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date: 31 January 2023

Musical Bows in the Rock Art of Southern Africafree

Musical Bows in the Rock Art of Southern Africafree

  • Joshua KumbaniJoshua KumbaniUniversity of Witwatersrand
  •  and Oliver VogelsOliver VogelsUniversity of Cologne


Rock art is ubiquitous in southern Africa. It can be assumed that playing musical bows was a similarly widespread cultural tradition in prehistoric southern Africa. But discerning musical performances from other uses of the bow in the rock art is not trivial. Qualified arguments for musical performances therefore rest on the ethnographic record. Depictions of musical bows have been identified only in two rock art collections from South Africa and Namibia. In South Africa musical bows are known from the Maloti Drakensberg mountains in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, and Maclear District in the Eastern Cape Province. In Namibia, the musical bows have been identified mainly in the mountainous massif called Dâureb (its local Damara name) or Brandberg (its foreign Afrikaans name) and the surrounding region in northwestern central Namibia. The occurrence of musical bows in the rock art sheds light on some of the musical instruments that were used in the past and their playing techniques. This is important in music archeological studies, which involve the analysis of music-related artifacts or sound-producing artifacts and their cultural background from the archeological record, or the investigation of the effects of sound in past societies. Rock art is an important source that can be used in music archeological studies. Ethnographic information also gives another depth in describing musical bows and allows one to differentiate contemporary music cultures from the past.

There are some notable similarities and differences between the musical bows from South Africa and Namibia. These similarities and differences come in the form of the technical aspects of how sound is produced (organology) by the musical bows and playing techniques, exhibiting distinct music cultures. What stands out is that in most cases the string is turned away from the player, which is different when a bow is used for shooting, as well as the use of a tapping stick to play the bow. The musical bow depictions in Namibia do not have resonators, whereas most of those depicted in South Africa do. However, the musical bows in Namibia are braced or have a string that divides the bow string into two sections (tuning noose), whereas none have been recorded in South Africa.


  • Archaeology
  • Histories of Anthropology
  • Sociocultural Anthropology


Music archeology relies on a few sources that encompass archeological artifacts, iconography, and textual sources (Blench 2013). Direct finds of musical instruments are scarce as a result of poor preservation, since most musical instruments are made of organic materials that easily decompose in the archeological record (Both 2009; Morley 2013). However, iconography and textual sources complement the scarce direct finds. There are various known music instruments that have been recorded from rock art of southern Africa, and these include bone flutes, hand rattles, bullroarers, and musical bows.

On face value a musical bow seems to be a simple invention, but playing the implement produces complex results (Dargie 2001; Stacey 2016). The musical bow is speculated to have been discovered because of hunting—after releasing the arrow, a musical tone from the vibrating string was heard (Stow 1905; Dargie 2001). Some consider it the first musical instrument of the San or “Bushmen” (Stow 1905; Montagu 2017). A musical bow is an instrument that is made of a wooden stave and has a string attached to both ends of the stave (Dargie 2001). The musical bow belongs to the chordophone family, comprised of musical instruments that produce sound through the vibration of strings (von Hornbostel and Sachs 1961). The use of musical bows has a long history, as testified by the rock paintings found in South Africa and Namibia (see figure 1). These are part of the so-called “fine-line art,”, which is understood to have been authored by hunter-gatherers (Smith and Ouzman 2004). Although this rock art style occurs across the entire southern Africa, its chronology and cultural background are limited to the past millennia (Bonneau et al. 2017; Vogels, Fäder, and Lenssen-Erz 2021). Depictions of musical bows show that this chordophone was used as a musical instrument, though the musical performance can be elaborate, depending on the other details found on the painting.

Figure 1. Map of southern Africa showing the areas with musical bow depictions.

Source: Map by Jerry Olatoyan.

Musical bows from rock art have been documented by various researchers (Lee 1987; Lee and Woodhouse 1970; Rudner and Rudner 1970; Lewis-Williams 1981a; Vogels 2012; Vogels and Lenssern-Erz 2016, 2017). No musical bow has been recovered from an archeological excavation in southern Africa. This can be attributed to poor preservation. Wood and skin, which were commonly used to manufacture musical bows in the past, easily decompose in the archeological record. Therefore, the occurrence of musical bows in the rock art is a source for music archeological studies or sound archeology. These will be discussed in greater detail along with ethnographically known musical bows.

