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Print No #5

Ropes and Threads to God

Nineteenth-century records of /Xam Bushman myths and those collected from twentieth-century Kalahari !Kung Bushmen by clinical therapist Bradford Keeney led archaeologist John Cavallo to an alternative explanation of a puzzling painting from a rock shelter in the Kondoa-Irangi districts—a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Figure 1). In her 1983 book, Africa’s Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania, Mary Leakey simply describes the two separate images as “a human wearing a spiky head-dress resembling porcupine quills” and “looped line that may be a snare.” According to the shamanistic model of David Lewis-Williams, Cavallo contends that the human figure represents a semi-conscious shaman in trance—that is, an altered state of consciousness. He bases this contention on several of the figure’s physical attributes that typify this state such as its extremely elongated torso, foreshortened legs and arms, hands with only three fingers each, and the numerous, closely-spaced perpendicular lines radiating from its head that indicate the “cerebral explosion” that shamans report experiencing from receiving their spiritual potency when they enter trance. Some of this energy is said to escape through their heads and some re-enters the lower body and limbs like the surge of an electrical current passing through it. However, Cavallo remained puzzled about the meaning of the so-called “looped line” until reading clinical therapist Bradford Keeney’s first-hand account of a !Kung Bushman’s recounting of the somatic (physical) and visual hallucinations that occurred during their intensely physical, dramatic, and ecstatic healing dances. Kenney offered the following revealing description that helped Cavallo solve his little mystery:

“Here, the over-breathing and guttural sound-making… combine to make the body look like it has an inner piston of internal movement. This is when the [shaman prepares to enter the highest realms of the shamanic experience [altered states of consciousness]. Most importantly, this is when the Bushman [shaman] climbs the rope… to the sky village where the ancestors live. The stomp [dancing step] becomes a climbing of a ladder or rope into the highest realm of ecstasy (sometimes they climb down into the earth rather than up to the sky—in both places they may find the village of the ancestors and gods).”

Another shaman told Keeney about what he called the “rope of light,” an important vision apparently only seen by a few shamans during their healing dances.
“The rope is the most important thing we know abut, because you can walk with the rope and visit God. The rope is the power. It does not carry power like a pipe carrying water. It is like God’s finger: it stretches out into a long thin line that reaches us… It is also a line that you can use to talk to God…”

Significantly, the shaman concludes his vivid description by stating that: “Several of us in this community have gone all the way up that rope and have seen God. I turn into a wind and then travel up the rope.” These descriptions suddenly made sense out of what first appeared to Cavallo as a string of Christmas lights. There is the vertical rope with tiny step-like parallel lines that look exactly like symbols of human footprints found on two other paintings from the same Kondoa rock shelter—the so-called snare represents the rope to God. (From M.D. Leakey, 1983. Redrawn by J.A. Cavallo).