Arts of Healing

By Barbara Thompson
Friends of Usambara Society, Tanzania (formerly Stanford University; University of Iowa)

Botswana; San peoples. Rock painting. Photo by University of Witwatersrand.

For thousands of years, African art has served as a potent tool in healing practices. One of the oldest art forms in human history is found in the caves and rock shelters of southern Africa. These rock paintings and engravings, made by the ancient San peoples, are believed to be linked to the trances of ritual specialists during rituals of healing, rainmaking ceremonies, and the attempts of ritual specialists to control the movements of herds—all of which were vital to the survival and well-being of these hunting-gathering peoples. The similarity of the images, some of which date as far back as ca. 25,000 BCE to practices of the descendants of the ancient San suggest that the paintings and engravings provide evidence of one of the earliest forms of visual and performing arts used in healing.