Various Types of Musical Bows from Southern Africa

The musical bow is considered the major chordophone that is known from southern Africa. But unfortunately musical bow paintings are only known from two countries, South Africa and Namibia. Southern Africa has been home to a variety of musical bows, some of which are scarce and gradually disappearing (Kirby 2013; Dargie 2001; Stacey 2016; Dlamini 2020). Ethnographically, musical bow traditions are known to be more widespread. They are known from countries such as South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe (Stacey 2016). Among hunter-gatherer societies, bows are used in different contexts, which include hunting, fighting, and as musical instruments (Vogels 2012; Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2016). Percival Kirby (1934; 2013, 261) mentions that in 1880 the late Dr. Bleek had a few !Kung Bushmen brought to his house at Mowbray in the Cape, so that he could investigate their language. One of the !Kung Bushmen, who is described as a youth, could play his bow for musical purposes, and he also used the same bow for hunting, since he had also brought his arrows with him. His bow did not have a resonator. The musical bow also was an important instrument of Khoekhoe-speaking pastoralists, of which they had several different types. Women played a longer bow, known as khas (braced-mouth-resonated bow played by the Khoekhoe women) (Kirby 1934). While seated, the women secured the instrument by one foot, resting its center on a hollow object serving as a resonator, and held the upper part of the bow near the face, touching it with the chin to obtain a different fundamental tone by touching the center of the string. Men played a braced mouth bow.

In South Africa, for example, Dave Dargie did extensive research on the Xhosa musical bows and their songs (Stacey 2016, 18). The most common musical bow in South Africa is the Xhosa mouth bow called umrhubhe and uhadi from the Eastern Cape that is played even in Cape Town (Dargie 2001; Stacey 2016). The Xhosa also have a musical bow called umqangala, a mouth bow for which the players use their mouths to amplify the sound and which is played by percussion (Dargie 2001) (see the section “Mouth Bows”). A resonated bow from KwaZulu-Natal is known as umakhweyana, and the ughubu is the Zulu version of the uhadi. Important songs accompany the ughubu, and among them are royal songs called amahubo (Dargie 2001). In Swaziland they have the makhweyane, and in Mozambique they have xitende, whereas the lesiba is found in Lesotho (Stacey 2016).

A variety of musical bows exist in Namibia (Mans and Olivier 2005). The various types that are found in Namibia include mouth bow, scrapped mouth bow, and resonated bow. A double string bow exists among the Damara in Sesfontein in Namibia, but similar bows have not been recorded from the rock art. Musical bows in Namibia are found among some cultural groups, including, for example, the Ju|’hoansi, !Kung, Damara, and Ovahimba. There are various musical bow names used by different groups. For example, the !Kung call their unbraced bow a n!aoh, whereas it is called !gomakhās among the Damara. These musical bows are played in various settings that include hunting rituals, leisure, worship of the dead, and initiation rituals (Mans and Olivier 2005). In other regions, such as Malawi, musical bows are known to be nonlocal traditions that were adopted from foreign cultures (Sarıkartal 2014).

The musical bow is still common in southern Africa in the 21st century, but in most cases wire has replaced the sinew that was commonly used in the past. In the early 21st century there is a concern that the musical bow might soon disappear because of lack of interest in playing the instrument among the young people, but it is reassuring that the instrument has been exported to other parts of the world (Stacey 2016). For example, the mbulumbumba from Angola found its way to Brazil in South America, where it is known as berimbau. In a bid to preserve the musical bow tradition there are various stakeholders working to promote the use of the musical bow as an instrument that should be integrated in modern musical circles. For example, the University of KwaZulu-Natal held an inaugural International Bow Music Conference in early 2016 that brought together various scholars and artists from different parts of the world to present papers as well as engage in live perfomances using the musical bow. In South Africa there are some individuals who play the musical bow with distinction, for example Latozi “Madosini” Mpahleni and Dizu Plaatjies (Stacey 2016).

Bows with Separate Resonators

Bows with separate resonators were used in southern Africa (Camp and Nettle 1955; Dargie 2001). In this case, the bow is not permanently fixed onto the resonator, but rather it rests on top of the resonator (see figure 2). The purpose of the resonator is to amplify the sound of the musical bow, and it also makes the overtones audible (Dargie 2001; Stacey 2016). This type of bow was used among the Tswana, Hottentots (Khoekhoe), Berg-Dama (Damara), Bushmen of Angola, Tsonga, and Ba-ila (Camp and Nettle 1955). The Tswana and the Khoekhoe used a big U-shaped bow with a sinew. A hollow wooden resonator was used by the Damara, whereas the Ba-ila used two deeply curved bows resting on a pot that was used as a resonator. In Namibia, the Ju|’hoansi use dry melon, tortoise shell, or metal tin as a separate resonator (Mans and Olivier 2005). This type of musical bow seems to be the one that is depicted in the Maclear District in the Eastern Cape on two occasions, where the resonator seems to be stationed on the ground (see figures 5 and 6.

Figure 2. A Xam bushman playing a musical bow with a dry melon separate resonator while controlling the string with his chin.

Source: Picture courtesy of Sam Challis.

