, trembling and moaning that !kia often induces, but no one enters !kia without respect for the precarious balance between life and death that it signifies. The experience is braved over and over again for the simple reason that it allows access to dimensions where invaluable healing, both physical and spiritual, both individual and communal, becomes possible. The !Kung believe that everyone is latently sick, and that physical or mental illness is merely the manifestation of what is there all the time. Thus they not only treat tangible ailments, but through their healing dances work to stop sickness from manifesting, a form of ‘preventative medicine’.

Figure 3: A row of dancers entering trance, from Fetcani Glen, Barkly East, Lesotho. Note the nasal flows and the hooves instead of feet in some instances.
Figure 3: A row of dancers entering trance, from Fetcani Glen, Barkly East, Lesotho. Note the nasal flows and the hooves instead of feet in some instances.

Once more the eland figures in this special ritual. !Kia ‘death’ is likened to the death of a shot eland. “When an eland is pursued, it sweats more than any animal; this sweat, like the sweat of a medicine man, is considered by the !Kung to contain very powerful n/um. Brought to bay and near death, the eland trembles and shivers, its nostrils are wide open, it has difficulty in breathing and its hair stands on end . . . As it dies ‘melted fat, as it were, together with blood’ gushes from its nostrils”.8  In interpreting therianthropic figures in ancient San rock art—e.g. humans with antelope ears or hooves—Lewis-Williams suggests that they represent healers in trance. Approaching !kia, the healer possessing ‘eland medicine’ may feel him or herself take on the form of that antelope, and retain that form throughout their journey in the spiritworld. Taking on the form of an animal expresses the radical shift in self-image that !kia precipitates. Brain chemistry, energy structures in the body, and consciousness itself are transformed through the dance, and the !Kung encapsulate their inner understanding of these shifts by linking them to their observation of the animals that sustain them:

As the eland stands at the entrance to male and female adult status and to marriage so, for those who possess its supreme potency, it is the medium which gives access to the mystical experience of trance.9

Once more the bonds between the San and the eland are brought to life, through intricate natural symbolism.