Featured Exhibitions

Enter the world of the San, southern Africa’s First People.

Genetics and Human Origins

!Khwa ttu is very lucky to have worked in co-operation with world leading geneticists who are exploring how the San fit into accounts of the origins of all people from Africa.

The 8 videos featured present our three experts, Prof. Brenna Henn, Asst. Prof. Carina Schlebusch and Prof. Himla Soodyall, responding to our special !Khwa ttu enquiry. The interviews aim to present this highly complex topic in as accessible a manner as possible, whilst not playing down the complexity and variety of current interpretations.

!Khwa ttu Heritage Centre. The emergence of human creativity:

The Emergence of Human Creativity

!Khwa ttu sits within an exceptionally significant historical and archaeological landscape. Archaeological sites near !Khwa ttu are playing a key role in the story of human origins. This film explores what an important role South African archaeological sites are playing in accounts of human origins and how the San fit into this story.

Loss of San Land & Lifestyle

Before 12,000 years ago everyone in the world was a hunter-gatherer. In 1972 Richard Lee and Irven DeVore estimated that at 10,000 BC the world population was 10 million (possibly all still hunters). At 1500 AD the world population was 350 million, 1% were still hunters. By 1972 the world population was 3 billion and 0.001% were hunters (Lee and DeVore (1972) Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

It is now estimated that the world population is 7.8 billion. How many hunters?

Loss of land and lifestyle of southern African San:

The video above is a specially commissioned !Khwa ttu work by Dr Josh Cohen. It is a graphic representation of how San territory has been encroached upon over the last 2000 years. It is currently estimated that 130,000 people self identify as San and around 300-600 of these still live predominantly by hunting and gathering. The film currently ends at 1965. We are seeking funds to develop this initiative into an interactive online learning tool, running up to present times. If you can help us develop this unique and exceptionally powerful history tool we would love to hear from you.

The Last Dance Tribal:

A Tribute to |Khuntu Boo (1942-2020)

The San Healing Dance

Watch the film to see |Khuntu Boo in action. It is shown with the very kind permission of Ben Cole, cinematographer and supporter of the San.

San healing

Please see ‘Kukummi’ for further details of |Khuntu Boo

What follows are details of San healing specifically based on conversations with |Khuntu Boo.

The Dance

The San know that the healing dance has always been there, since the time when animals and people talked to one another and Trickster walked the earth. Trickster is not a San word. Different San have different names for folk heroes who fit the Trickster mold. Hai||om, for instance call him Haiseb [ see https://www.thinkingthreads.org/ for a detailed account of Haiseb].

Although Trickster is not seen like he was in old times, San know places where Trickster has left his mark in the landscape and San know he is still around because strange things happen in the world.

As a healer |Kunta Boo worked with ||Gaũwa, the ultimate source of everything, but at another level he worked with the powers Trickster keeps alive; the power to sense sickness, to pull out that sickness, talk with the ancestors, to travel to ||Gaũwa’s village and to work with the strengths of animals to cure the sick.

|Kunta Boo was a n|um k”xausi, an owner of n|um. N|um is the power ||Gaũwa has given to special things in the world, ranging from honey to healers, to eland antelopes. |Kunta Boo was strong in n|um, a n|um !gaias. Along with n|um, ||Gaũwa also gave the Ju|’hoansi animal songs to enable healing. |Kunta Boo used the giraffe dance as his healing dance, the elephant dance was not good for him.

When the giraffe dance was performed well, it worked very well for |Kunta Boo. Then he could heal. As he moved around the dance he could smell any sickness in those gathered. He smelt blood and rotten things. He knew not to ask a person if they wanted healing. It was right to just go over and heal them.

When he danced |Kunta Boo grew increasingly hot all over his body and his legs. The warmth came from arrows of n|um waking up inside him. The arrows lived in the g||abes, over the liver. It makes ||gabee, a pain like a stitch. The pain is also called ||gaiee. Arrows also lived in |Kunta’s n!un komi [aortic artery]. As he danced the arrows moved out from the ||gabes and he could feel them moving up and down his body.

|Kunta Boo did not see animals when he experienced !kia [trance]. He saw animals in his dreams. He used his dreams to prepare for hunting. When dancing he saw sickness. When he pulled the sickness out of people he stopped breathing, like he was dead. Helpers massaged him to get him breathing again and to help him throw that sickness out. He knew it was good to dance because he had been given the gift to heal the people and keep the dead people away.

|Khuntu Boo as a Healer

|Khuntu Boo did not just dance but healed people in other ways. The main sickness he and others in the Tsumkwe region had was !gaiee, a !nun ||um, or sickness in the chest. It is now called malaria. To treat !gaiee he would do what the old people told him to do. He chewed the leaves of ||um, a type of grass, and then massaged the whole body of a person with his spit. If that plant did not work for the sick person, or ‘go with’ the sick person, he would use za’ o (Silver Terminalia). As a further alternative he might roast, grind and massage with g||oeh (Sourplum). If a person was very sick he would massage them in the morning, afternoon and at sunset. He massaged to get the plant into the small holes where the hairs are [follicles].

Za’o is a very useful plant that can even be used to keep lions and snakes away. |Khuntu Boo used to put it in the fire and burn it. The smell keeps the animals away. He also kept lions away with the smoke from a smouldering aardwolf anal gland mixed with sã, a San plant perfume.

|Khuntu Boo massaged people who had different problems, including head ache, neck ache, chest pain, back ache and stomach problems with diarrhoea. He knew that any sickness in the body can give pa te, head aches, as could malaria. He knew the causes of the sicknesses he treated, such as a neck pain being caused by sleeping awkwardly or by  a person smelling a woman who had recently given birth to a dead baby.