Bows with Attached Resonators

This type of musical bow has a resonator such as a gourd that is permanently fixed on the bow stave (Kirby 1934; Camp and Nettle 1955; Dargie 2001). Sometimes a tin resonator was used in place of the gourd. Bows with permanent attached resonators have been recorded among the Tswana, Tsonga, Sotho, Swazi, Zulu, and Xhosa (Kirby 1934; 2013; Camp and Nettle 1955). Wood or cane was used for the stave, while the strings were made of twisted hair, sinew, leather, or wire, and a thin stick or reed was used as a beater (Camp and Nettle 1955). Resonated bows were also sometimes braced in the middle using wire, sinew, or fiber. A loop was put on the middle of the string, and it played a double function of tying the string on to the bow stave as well as fastening the resonator (Camp and Nettle 1955). This type of a braced resonated bow was found among the Venda, Tshopi, Tsonga, Sotho, Swazi, Zulu, Ba-ila, Lamba, Balubedu, and Bakwebo (Camp and Nettle 1955). Both the Ovimbundu and the Chopi used the mouth as another extension of the resonator, and the Chopi would also add rattles of tin and calabash on the bow stave. Musical bows with attached resonators are present in the rock art of South Africa, and they are suspended from the ground (see figures 3 and 4). They are played at shoulder level, and some resonators are attached. However, none occur in Namibian rock art, although ethnographic information (see Mans and Olivier 2005) shows that such musical bows exist among various cultural groups in the country.

Mouth Bows

In some cases, the mouth was used as a resonator in the absence of gourd resonators (Camp and Nettle 1955). The mouth technically enhances the pitches of the bow. This method was commonly used by the San or Bushmen (Camp and Nettle 1955). The end of the bow was put in the mouth, while the arrow or a stick was used for playing the string. The Khoekhoe also used this technique, but unlike the Bushmen their bow stave was made from hard wood and was strictly meant for musical purposes only and was not used for hunting purposes (Camp and Nettle 1955). A hollow curved reed bow stave was used by various groups that include the Venda, Tswana, Sotho, Pedi, Swazi, Zulu, Pondo, Xhosa, Basuto, and Shangaan-Tsonga. The Zulu call this hollow curved reed bow umgangala, and it is played by women. Among the Zulu, Xhosa, and Swazi they have a dual system of the hollow reed and a rod. A braced bow of this type with a wire as a string was found among the Damara, Herero, San or Bushmen, Karanga, and Shangaan (Camp and Nettle 1955). Another braced bow type has three staves. This stave has one central portion and two pieces fixed on either side and was found among the Ndebele, Sotho, Pedi, Zulu, Chopi, Basuto, Bakwebo, and Balebedu (Camp and Nettle 1955). There is another short bow made of solid wood, thinned on both ends, and it has notches. It is played by rubbing or scraping the notches with a stick, and it was recorded among the Ovimbundu, Tchokwe, Qung Bushmen, Zulu, Shangaan-Tsonga, and Karanga (Camp and Nettle 1955). Mouth bows do not occur in the rock art of South Africa, whereas in Namibia there is one panel with two musical bow players with their bows directly in contact with their mouths (see figure 7).

Braced Bow or Bow with a Tuning Noose

In some cases the bow string is tied back to the bow stick as a way of dividing the bow string into two sections (Camp and Nettle 1955; Dargie 2001; Kirby 1934; 2013; Stacey 2016). The positions where players brace the bows may differ; for example, some brace their bows right in the middle, and others prefer to brace them close to the end of the musical bow. As a result of the bow being braced, the two sections will produce different tones. In South Africa, Kirby (1934; 2013, 276) recorded the use of braced bows among various cultural groups that include the Tsonga, Venda, Swazi, Zulu, and Pedi. However, there is no evidence of a braced bow in South African rock art. Minette Mans and Emmanuel Olivier (2005) recorded some braced bows among the various cultural groups in Namibia, which include the Damara and !Kung. They also mention that mostly the hunting bow was braced. The braced bows occur in the rock art of Namibia.

Musical Bow Depictions from South Africa

Six sites with depictions of musical bow players are known in South Africa. Three sites are located in the Maloti Drakensburg in KwaZulu-Natal Province, and the other three have been recorded in the Eastern Cape Province. The art is believed to have been authored by prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities during the Later Stone Age (LSA), but no specific dates are available because of the complexity of dating rock art.

Musical Bow Depictions from Maloti Drakensberg

Three sites with musical bow players from the Maloti Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal are described. A panel with four musical bow players has been recorded in Eastcourt District in Injasuti, KwaZulu-Natal. The painting contains four bow players. Three of them are playing bows with resonators, whereas one of them is playing a bow without a resonator. The bows are resting on the shoulders of the players, and they are using a stick to tap the string. James David Lewis-Williams (1981, 8) comments that all the musical bow players are in a sitting position. It is evident, more specifically, that the figures are in a kneeling position (see figure 3). On the panel there are some individuals holding sticks, and these are probably dancing sticks used in a trance dance. Lewis-Williams (1981, 1990) argues that musical bow players are associated with shamanism. He further considers that the musical bow is an instrument that is meant for solo performance (Lewis-Williams 1981, 8). However, the presence of resonators on the musical bows must be taken into consideration, since their purpose is to amplify the sound. The bow players are in a group, which shows the social dynamics of music performance, namely that it brought people together, probably in terms of special social events, such as ritual performances.

