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The depiction of buffalo (Syncerus caffer) in San rock art is extremely rare throughout southern Africa and as a result its role in San cosmology has not previously been considered in publication. However, the mere appearance of buffalo in San rock art suggests that there must be a motive for its portrayal since animals assume symbolic associations in human thought. San artists depicted animals because they have meaning. An example of this is the eland, which is a multifaceted symbol in San culture as it is associated with girlsโ€™ puberty rituals, boysโ€™ first kill ceremonies, marriage rituals, rain-making and the practices of the religious specialist.

Despite their scarcity, buffalo are easily recognisable in the rock art because of their diagnostic traits. These include a bulky body, thick neck, exaggerated hump, a broad head with a wide muzzle and curved horns. Figure 1 is an example of an engraved buffalo displaying a fused base, forming a continuous bone shield across the top of the head referred to as a “boss”.

Figure 2. An engraved buffalo

Figure 2 is an engraved buffalo in its entirety showing the bulky body, with delicate depictions of the hooves and tail. The paintings are often slightly more difficult to discern and are executed with certain stylistic preferences.

Figure 3. Engravings of buffalo with stylised horns

Figure 3 is a semi-filled painting with the outline of the body and an emphasised boss. Other paintings are fine-lined and show great detail (Figure 4).

Figure 4. A painted buffalo with an out-line body

A key to discovering the symbolism of the buffalo is to assess the manner of their depiction, physical and behavioural properties ย in the light of existing San mythology.

Figure 5. Painted buffalo with geometric patterns

Figure 5 shows two large male bovines resembling buffalo. However these buffalo are not shown as conventionally as the examples described earlier. These have zigzag markings and dots on their bodies. These geometric markings are entoptic phenomena โ€“ that is, visual effects whose source is within the eye itself and is experienced during altered states of consciousness or trance.

In San ethnography there exists an analogy between โ€˜rainโ€™ and โ€˜animalโ€™. The /Xam refer to rain as !khwa. In numerous ethnographical accounts rain is something โ€˜which is aliveโ€™. There are referents to the โ€˜rainโ€™s bloodโ€™, the โ€˜rainโ€™s legsโ€™, the โ€˜rainโ€™s breathโ€™ and the โ€˜rainโ€™s hairโ€™. The rain animal is a mythological creature that exists in the spirit world. The horned animal was conceived of as either a quick-tempered โ€˜rain bullโ€™ characterised by thunder and lightning and was considered to be harmful to people, or as the attractive โ€˜rain cowโ€™ which provided soft long showers that revitalised the land. The ethnography shows that rain, whether a โ€˜Cowโ€™ or a โ€˜Bullโ€™, was perceived to be a bovid-like animal.

When rain was needed the /Xam shamans of the rain (!khwa-ka !gi:ten) entered a trance-like state during the Great Trance Dance. This allowed them to enter the spirit world in order to capture the rain animal. This dangerous mythical creature is said to live in a dark pool of water and its capture was considered an extremely dangerous task. To coax the animal out, a young girl sprinkled buchu (an aromatic herb) on the surface of the pool. Enchanted by the smell of the herb the animal rises from the pool. The rain shamans then catch the creature by throwing a leather thong over its horn and lead it across the parched land where it is killed. Its blood becomes the rain.

The English translation of the /Xam words !khwa:-ka xoro is water cow. However this was not always the case. Cattle (Bos taurus) are not old enough to have been the original referent to the rain animal since cattle were introduced to the San by the Bantu-speaking agriculturalists roughly 2 000 years ago. The San beliefs regarding rainmaking are too fundamental to have begun with the introduction of cattle. The physical characteristics of cattle are very much the same as buffalo since both animals belong to the tribe bovini.ย  It is therefore plausible that the โ€œwater bullโ€ or โ€œwater cowโ€ replaced buffalo as the original referent to rain animals.

Further reading

Lewis-Williams, D. & Dowson, T. 1989. Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art. Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers.

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