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M.A. Thesis, Graduate School of the University of Florida

Barbara L. Palmer

Note to the Reader: The San (pejoratively called "Bushmen") live in the desert regions of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. They are makers of ostrich eggshell beads
and have more recently adapted glass seed beads to their ornaments.

Using a research sample of over 200 pieces of beadwork in private collections and museums in Southern Africa and the USA, this thesis explores the beadwork tradition of the San peoples of Southern Africa. This tradition has thrived over centuries, maintaining a strong allegiance to particular forms and images. Samples of beadwork show the continuation of a design tradition that began in the medium of ostrich eggshells and continues with innovations made possible through the introduction of colorful European glass beads.

Patterns created by the placement of the ostrich eggshell bead are subtle and fluid and revealed by close scrutiny. They are replicated in European bead form through the careful placement of bead color. In both media there is a fondness for geometric forms, rhythmic repeated patterns, movement and symmetry. Images and patterns found in beadwork often function as metaphors for both ideas and physical events, being simply the translation of an idea into a concrete tactile visual form, encoded in the placement and form of geometric shapes.

The function of beadwork in San society is also explored, from personal adornment, life transitions, reciprocal gift-giving and trade, to its present role as a provider of income in an economy with few other options for making a living. Beadwork is shown to be an intrinsic part of this culture, playing complex roles and functioning as the medium that carries intricate ideas in virtuoso artistic expression.

Examples are taken from the San language, music, and physical environment to illustrate how some of the aspects of San life are translated into the medium of beadwork. Images from rock painting and trance dancing can also be seen in the medium of beadwork.


1. Child's apron or adult neck ornament

2. Dance apron, Namibia (note the bullet cases)

3. Child's apron or adult's neck ornament

4. Headband, Namibia

5. Dance apron, Namibia


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