Figure 3. A group of musical bow players from Injasuti.

Source: Copyright RARI.

Another site in the Maloti Drakensberg Mountains has a group of six depicted musical bow players (Lewis-Williams and Challis 2010, 2011). All the musical bow players on this panel are in a sitting position, and they are playing resonated bows (see Lewis-Williams and Challis 2010, 3, fig. 1). Their instruments are resting on their shoulders, and they are playing the bows using sticks. Previously, this painting was copied by George Stow in the 1870s, and he interpreted it as a lion hunt by men with shields (Lewis-Williams and Challis 2010, 2011). The site was later traced and reinterpreted. What was referred to as shields by Stow have been reinterpreted as honeycombs, and the bees and honey are understood to carry potency. On the same panel there is a tusked serpent emerging from the rock crack, which perhaps was summoned by the sound of the musical bows (Lewis-Williams and Challis 2010, 10). This panel shows the importance of sound production during ritual performances that were performed by the rain shamans or by medicine men.

There is a single musical bow player from Injasuti region in KwaZulu-Natal (Lewis-Williams 1990, 30). This motif depicts a therianthropic figure with an antelope head playing a resonated bow (see figure ). The bow is resting on his shoulder, and perhaps the individual was using the chin to control the string to produce various tones. The same technique has been noted from a |Xam Bushman, who was using his chin to control the string (see figure 2). The player is holding a stick, indicating that he was using the tapping method. However, it is interesting to note that the stick is in contact with the bow stave, and perhaps the bow is a scraping bow with some notches on the stave. This is the only solo musical bow player depiction in South Africa.

Figure 4. Single musical bow player from Injasuti.

Source: Copyright RARI.

Musical Bow Depictions in the Eastern Cape Region

There are three known sites with musical bow players in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. cc at Maclear RSA WID2 site was recorded by Neil Lee and Herbert Charles Woodhouse (1970). This musical bow player is in a sitting position and is tapping the string of a resonated musical bow (see figure 5). The bow is resting on the shoulder of the player, and unlike the suspended bows from the Maloti Drakensberg, this one is resting on the ground. The resonator is most probably a separate resonator that is not attached to the bow. There is also a human figure who is clapping hands seated next to the musical bow player. This figure has an animal head with some long ears. On the same panel there are dancing figures, and some have dancing sticks. This same panel was described as a great dance by Geoffrey Blundell (2004, 138). There is also an animal with some dots, which is possibly a rain animal (encircled in red, see figure 5), on the extreme top left, and it could have been summoned by the sound of the musical bow (Lewis-Williams and Pearce 2004). The depiction has been interpreted as showing rain shamans performing a rain ritual. Some of the figures have antelope heads, which represent rain shamans performing a rain ritual (Sam Challis, personal communication, October 2019).

Figure 5. Musical bow player at Maclear RSA WID2 flanked by a clapping individual.

Source: Copyright RARI.

The second musical bow depiction is from site RSA WID1-56. The bow player is seated, and the bow is resting on the shoulder of the player and has a resonator, which is resting on the ground. A stick is used for tapping the string. The end of the bow that is facing upward has a small faint cross (circled in red, see figure 6), which perhaps could be a tuning peg that can be used to adjust the string for different tone output when playing the instrument. Such a technique has been noted on some ethnographic musical bows by Kirby (1934; 2013) and Dave Dargie (2001). The bow player is accompanied by two clapping individuals, and clapping can be part of a ritual procession or a musical procession. The people have antelope heads, which directly indicates a ritual activity associated with the rain shamans (Lewis-Williams 1981a; Lewis-Williams and Challis 2011).

Figure 6. A painting from Wide Valley from Maclear region of the Eastern Cape. Note the small cross encircled in red, which perhaps is a tuning peg on the bow.

Source: Copyright RARI.

Not all musical bows in the rock art of South Africa have resonators. There is another such example from the northeastern Cape (see Lee 1987, fig. 1). The musical bow is also resting on the shoulder of the player, and a tapping stick is used to play the bow. The human figures also have antelope heads, and this signifies another depiction of the rain shamans (Lewis-Williams 1981a). The web-like structure or net has been described as energy lines linked with shamanism (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1989, 74–75). Lee (1987) concurs with Lewis-Williams (1981a) that the musical bows are associated with shamanism but further suggests that perhaps the musicians are also shamans.