!Khwa ttu Heritage Centre Museum
|Khuntu Boo and the ancestors

A Brief History of the Healing Dance


The San know that their healing dance has been an integral part of San culture since the beginning. Scholars believe that ancestral San danced very much like contemporary San because key themes and motifs found in southern African rock art look remarkably similar to what has been seen in recent dance practices. Further still, some of the key ideas San shamans hold about the dance also seem to be represented in this rock art. As some of this art is at least a few thousand years old, this evidence points to a remarkable continuity. Archaeologist Sven Ouzman even hazards that the San dance might be ‘humanity’s oldest surviving ritual’ (Ouzman 2009: 221). Psychotherapist and anthropologist Bradford Keeney similarly recognises that Bushman ecstatic healing goes to the root of healing traditions found throughout the world; ‘they were among the first shamans to work the spirit’ (Keeney 2005: 224).

One key factor which suggest continuity is the depiction of dancers in bent over postures. This is something experienced by contemporary and historical San shamans and seems attributable to the contraction of the dancer’s abdominal muscles. Further continuities include shamans bleeding from the nose, shamans changing into half-human/half-animal forms and the apparent representation of ‘invisible’ arrows.


Before the publication of Robert Jacob Gordon’s, Cape Travels 1777 to 1786, Khoe-San healing dances were not clearly visible in writing about the San. Prior to this, Europeans recorded dances that could have been healing dances but the lack of detail, coupled with the European nature of their gaze, denies historians any solid record (see Low 2008: 103). After Gordon, history goes quiet again, until a brief reference from missionaries Arbousset and Daumas in 1846 that describes frenzied ‘Baroas (the hottentot bushmen)’, dancing, falling over and bleeding from the nose. The Baroas called this dance ‘mokoma, or the dance of blood’ (Arboussett 1846: 18, 247). Archaeologists often point to this reference as early ethnographic evidence of San shamanic dancing, on the basis that medicine men of both the |Xam Bushmen and more recently observed San healers, also are reported to have bled from the nose when participating in healing dances and healing.

There is, however, a reference  in the 1858  diary of missionary Carl Hahn that is altogether more poignant  because it provides a link between Khoe-San dancing and moving spirits that more closely foreshadows the shamanistic analysis that dominates current interpretation. Hahn recorded that Bushmen of Lake Ngami engaged in ecstatic dances that involved falling over, as if dead, at which point their ‘spirit is given up’. Hahn further elaborated that a gemsbok could be a dead person and not a normal animal, and the spirit of dead person could reside in a lion (see Low 2008: 124). These are notably subtle insights into the San world. To Hahn this sort of spirit wandering seemed to be a form of spirit possession.

After Hahn, increasing details emerge and the idea of a distinctive Bushman medicine, healing or trance dance begins to take shape. From the 1870s onwards not only do accounts of dances become more numerous and more detailed, but they start to appear in concert with San comments on San rock art. It is not, however, until the 1980s that  the word shaman becomes regularly used to describe San healers. This   move reflects both wider familiarity with the word, following the work of Mercia Eliade (1964), and a widespread adoption of the word by scholars, notable among whom are the rock art specialists, and particularly David Lewis-Williams. In the 1970s  Lewis-Williams was among a select group of rock art archaeologists who compared late nineteenth century |Xam ideas and beliefs, as recorded by Bleek and Lloyd, with recent anthropology. The shamanistic approach that Lewis-Williams has subsequently spearheaded has played a significant role in the interpretation of ancient rock art all over the world.

The Bleek and Lloyd archive has played a very significant role in the interpretation of San shamanism and ‘trance’ dancing. In more recent years key scholars to write about San shamanism and dancing include Lorna Marshall, Mathias Guenther, Megan Biesele, Richard Katz, Bradford Keeney and Chris Low. Although all these scholars have worked very closely with San and many of them have co-authored with San, a San authored account of this central San ritual seems long overdue.

References and further reading

Arbousset, T. and F. Daumas (1846). Narrative of an Exploratory Tour to the North-East of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope. Cape Town: A.S. Robertson, Heerengracht, Saul Solomon & Co.

Biesele, Megan (1993) Women like Meat: The Folklore and Foraging Ideology of the Kalahari Ju’hoansi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Eliade, Mercia (1964). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Guenther, Mathias (1999) Tricksters and Trancers: Bushman Religion and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Katz, Richard (1982). Boiling Energy: Community Healing among the Kalahari Kung. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.

Katz, Richard, M. Biesele and V St Denis (1997). Healing Makes our Hearts Happy: Spirituality and Cultural Transformation among the Kalahari Ju’hoansi. Vermont: Inner Traditions.

Keeney, Bradford (2005). Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit through Ecstatic Dance. Vermont: Destiny Books.

Lewis-Williams, J.D. and David Pearce (2004). San Spirituality: Roots, Expressions & Social Consequences. Cape Town: Double Storey.

Low, Chris (2008). Khoisan Medicine in History and Practice. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Marshall, Lorna (1999). Nyae Nyae !Kung: Beliefs and Rites. Peabody Museum Monographs, 8. Cambridge (Mass.).

Ouzman, Sven (2009). San Cosmology. In Helaine Selin (ed.) Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in non-Western Cultures. New York: Springer, pp. 219-225.

For Bleek and Lloyd see: http://lloydbleekcollection.cs.uct.ac.za/

For further work on KhoeSan healing see Chris Low http://thinkingthreads.com/index.php/publications/