Stacks Image 153
Print No #31

Shaman Trance-Dancers With Bi-Lobed Heads & Dancing Sticks

This print depicts a grouping of bizarre human-like figures that were traced from the Kolo 7 rock shelter in the Kondoa District of central Tanzania by world-famous archaeologist Mary Leakey. Importantly, in her 1983 volume, Africa's Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania, she reports that this was the only painting in the site—a highly unusual occurrence. She specu- lates that seven of the tall, dominant figures “appear to be women dancing.” She also
wonders if several of the “women” are holding either “musical instruments” of some sort, or “digging sticks” traditionally used by Bushman hunter-
´┐╝´┐╝gatherers to excavate edible subterranean roots and tubers and to dig for water in sand rivers. In support of the latter possi- bility, she notes that the small, faded, round-headed figure on the left of the composition (that is also holding a bow without arrows that are not mentioned) might be carrying a calabash container of water. She also points out that the second to last figure on the right may be carrying water “in the pot or gourd... on its head.” There is also a cheetah in the lower left of the composition that is the same faded shade of pink as the short bowman. What Leakey calls a “sun” motif, in the lower center of the painting, is also faded to a similar pinkish color as the bowman and the cheetah as is a highly elongated headless figure with four arms in the upper center of the painting. Although Leakey considers the Kolo 7 composition as a single image, Archaeologist John Cavallo believes the faded images are earlier renderings over which the darker, dominant figures were later superimposed. Since he is still in the process of analyzing them separately, they are not included in the following interpretations.
In a 1987 publication that compares Tanzanian and southern Bushman art, South African rock art specialist, David Lewis- Williams, who first discovered the shamanistic elements in Bushman rock art, points out that, although the sticks in the Kolo 7 painting are thick, in light of what else is happening in the painting, they are more likely dancing sticks that south- ern Bushmen trance-dancers are often depicted using to support themselves during vigorous trance healing rituals. Follow- ing up on his argument,
Cavallo recently found additional details that lend support to the probable shamanistic origins and con- tent of the compo- sition.
First, Leakey makes no mention of the strange, obviously malformed, bi-lobed heads of the seven “dancing” individuals (see below). Then there is the abnormal elongation of the torsos of these figures. According to nineteenth and twentieth- century accounts of the Bushmen, shamans frequently report the physical sensation of growing taller while dancing during altered states of consciousness. Cavallo also notes that none of these individuals have any female attributes usually indi- cated by breasts in Tanzanian and southern Bushman paintings. He therefore assumes that the figures are all males. Several are bent forward or appear to be suspended, and all have foreshortened arms that hang down loosely in front of them. This is a common posture in southern San Bushman and particularly Sandawe Bushman paintings depicting shamans in trance or healing rituals. The absence of hands on most of the individuals in the Kolo 7 painting or, in three cases, hands with only two fingers, are yet another physical sensation experienced during altered states that appear in other Tanzanian images with either fewer or more than the normal number of digits.
Next are the three largest figures on the left that are floating on air. Although Leakey mentions the presence of tails on some of them in passing, Cavallo notes that one of the largest figures has two tails and one of the tall standing figures to its right has a single thin tail with three horizontal enigmatic bars at its tip. Another shorter figure, floating above and to its right and holding a dancing stick, has a very thick tail, like that of a carnivore. Tails on human figures appear in a number of paintings in other Kolo rock shelters and he believes they were used by shaman-artists to indicate the reported transforma- tion of shamans from human form into animal form, called “therianthropes,”prior to leaving their earthly bodies on jour- neys to the spirit world. The warped or wavy-looking body of the individual with the thick tail is one of the visual halluci- nations commonly seen and reported by clinical patients in drug-induced altered states of consciousness. Importantly, the first tall individual on the extreme right shows the graphic indication of nasal blood coming from the lower part of its head. Nasal bleeding often occurred during trance dances as a result of dehydration, but was sometimes induced by shamans who rubbed certain irritating herbs on their noses to induce haemorrhaging. The depiction of nasal bleeding is commonly found in southern Bushman paintings and, to a lesser extent, in Tanzanian paintings where they have been grossly over- looked on many figures or misinterpreted, for example, as a person who is “singing.” Another figure on the far lower left has two similar elongated tear-shaped projections on the bottom of its bi-lobed head that Mary Leakey interprets as ear- rings. However, Cavallo contends they might also represent the flow of nasal blood. Collectively, all of the aforementioned attributes of this composition are characteristic of altered states of consciousness according to Lewis-Williams' analyses of southern San paintings.
The major puzzles in this composition are the bizarre bi-lobed heads on the figures. According to Cavallo, they are also pre- sent in several other Kondoa-Irangi paintings, all of which are depictions of human figures in altered states of conscious- ness. Although he's not yet completely convinced and is still
collecting evidence, he sees a similarity between these strangely shaped heads and certain puffball mush- rooms. Whether or not they are an hallucinogenic species of puffball, requires comparison with more de- tailed photographs of species common to the woodlands of the Kondoa-Irangi districts or similar habitat settings in East Africa and consultation with a mycologist. Finally, and most importantly, Cavallo also speculates that the Kolo 7 painting may have been a collaborative effort on the part of a small group of shamans. Based on their studies of certain southern San Bushman paintings, David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson found that, in certain cases, small groups or alliances of shamans may have conspired to seek a “novel group identity” to advance their religious, social, and political positions. Lewis-Williams points out that:
“No matter how powerful the informing social influences may be, the human brain in an altered state of consciousness al- ways produces novel, or aberrant, hallucinations. In all societies, most people ignore these sports of the human nervous system because they are seeking specific kinds of visions that they can understand and that will make them feel part of a social group. But some people seize upon hallucinatory novelties and then present them to others as specially privileged insights that set them above others or, more forcefully, that challenge the whole structure of power relations.”
Cavallo concludes that since this was the only painting in the Kolo 7 rock shelter in Kondoa, the composition could repre- sent graphic confirmation of a secret solidarity between a small, select group of shamans that was not meant to be shared with other shamans outside their group or with the community at large. This contention is partially supported by reports that, among contemporary Sandawe people, rock shelters and shallow caves in the hills are still believed to be occupied by spirits and are respected and even feared. So as not to disturb these spirits, rock shelters in the past were said to have been avoided by all but their shamans. Continued analysis of the painting has the potential to yield significant information about this hypothesized shamanic secret. (After M.D. Leakey, 1983. Redrawn by J.A. Cavallo).