Musical Bows in the Rock Art of Namibia

Although rock art has been discovered all over Namibia (Scherz 1970, 1975, 1986), musical bows have been identified only in northwestern central Namibia (Rudner and Rudner 1970; Scherz 1986; Vogels 2012; Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2016) so far. Moreover, although both engraved and painted rock art is present here (Scherz 1975, 1986; Pager 1989, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2006; Breunig et al. 2019), playing the musical bow occurs only in paintings. This analysis relies on Ernst-Rudolph Scherz’s (1986) rock art survey in northwestern Namibia and the Brandberg/Dâureb rock art collection (Lenssen-Erz and Vogels 2017b), which comprises a data set of 39,075 single figures (the Brandberg/Dâureb rock art data set is digitally available, see Lenssen-Erz and Vogels 2017b). In these data sets twelve clearly identifiable representations of musical bow players are known from ten different sites (see Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2017, tab. 2). These are contrasted by twenty-five depictions where the bow is used to shoot an arrow (Lenssen-Erz and Vogels 2017a). This does not mean that bows are rarely depicted. The vast number of bows being carried (more than 1,600 at the Dâureb massif) indicates that it was not the different uses of the bow that were important to depict. Instead, having a bow probably implicitly indicated its power and the potential it was connected to, such as hunting, fighting, and making music. The rock paintings in northwestern central Namibia belong to the hunter-gatherer fine-line art (Lenssen-Erz and Vogelsang 2005; Smith and Ouzman 2004). Since early direct-dating approaches remained unsuccessful (Conard et al. 1988), the age of the art is indicated by indirect dating techniques. Radiocarbon dates from archeological excavations (Martin and Mason 1954; Wendt 1972; Kinahan 1984; Kinahan 1991; Richter 1991; Breunig 2003) bracket the time of painting between 4000 and 1800 cal bp (Vogels, Fäder, and Lenssen-Erz 2021). Both the excavated Later Stone Age material culture as well as the paintings and engravings in the area depict a highly mobile hunter-gatherer culture. The arrival of pastoralists in southern Africa (roughly dated to c. 400 ce; Phillipson 1993, 188) resulted in extensive exchange with the local hunter-gatherer groups across southern Africa, mutually affecting their music cultures (Kubik 1988). The painted rock art in northwestern central Namibia predates the so-called “Bantu expansion”. This is an important note, as it demonstrates that the Namibian rock paintings depict a native southern African hunter-gatherer music culture.

In this context it is worth noting that most types of musical bows and playing techniques widespread in the ethnographic record of southern Africa (Kirby 1968; Kubik 1988; Dlamini 2020) are not to be found in the Namibian rock art. For instance, the most common way of playing the bow among the extant San (e.g., Marshall 1976, 365) is the mouth bow (see the section “Mouth Bows”). However, mouth bows are represented in the Namibian rock art by a single depiction (figure 7). Therefore, the existence of the mouth bow playing technique prior to the contact with foreign music cultures remains somewhat vague.

Figure 7. Playing the mouth bow? Omaruru District, Erongo, Namibia.

Source: Scherz (1986, fig. 221, modified).

A comparison with the ethnographic record reveals further differences with musical performances in the time the Namibian rock paintings were made. For instance, material resonators such as calabashes being held or attached to the musical bow, another widespread technique of sound amplification in the ethnographic record, were obviously not in use. There is, however, a single scene that depicts an elongated object (perhaps a quiver) held at the bow stave while playing (rightmost musician in figure 7).

Figure 8. The only clear communal musical bow playing scene from Namibia (the outline of H. Pager’s field recording projected onto a photograph). Numas Gorge (N 74), Daureb, Namibia.

Source: Copyright Heinrich-Barth-Institut.

The hunting bow appears to be a multipurpose tool that was also used for musical performances, a common practice also among various San groups (Kirby 1936; England 1995; Marshall 1976). Musical performances, hunting activities, and the simple carrying of a bow were differentiated in the rock art by different bow handlings and body postures (Vogels 2012; Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2016). This fact makes it particularly difficult to differentiate musical performances from other uses of the bow. Often a musical performance is indicated if the tip of an upright held stick touches the string of a bow that is held at chest height (see two musicians on the right in figure 7, also Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2017, fig. 20). In some cases, a tuning noose (Rycroft 1984) was temporarily attached to the bow (see figure 9), thus clearly indicating a musical performance, as a tight back bow string prohibits any shooting action. Moreover, bows with a tuning noose were often played in a reflexive posture, as the stick that strikes the string is directed toward the body, while the bow is held “turned around” (see figure10 Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2017, figs. 26, 17).

Figure 9. Playing a musical bow with a tuning nose, the playing stick directed toward the body. Hungorob Gorge (H 114), Daureb, Namibia.

Source: Pager (1993, 433).

