This article briefly discusses bead making, the construction methods of beadwork, and influences of the San healing systems on the material culture of others.


Making beads is labour intensive, requires resources, stamina, skill and technology.  The precedent of ostrich egg shell beads dates to over 2000 years according to Hart. T. and Gribble. J. (1998), describing beads found at archaeological excavations, ( lp 12 occupation site), Langebaan, and could have been made by ancestors of the San. Egg shell beads are still made using ancient methods, by being hand cut and drilled, with the edges smoothed to a rounded shape against rocks.

The Sans survival hinges on ostrich egg containers, to purvey or store water, so by extension, the beads made from the shells, are considered “luckyto wear. The beads symbolism, is layered by references to water and is underpinned by mythology of water beings that are featured in rock art, and form part of their healing tradition.

Women often used several beading technique in a single item. Occasionally headbands with egg shell beads were worn flattened against the scalp, at other times, the brick in the wall technique was used. These concurrent production methods continued after glass seed beads were introduced. Ostrich shell beaded bands were worn on the head, or sewn onto skin clothing.

Sometimes these strips were attached only at one end, swinging freely, animated by the body’s movement.  In the 1950s and 60s, beaded rings or loops of egg shell or white beads adorned womens’ heads, however in other areas, the mode also included beaded triangles and circles attached to the hairline imparting a coquettish effect.

Nettleton (2016) argues that the brick in the wall technique of beadwork construction may originate from lessons at European missions in Southern Africa. This may apply to the Khoi San as the Genadendal mission station in the Cape was already schooling Khoi-Khoi indigenous people in 1737 and later in 1790s, possibly changing beading styles.

However beads in one form or another have been traded in and out of Southern Africa for millennia and beading techniques disseminated between groups by oral tradition for an equal length of time so origination of skills is difficult to determine. Trade routes bringing beads down the East Coast of Africa to Mozambique by the Arabs and Dravidians were active for 500 years before the Portuguese, Dutch and English used the Cape and Delagoa Bay as a way station to the East.  Indigenous people, painted by George Angas in 1749, were already featured wearing complex items of beadwork, indicative of this trade, and of a history of technical proficiency.

Monochrome patterns created from ostrich egg shell beads, arose from manipulating a variety of attachment methods to leather.  By this I mean a change in the repetitive quantity of beads, their direction in relation to one another and the three dimensional texture that this created, comprised the pattern. This required not only a complex understanding of various beading techniques but a more laborious process to first obtain the material, produce the beads and make the beadwork.

The construction method of the brick in the wall technique, meant a uniform method of assembly resulting in flat bands of beadwork.  This was an easier way of manufacture and one can argue the technical constraints required for making this type of beadwork, prescribed a geometric pattern when another colour was introduced.

Another reason may be that geometric patterns arose from the side effects of trance.  That entoptic designs experienced at the onset of trance were reimagined into beadwork thereby referencing healing, in another visual way.  This may explain why headbands often depict these designs. Patterns include: lines, triangles, diamonds, chevrons or hourglass shapes.  These refer historically to abstract marks in painting. According to Eastward (2006:64) “Khoekhoe painting is associated with dots, strokes and geometric motifs”. These simple motifs are often repeated in mirror image or since the 1960s, progressive directional designs indicative of an understanding of geometry occur.


The San left a legacy on the visual language of others, leading to fluid stylistic associations between groups, of which I discuss several. For example: The Riverine San (Xanekwe and Bugakwe subtribes) influenced the Mbukushu people to use black and white triangular designs on their skirts in the Okavango delta.  According to Cowley. C. 1969, The Xanekwe wore “Black and white beadwork predominated in headbands, necklaces, armbands and anklets often interspersed with nuts, pips, and seeds” and ostrich egg shell beads. However the alternate may be true, as the type of large glass beads used in the production of these skirts was traded into Angola (original home of the Mbukushu people) and Central Africa in the late 1800s, and similar beads are still evident today amongst the beadwork of the Kuba people, D.R.C.  For me, complexities are invaluable when integrated into the beadwork corpus as they enlarge our understanding of the development of style.


Beaded circles, are dotted across bags and leather clothing, in the Otjozondjupa area of Namibia. These motifs also occur amongst the Khalahari San of South Africa indicative of the transfer of ideas. One can speculate that this circular symbol represents waterholes. Or, suggest entoptic designs seen during trance.  According to Eastwood (2006:158) “One may argue that the circular motif, or dot, is generally an image which is part of an altered state of consciousness”.

A remnant of this design in the Eastern Cape occurs on artifacts of the Xhosa people, who due to the linguistic clicks in their language, demonstrate San influence.  Mfingo men (a Xhosa sub-tribe)  often display these random dots across the surface of their beautiful earth coloured blankets.   These circles are beaded or comprise rondels of leopard skin, edged with beads. In a sense these irregularly marked bits of leopard skin bear a conceptual similarity to the variegated dots originating from the Otjozonjupa area in Namibia.

In Kwazulu Natal, the dot motif also occurs on items used for protection and healing. For example:,  beaded circles are attached to animal skin maternity covers worn by pregnant Zulu women in the rural areas or dots are implied through the use of large randomly placed beads on the same item. The style of these particular “garments” differs from the general beadwork aesthetics in the same region, perhaps hinting at San intervention eons ago into the areas of healing, fertility and infant health.

The San left their light footprint on what they have shared with others: In Southern Africa amongst traditional healers, the magical function of beads is still acknowledged today and bead work is interred with the shamans or healers who once wore them. Besides this, the way these healers are buried in a seated position, is the same manner used by the San, who for millennia bartered their knowledge of healing and rainmaking functions with the Nguni people.



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