Strokes in rock and flesh: presentiments, rock engravings and landscape in ||kabbo’s place.

An essay written for the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Made in translation.

Strokes in rock and flesh: presentiments, rock engravings and landscape in ||kabbo’s place.

An essay written for the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Made in translation.

The !gwe: of the |xam people are in / inside their bodies.

They (the !gwe:) talk, they move,

they make their (the |xam’s) bodies move.

They (the |xam) order silence to them (the other |xam);

The man is altogether still / quiet,

because he feels that

his body / flesh is tapping (inside).

A dream is that which deceives,

it is that which cheats;

the |”umm is that which speaks truly,

it is the one

with which a |xam person is wont to perceive meat;

because it (the |k”umm), was that which stirred / tapped / quivered.

The |xam people do perceive the people coming,

with it / by means of it. 1

Thus begins a testimony which ||kabbo dictated to Lucy Lloyd in February and March 1873 and which, when published in Specimens of Bushman folklore, bore the title of “Bushman Presentiments” (Bleek & Lloyd 1911: 330-339). The testimony explains the concept of |k”umm, a term which can be both a verb and a noun, and that Lloyd rendered as ‘presentiment’. This |k”umm manifests itself in the form of a ‘tapping’ (darruken) in the body of the person who feels it.

Intriguing in itself, the concept of |k”umm becomes even more fascinating if we consider that the term !gwe: used by ||kabbo at the beginning of the narrative in connection with the ‘presentiments’ is, in all likelihood, the same one employed to refer to the rock engravings that mark the landscape in many places of the |xam territory.2

Thus, although both in the manuscript and in the published text, Lloyd rendered the first sentence “|xam ka !ke ta !gwe:, e: |e|eta hi eng-eng” as “the Bushmen’s letters which (are) in / inside of their bodies / flesh”, arguably it could be better rendered as “the pictures of |xam are in / inside their bodies”.

Crucial to any interpretation of the sentence is the explanatory gloss to !gwe:. This term, we read in the published version (331), “was used to denote both letters and books”. However, the manuscript version reads “J. T. [||kabbo] says that this [!gwe:] resembles the letters which take a message or account to another place” (L.II.28: 2531v, my emphasis). This phrasing strongly suggests that ||kabbo did not use the term !gwe: as an approximation to the English concept of posted letters or had had it in mind when dictating the text, but rather that, when translating the testimony with Lloyd, he pointed out to her the similarity of the |xam’s !gwe: with the ‘letters’ that convey a message from one place to another. If I am right, in his testimony ||kabbo establishes a direct connection between the |k”umm and the rock engravings.

The narrative describes how a man perceives the proximity of his father because he can feel in his own body a scar the old man has. Then he feels the proximity of a herd of springbok because, he says, “I am the one who feels a tapping in my calves (of the legs) when the blood will run down them (the springbok’s blood)” (2540). Later we are told, “we feel the tapping in our eyes, on account of the springbok’s eyes’ black marks” (2555-2556).

A wound is a stroke in the body; the black stripe around the springbok’s eyes is a stroke in its fur; the blood that will run down the hunter’s calves will paint a red stroke in his legs. Strokes or markings are thus the essential element that channels the ‘tappings’ through which the |k”umm described in ||kabbo’s narrative manifest themselves. Strokes in the body connect the man with his father, the hunters with their potential prey. This kind of long-distance and interspecies communication would not be possible without the strokes or markings that, ||kabbo says, are !gwe:, ‘pictures’, which are in, or inside, our bodies, no doubt because the !gwe:, the rock engravings, are made of strokes in the rock, strokes which, unlike the others, are indelible and stand immutable in the landscape.3

If I am interpreting ||kabbo’s explanations correctly, these !gwe: outside people’s bodies would also produce the |k”umm or ‘presentiments’, much in the same way as the body marks, thus establishing a bond between the place where they stood and the game animals, not necessarily those represented in the engravings. If that was the case, !giten specialised in the game might then have been able to channel such |k”umm to their own bodies and in this way perceive, and perhaps influence, the movements of the game over the land.

As a matter of fact, “Bushman presentiments” is set in a very specific land-scape, and movements of both people and animals in this landscape are central to ||kabbo’s explanation of what the |k”umm are.

He tells how children are told by adults to ascend a certain hill, where they “may look around all places” (2537). The word used to refer to this hill is |kao:, a term that appears to have been employed mostly in connection with hills which have a pointed top, in some instances called in Afrikaans spitskop. Another man assents to what his companion is saying, and, among other things, he says, “for the ||xau: yonder standing is high”. In this case, ||xau: is the term for flat-topped, mesa-like hills. There can be no doubt that ||kabbo is talking about two different hills.4 These can be conclusively identified with the flat-topped hill which the |xam called ||gubbo gwai, “||gubbo male”, and which in modern maps appears as Tafelkop (Bank 2006: 144), and with a much smaller koppie, with a narrow summit, which stands about three kilometres to the south of ||gubbo gwai. There is good reason to believe that the smaller koppie is a ‘little hill’ called |kwobba, included by ||kabbo in a list of his uncle’s places which he dictated to Wilhelm Bleek in September 1871 (B.II: 371). Both hills are home to engraved dolerite boulders.

While the extensive summit of ||gubbo gwai does not allow the observation of the surrounding area from a single point, |kwobba is indeed a spot from which it is possible “to see all places”. Its top is littered with stone tools and fragments of ostrich egg-shell, as well as with bones, no doubt the remains of the meals of those who stayed there for hours watching for game. The rock engravings at |kwobba, or at least some of them, could very well be connected with its function as an observatory for game. The splendid group of about fifteen eland engraved in a rectangular boulder at the foot of the hill supports this notion, as they are heading south, in the direction of the leegte or dry riverbed which lies a few kilometres from the hill, and which ||kabbo mentions in his description of the area (2538-2539). If, as I have argued here, the engravings scratched in the rock worked as the markings in the body, their function, at least in places like ||gubbo gwai and |kwobba, could very well have been that of attracting, or maybe guiding, the game to areas where their movements could be conveniently observed by the hunters. Thus, for the |xam they would do much more than mark the landscape: they would literally project onto it an intricate web of invisible signals linking rock and flesh, hunter and prey.

1. All quotations are from the original manuscript, accessible at I have slightly edited the text and, for convenience’s sake, here and elsewhere I have replaced the English equivalent of the key terms with the original |xam. I have also somewhat simplified the orthography of the |xam words. “Bushman presentiments” is a complex narrative, and I hope to be able to offer elsewhere a fully annotated edition of, but I would like to outline here some of the essential elements derived from the interpretation of the term !gwe: I have just proposed.

2. See, Bleek 1956: 392, !gwe:, “letter, picture”. See also, where |han≠kass’o uses the word in relation to a rock art copy.

3. Scarifications would also be a kind of stroke in the body which would facilitate the |k”umm. In another testimony, ||kabbo described how the |xam used scarification “that the arrow may fly well at the springbok” (Bleek 1936: 145; Hollmann 2004: 301).

4. For another view of how the |xam classified hills, see Deacon (1998; 138-139). In the same landmark article, Deacon shows that the word “Brinkkop”, with which both |xam terms are rendered in the English text, is generic rather than specific, and is how Lloyd spelled the Afrikaans term bruinkop.