At Sesaub Gorge, there is a musical bow player playing the bow at shoulder level while standing (Rudner and Rudner 1970). A tapping method was used to play the bow. A similar posture occurs in the musical bow player from Soutrivier, Kaokofeld, in Namibia. Both bows from these two sites are braced. There is no evidence of tapping from the musical bow player from Soutrivier. These musical bow players are an indication of what can be individual playing of the musical bow for leisure. This means that sometimes the musical bow depictions can hint at the use of the musical bow as a source of entertainment, besides the fact that sometimes it is used in settings that may be associated with ritual activities, mostly seen with the paintings in South Africa.

Various playing postures of musical bows exist in the Dâureb area. At Numas Gorge there is a musical bow player playing the musical bow at chest level while in transverse posture. The same playing technique and body posture has been depicted as well at Hungrob Gorge (see figure ) (Pager 1989; Rudner and Rudner 1970; Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2016). Both players from Hungrob Gorge and Numas Gorge are male figures.

Within the prehistoric music culture, the social relations between musical bow performances in Namibian rock paintings remain somewhat obscure. An obvious audience listening to bow music is only depicted once (see figure 8), but in South Africa there are musical bow players flanked by an audience (see figures 3, 5, and 6). In general there seems to be a strong connection between musical bow performances and the male role as a hunter, because often musical bow playing is depicted as a more personal experience while walking through the veld, alone or in small groups (see figure 10 see also Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2017). The extant San of the Kalahari confirm that playing the bow is largely private entertainment, often used for recreation and passing time (cf. Marshall 1976). In addition to that, Nicholas England (1995, 31) observed that among the !Kung (or Ju/’hoansi) San, vocal and instrumental music generally appear to belong to different modes of social behavior, since “Vocal Music repertoires are as thoroughly functional as those of the Instrumental Music are purely entertaining.”

Figure 10. A group of highly decorated men (figs. 145, 146, 150) and women (147, 149) on the way. Men 146 and probably also 148 and 150 play musical bows. Amis Gorge (A 6). Daureb, Namibia.

Source: Pager (1989, A 6 folded sheet, modified).

Discussion: The Ethnohistorical and Social Contexts of the Musical Bow in Southern Africa’s Later-Stone-Age

Musical bow depictions in South Africa and Namibia have been attributed to the Later Stone Age period, and the art is believed to have been authored by different San hunter-gatherer groups in different periods of time. All these depictions occur in paintings. The depictions discussed from South Africa and Namibia have some similarities and some differences. The tapping method is used for playing the musical bows in both rock art regions. In South Africa, the bows are resting on the shoulders of the players, whereas in Namibia a variety of bow-handling techniques have been recorded. In South Africa none of the musical bow players is standing, but in Namibia this is the common posture, except for one occurrence at Numas Gorge where the musical bow players are seated. Another aspect that stands out is that Namibian musical bow players’ depictions mostly have tuning nooses, whereas in South Africa there are none. In South Africa, musical performances are depicted as communal events. In northwestern central Namibia, one communal performance is the exception. Here, musical bows were rather played by individuals while walking. From this it has been suggested (Vogels 2012; Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2016) that musical bows in Namibia were often played by hunters while on a hunt for their own entertainment. This interpretation is corroborated by ethnographic observations (see the section “Musical Bows in the Rock Art of Namibia”).

Concerning gender, bows are a generally a male domain in the rock art of South Africa and Namibia. Quantitative numbers, however, exist only for the Dâureb rock art. Here, bows are almost exclusively carried and used by men (Lenssen-Erz and Vogels 2017a, 2017b). Women using bows are rare. Among the 1,600 human figures having a bow, eleven figures are women. Moreover, these most frequently are depicted in “coordinated action,” probably imitating male behavior during ritual or dance activities (see figure 10). In the ethnographic record, women imitating male behavior (temporarily switching gender roles) is one aspect of certain rituals, such as female initiation rites (Eastwood and Eastwood 2006). Depictions of women in coordinated action may thus indicate the performance of such a ritual on-site. Women playing the musical bow have not been identified in the Namibian or South African rock art.

Figure 11. Five highly decorated women presenting bows. The coordinated action and the back aprons the women wear may indicate a female initiation context (Eastwood and Eastwood 2006, 131). Tsisab Gorge (Girls’ School Shelter), Daureb, Namibia.

Source: Copyright Heinrich-Barth-Institut.

Southern African rock art interpretation has been revolving around the shamanistic interpretation hypothesis for quite some time (Dowson 2007). The Shamanism hypothesis emanates from San ethnography (Lewis-Williams 1981). This interpretation model purports that rock art is not just a mere documentation of daily activities of the people in the past, but it is rather an epiphany of what the shamans or medicine men were experiencing when they were in altered states of consciousness. Shamans or medicine men were believed to control rain and game and to cure the sick (Lewis-Williams 1981b). The medicine men could leave their bodies and travel out of their bodies in other forms (Lewis-Williams 1981b). Some of the musical bow depictions in South Africa have players with animal heads, which may signify shamanism, and this may imply that the bow players could perhaps control rain and even control the game.

