Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Arts of the San People in Nomansland

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

In a remote area of South Africa lies one of the last places San people painted. Situated just south and east of Lesotho, Nomansland was so called by the colonial authorities because virtually no settlers and very few Bantu-speaking people lived there. From a colonial perspective, the many San people who lived there were propertyless nomads because they lived by hunting and gathering and followed the movements of the game. Despite the presence of San people, then, the area was, in a colonial mindset, effectively a No Man's Land. Ironically, because the area was settled so late in colonial history, the San managed to sustain their way of life in the face of increasing hostility before they were, as all over South Africa, slain or forced to amalgamate with their more powerful Bantu-speaking neighbors.


Some of the last paintings made by the San come from this area. These include many intriguing images of grotesque figures, enigmatic thin red lines fringed by white dots, and numerous, complexly shaded eland. None of the images, however, are more intriguing than those with large heads. At many sites, scholars have discovered anthropomorphic images with heads that are exaggerated in size. Typically, these heads are greatly detailed; they are painted in profile with chin, upper and lower lips, nose, eye, and ear. Moreover, the images often have a characteristic headdress. Below the head, less detail is evident—figures have no legs, or they have arms without hands; in some sites, there are heads without any bodies whatsoever. Each head is unique to a particular site, making them especially significant.


Their uniqueness raises interesting questions about what they represent. Many of the figures have features, such as blood from the nose or divining switches, that indicate they are depictions of San shamans. It is possible that these images are portraits of individual, powerful shamans. If so, they are not portraits in the Western sense of the word; many of them have unrealistic features that point to their transformation into animal form. If these are portraits of San shamans, then they represent what those shamans look like in the spirit world.

Geoffrey Blundell
Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Storm Shelter, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Image courtesy of Geoffrey Blundell.

The most intriguing images of Nomansland are those with large heads. These heads are very detailed. The uniqueness of each head suggests that it is a form of portraiture depicting powerful individual shamans.

Storm Shelter, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Image courtesy of Geoffrey Blundell.

One of the characteristic eldritch images of Nomansland. These figures are frequently grotesque in appearance. In this example, the figure bends forward as the supernatural energy begins to "boil" in the stomach, causing a transformation into an antelope form.

The labyrinthine valleys of Nomansland were one of the last refuges where San people painted.


The shaded portion highlights Nomansland, situated just south and east of Lesotho, one of the last sites where the San people painted.