Throwing the Bones: Divination in Southern Africa

How southern African traditional healers use 'bone throwing' to heal and help

Sangoma's Throwing Bones by unknownPhansi Museum

The traditional healers of southern Africa

Traditional healers, or sangomas or inyangas, are shamanic practitioners or spirit mediums who work within many southern African cultures. As sangoma David Cumes notes, they have been the backbone of Bantu communities, especially in the rural areas of southern Africa for eons. To learn more about southern African traditional healers click here.

What is bone throwing?

Sangomas or inyangas use bones, vertabrae and other objects for bone throwing rituals. In these rituals the bones and other objects are scattered by the healer in front of the client. The healer then reads the groupings and positionings in which the objects fall.

Not just bones

Along with the bones and verterbrae, sangomas might include other items of significance in their set. These include dominos or similar objects, cowrie shells, dice, stones and coins.

How objects are selected

Each item is personal to the sangoma and is specifically collected, often because the healer feels led to the object. In the case of bones sangomas carefully select them on prior understanding and knowledge of the lifestyles of the animals from which they are extracted.'' (Mokgale Makgopa and Magaelane Koma, 2009)

Significance and meaning

The bones and objects can be read to diagnose the client or pronounce what is needed in or missing from their life. For example a hyena  can represent a thief in the night and its bone can tell the whereabouts of a stolen object. Bones from carnivorous animals are used to diagnose the likely outcomes of court trials. Indigenous healers may use these divination bones to diagnose the likely outcome of a trial. (Makgopa & Komai Koma, 2009)

How position affects meaning

It is not just the objects that have meaning but also how they fall.  The indigenous healer must first identify the fall, interpret it and then prescribe medication based on the interpretation. Read on to learn how some diviners work with bones and  interpret positions.

Principal bones and supporting bones

In the baNgwaketse region of Botaswana, Tswana diviners use four principal bones which represent family and a number of supplimentary bones each representing a part of society. (Campbell, 1968). In a bone throwing ritual the four principal bones must be used and supported by supplimentary bones grouped in pairs.

Substance, nuance and meaning

As archeologist Alex C Cambell outlines, some diviners work with only the four principal bones, but customarily all the bones are reused. The four principal bones giving the substance of the divination and the other bones backing them up, giving extra nuances of meaning and relating them to society.  The relative position of each bone, the way they face and the direction in which they points are important and have meaning. (Campbell,1968)

Combinations and calculations

Campbell goes on to outline how the ‘fall’ of the bones works for diviners working in Ngwaketse, Botswana.  He explains that there can be sixty four combinations of the four main bones, irrespective of position, and each of these combinations has a name and gives the dominant note of the interpretation. 

Positions providing pictures

The position of the other bones in relation to the four principal bones may add to the name as well as the interpretation. No bone or pairing can be read in isolation, but must be read first as part of the four principal bones and then in conjunction with the accessory bones. Read on to  find out some of the position interpretations in for diviners working in Ngwaketse.

1. Baboon bones

If a baboon falls facing any person, he is bola wamarata — favored by the bones


2. The ant-bear and the baboon

If death is indicated and the ant-bear and the baboon fall pointing in the same direction, a cure can be effected


3. The ant-bear facing upwards

Whenever the ant-bear falls upwards what will take place is inevitable.


4. Two female bones

Two female bones both facing up indicates a conspiracy between women in the home; side by side and both up indicates a very definite conspiracy


5. Ill-feelings

When the open side of a hoof falls pointing away from the rest of the bones, a man has ill - feelings in the village.


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