The differences that have been observed among the musical bows that are depicted in South Africa and Namibia indicate differences in the culture of the people who made the art as well as their cultural tradition as far as sound production is concerned. For instance, the musical bows in Namibia do not have resonators, whereas most of the musical bows in South Africa do. In Namibia, tuning nooses are common, while in South Africa there are no musical bow depictions with a tuning noose. All these differences can be cited as evidence of different music cultures, their development over time, and the degree of cultural exchange with musical practices of other cultures.

Not only musical bow types but also playing techniques and the social contexts of musical performances may have differed between South Africa and northwestern central Namibia. To some degree, these differences can be explained in the light of the ethnographic record. While the mythology of the southern |Xam-speaking groups in southern Africa (Orpen 1874; Bleek and Lloyd 1911; Bleek, Lloyd, and Bleek, 1924) allows one to explain many aspects of the rock art in South Africa (Vinnicombe 1976; Lewis-Williams 1981), the painted rock art in northwestern central Namibia differs in many aspects. For instance, the Eland antelope, which is the most significant animal in South Africa (Pager 1971; Vinnicombe 1975), is rare in the Namibian paintings (n = 95), whereas the springbok dominates (n = 1,422). Such differences in the depicted fauna between rock art regions can be explained to some degree by different landscape settings. The Dâureb or Brandberg is located at the fringe of the Namib desert, a hyper-arid region compared to other landscapes of the southern African subcontinent (Tyson and Lindesay 1992; Lindesay 1998). While springboks (Antidorcas marsupialis) can maintain most of their water intake from consumption of dry leaves of the Namib desert grass (Nagy and Knight 1994), large antelopes, such as Eland (Taurotragus oryx), are not completely independent of drinking water and require larger amounts of food to maintain their water requirements (Taylor and Lyman 1967). Faunal remains from excavated rock art sites in northwestern central Namibia show that the springbok was hunted most often, while faunal remains of eland are completely absent in the archeological record (Richter 1991; Breunig 2003).

But not only the landscape settings of the two rock art regions discussed here differ significantly; also their cultures must have been more individual than their respective material LSA cultures indicate. Most radiocarbon dates, which were sampled at rock art sites at the Dâureb/Brandberg and its surrounding regions, suggest that a main painting phase was between 4000 and 1800 cal bp (Vogels, Fäder, and Lenssen-Erz 2021, fig. 1). A direct-dating approach by Bonneau et al. (2017) indicates that rock paintings in the Maclear District (South Africa) were placed between c. 2100 and 150 cal bp (Bonneau et al. 2017, tab. 1). Given this, it must be assumed that production of rock paintings in Namibia ended roughly at the same time as it commenced in the southern Drakensberg mountain area. According to this chronology, rock paintings in Namibia predate the arrival of pastoralists in southern Africa (roughly dated to c. 400 ce; Phillipson 1993, 188). Musicological research by Gerhard Kubik (1988) could show how extensive exchange with the local hunter-gatherer groups mutually affected the music cultures of both foreign Bantu groups and indigenous mobile LSA hunter-gatherers. Simultaneously, the rock art chronology shows that in the southern Drakensberg areas rock art has been placed in times when Bantu groups and European settlers arrived in the area, which is corroborated by “contact” rock art (Pager 1975, 112; Namono and Eastwood 2005).

Given these individual cultural characteristics, it is not surprising that aspects of the music culture and rock art differ between both regions. Rain animals, for instance, which also indicate the function of a musical performance in the Maloti Drakensberg (see the section “Musical Bow Depictions from Maloti Drakensberg”) are absent in the Namibian rock paintings. Given the overall aridity in the Namib desert, it must be assumed that rain making has been performed here too, but probably during other rituals, such as more communal trance-dance ceremonies (Vogels, Fäder, and Lenssen-Erz 2021, 159–163), which usually do not include instrumental music (England 1995, 31).

Although rituals might differ between rock art regions, a common factor of both Namibian and South African Later Stone Age hunter-gatherer cultures is the importance of the bow. It was not only a multitool that was used for hunting, combat, and making music (Vogels and Lenssen-Erz 2016). It must have been an important aspect in various social activities, such as entertainment for the hunter, and rituals, such as rain making, initiation of the youth, and imitation of male gender roles.

