Nature, water and Ancient Wisdom – why we need to learn so much more from the San

In the old days we could speak to the rain, and ask the sky to send soft rain.


The sky used to listen to us, but now the lightning is very dangerous.


It brings no rain; it kills because our ways are being changed. Children and old people are dying when it doesn’t rain.


Nothing grows in the sun as hot as fire. I must dance for the good rain, the soft rain. The rain…will wipe everything clean. When we who walk on sand die, our traces vanish as our foot prints wash away. So, too, the old tracks will die and new signs will be born.


Like in the old times, we dance for that rain. Dance the whole night, and in the morning we would start to hunt, and there was rain, and the people were happy, and we would all be dancing.


  • Nqate Xqamxebe

These are the words spoken by a San tribesman and hunter: an elder in his community. His meaning couldn’t be clearer – water is life, and it is life that is renewed when water cleanses the world. This isn’t only deeply and beautifully poetic; it’s also an ancient philosophy that places humankind’s well-being, and very existence, in the well-being of the natural world. Perhaps it’s more than an ancient philosophy…it’s an Ancient Wisdom. One we seem to have forgotten about in our fast tracked, stressed and detached-from-nature lives. In short, the modern world has much to learn from a tragically forgotten people.

Water and the origins of the universe

Savouring every drop – San extracting water from the Bi Bulb plant. Image adapted from DVL2 @

The significance of water to San culture is closely interwoven with both their religious beliefs and ritual expressions. In fact, one origin story associates Cagn, the San’s Supreme Being, with a fundamental element of San culture: rainmaking rituals. After Cagn had created the world, he left Earth for the sky. The Supreme Being also created the Moon, the phases of which indicated when the rainmaking ritual was to be performed.

To get even the most cursory glimpse of the San’s intricate religious beliefs, and how they manifest in rainmaking rituals, we must first look at their understanding of the relationship between the natural and supernatural realms of existence.

N/um and !kia

Scholars suggest that this relationship can be understood through its manifestation in San Rock Art and Trance Dances (both for healing and for rainmaking). In a trance dance (for example, the healing ritual often referred to as the “Great Dance”), shamans access – or perhaps even enter into – the spiritual realm through harnessing a supernatural force that infuses all animals, called n/um. It is through connecting with n/um that shamans and healers can enter into !kia, an enhanced state of consciousness (often after first undergoing a transformation into animal form). The Eland, especially its blood and fat, is believed to be a powerful source of n/um.

The reality behind the veil of normal perception

More than meets the eye – San rock art in the Cederberg, Western Cape. Image courtesy Jim F Bleak

The altered, or spiritually awakened, state of consciousness allows healers and shamans to see behind the veil of normal perception and confront the supernatural causes of illness. Of note is the fact that social ills can also be addressed in healing rituals. Once in !kia, shamans will see supernatural forces appearing on the rock face. These, scholars argue, are not mere representations; they are instead the actual spiritual beings traversing between the two realms separated by the rock surface. Geoffery Blundell of the WITS Origins Centre explains,

[Rock Art] images often interact with the rock surface; they appear to enter or leave cracks, steps, and other openings in the rock surface. For this reason, scholars believe that, for the San, the rock surface functioned as a veil between this world and the spiritual one. Filled with supernatural energy, the images are depicted on this veil, on the very [transitional] space between two worlds.

Rainmaking rituals

In terms of rainmaking rituals, it is believed that San rain-shamans must enter !kia and capture, bound and slaughter the supernatural manifestation of rain: a spiritual animal that resides in deep water pools. The milk and blood of the shaman-caught and slaughtered rain animal would then mix to form rain. Scholar Sven Ouzman points out that an example of a rainmaking site, replete with Rock Art depicting rain animals appearing from cracks and a water pool, may be dated back to the Late Stone Age – beginning some 25 000 years ago. This is to say that the spiritual essence of rainmaking, and the creation of its associated Rock Art, is one of the centremost pillars of a worldview which recognises that there is no life without precious water.

More gratitude

Denied hunting grounds and subject to governmental interference, southern African San culture faces an uncertain future.

The worrying lesson for us, many thousands of years away from these intense spiritual practices, is that we take so much of what we have for granted. When we open our taps and see water pour forth, we barely even think about where it came from, and how lucky we are. It shouldn’t take too much effort, then, to treat this absolutely essential resource with more respect – as the first people of southern Africa did.

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