The musical bow’s association with ritual performance should be understood in the sense that music plays a vital role during ritual performance. For instance, for one to go into trance it requires much energy to sing, dance, and play instruments. It can be argued that without any form of music production in the form of singing, rhythmic dancing, and sometimes instrument playing, altered states of consciousness may not be achieved unless hallucinogens are used. For example, in the Eastern Cape Province there is a painting (see figure 5) that has a combination of dancing, clapping, and instrument playing, and the painting has been associated with rain ritual activity. Therefore, musical bows played an important role as a sound-producing implement in the past, as noted from the rock art. This means that a bow was not just merely a weapon or instrument, but it occupied a very special socioreligious function when it was played.

In most settings that have been described from South Africa and Namibia the musical bow players are either in a group or they are accompanied by other people who are an audience to them, except a few cases where there are solo musical bow players. Thus musical performances brought people together. Another function of musical bows is entertainment, and hence people would congregate and enjoy the musical bow performance (for example, see figures 5 and 8). The solo musical bow players that are depicted in the rock art indicate that a musical bow is a companion. Being alone may indicate loneliness, but, in this case, the musical bows are playing a companionship role to these solo musical bow players.

Shamanism or ritual activity is not one size fits all when it comes to musical bow interpretations in South Africa and Namibia. For example, the individual bow players at Soutrivier and Amis (Dâureb) and Kaokofeld in Namibia are not therianthropes, and there is no evidence of ritual activity. These paintings represent solo and non-solo music performance by the bow players, perhaps during a walk in the veld as a way of entertainment and passing time. We thus argue that associating all musical bow players in rock art with ritual activities is sometimes flawled, especially when some of the known pointers to ritual activities like having an animal therianthropic figure or connecting lines are not depicted. Therefore, we rather argue that each depiction of a musical performance has its own unique social context, and that not every music performance scene found in the rock art is best explained in terms of a ritual activity.


Differences in time, space, landscape, music culture, rock art, and perhaps also differences in language (Sands and Güldeman 2009) reveal differences in the cultural characteristics of LSA hunter-gatherer groups in Namibia and South Africa. In two regions in South Africa, the Maloti Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal and Maclear District in the Eastern Cape Province, as well as the Dâureb or Brandberg region in Namibia, musical bow depictions could be identified from rock art collections. All these depictions occur in paintings. The depictions discussed from South Africa and Namibia have some similarities and some differences, which indicate differences in their (music) cultures. These differences are supported by variation in the depicted motifs and the different periods of time in which the rock art has been made. The resonator is a common organological feature in South African musical bow players’ depictions, whereas in Namibia there are none. In South Africa, the musical bow players have animal heads mostly described as antelope heads, which signify shamans or medicine men. It is also imperative to note that in Namibia there are musical bow players who might be interpreted as animal heads, for example two musical bow players in the Maack shelter (White Lady). It has been postulated that the musical bow players from South Africa represent rain shamans who used the musical bow to ask for rain, like how the |Xam and Hanǂkasso had a rain maker who would ask for rain by playing the musical bow (Lewis-Williams and Challis 2011, 151). Some depictions in Namibia show nontherianthrope beings playing the musical bows while walking, and this has been interpreted as the relationship between the hunter and the musical bow. In this case it can be postulated that it is not inconceivable that these instruments could also have played an entertainment role. Therefore, the occurrence of musical bow players in the rock art of South Africa and Namibia hints at the kind of scenarios in which the musical bow was used in the past; this information can be regarded as a source of musical archeology.

In some cases, rain animals are also depicted on the same panels that have musical bow players (Sam Challis, personal communication, October 2019), such as on one site in KwaZulu-Natal and another in the Eastern Cape (figure 5). These rain animals are associated with musical bow players who are understood to be rain shamans. The use of musical bows by rain shamans indicates the importance of sound production or musical sound in the rain ritual. In Namibia none of the musical bow players is associated with a rain animal. What might be learnt from the musical bow depictions from South Africa and Namibia is that there could have been a close relationship between the shamans’ rain-making ritual and the musical sound produced by musical bows.

Even though no musical bow has been recovered from an archeological excavation, their presence in the rock art can be used to infer their existence as musical instruments in the past. Ethnography also provides a rich history of the use of the musical bow. The important aspect is that the musical bow culture is still practiced, despite some holding the view that the instrument is threatened with extinction. It is most probable that there are still more musical bow depictions to be discovered in other countries in southern Africa.

Further Reading

  • Dlamini, Sazi. 2020. Musical Bows of Southern Africa. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Lee, Dennis Neil. 1987. “Rock Paintings of Musical Bows.” Digging Stick 4: 3–4.
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  • Lewis-Williams, James- David. 1981. “The Art of Music.” South African Archaeological Society Newsletter 4: 8–9.
  • Vogels, Oliver, and Tilman Lenssen-Erz. 2017. “Beyond Individual Pleasure and Rituality: Social Aspects of the Musical Bow in Southern Africa’s Rock Art.” Rock Art Research: The Journal of the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA) 34: 9–24.


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