IS IT POSSIBLE that an untrained Englishman with a self-taught knack for surviving in the bushveld and an almost mystical empathy with the Northern Sotho people in South Africa may have contributed more to our understanding of the distant human past than a dozen degree-clutching specialists? Absolutely, says Lyall Watson in this lyrical and feisty book, and the demonstration of his premise makes for an absorbing, sometimes eyebrow-lifting read.

Lightning Bird tells the story of Adrian Boshier, who, as a boy, honed his sense of adventure on books about Old Africa by Stanley, Livingston, and others. At 16, after his mother's marriage to a man with a teaching position in Johannesburg, Boshier found himself translated from postwar Europe to the continent of his dreams. Almost immediately he hitchhiked into the bush to experience its grand and forbidding character for himself. From that point on, however, he traveled by foot, usually with no more equipment than a bag of salt for trading and a pocket knife. For the next 23 years, until his death in 1978, he pursued a purposeful itinerancy through the ancient geographic and metaphysical terrain of the Transvaal.

Boshier's story would perhaps be little more than a colorful picaresque if not for the fact that in 1962 he met Raymond Dart, the near- legendary paleoanthropologist. Dart's controversial theory of a bone-tooth-horn culture preceding the various received Stone Ages gained stunning support from some of Boshier's observations among the Northern Sotho. The bone splinters that Dart had catalogued as knives, for instance, Boshier recognized as knives: He had seen the people of the Transvaal using tools identical to Dart's in a religious ceremony involving the fruit of the marula tree. The older man actually wept. He gave Boshier a reading list and urged him to continue his keen-eyed wanderings. At length Dart's prot,eg,e earned an appointment as field officer to the Museum of Man and Science in Johannesburg.

But Watson does not intend Lightning Bird as a mere biography. It commemorates Boshier's accomplishment, yes, but it also contains a message, a message cunningly embodied in its structure. Dingaka, or spirit-diviners, of the Northern Sotho frequently make important readings on the basis of the pattern indicated by a set of four domino-like tablets carven with traditional motifs on one side only, shaken in either the hands or a leather bag, and thrown on the ground. Any one of 16 distinct patterns may then appear, each with a name and meaning all its own--from likomeng ("the secret songs") to senyama ("the empty kraal"). Watson divides Boshier's story into 16 chapters bearing the names and designs of these oracular patterns, and this clever structural trope has real bearing on the author's basic argument.

(Elegant line drawings by Jacquey Visick illustrate these patterns, by the way, and provide essential information about many of Boshier's most crucial adventures and discoveries.)

Nine years ago in Supernature, a compendium of on-the-fringe scientific observations, Watson wrote, "Few aspects of human behavior are so persistent as our need to believe in things unseen--and as a biologist, I find it hard to accept that this is purely fortuitous. The belief, or the strange things to which this belief is so stubbornly attached, must have real survival value, and I think we are rapidly approaching a situation in which this value will become apparent." Through its focus on the personality and acts of Adrian Boshier, Lightning Bird dramatizes the power of things unseen to influence the human sphere and the efficacy of ritual in our most anxious confrontations with the unknown.

Boshier gained the trust of native Africans because he appeared to be in harmony with both the natural realm of plants and animals and the intangible world of spirits. The ease with which he periodically captured and handled boomslangs, pythons, and cobras earned him the title Rra-dinoga, father of snakes. And his susceptibility to epileptic seizures, attacks that seem to have led to his peculiar death in the Indian Ocean, conferred upon him the status of one blessed with a valuable, albeit spectacularly painful, hotline to the spirit realm. Little wonder, then, that Boshier, a white man, eventually undertook to become a spirit-diviner himself.

Much of Lightning Bird deals with Boshier's attitude-wrenching contributions to our knowledge of human prehistory: his Zulu-assisted readings of the symbolism of the cave art in the arid mountains of the Makgabeng, his excavations of a pit in Swaziland from which hematite and specularite were mined thousands of years before most scientists believed our forebears had first engaged in mining, his involvement with work hinting that "illiterate Africa" may have developed a script similar to a Celtic alphabet called ogam, and on and on. Doubtless, Boshier did much to shake up the paleoanthropological establishment, and Watson does not go giddily overboard in saluting his achievement in this slim, altogether partisan volume.

However, the message of Lightning Bird-- whose title derives from the Matala people's identification of Boshier with the hamerkop, a bird known as a rainmaker--will prove palatable to readers to precisely the degree that they admit the possibility of magic or at least of paranormal happenings in the workings of the cosmos. Regrettably, then, the teeth of skeptics may begin bellicosely grinding when they encounter statements similar to this one about clairvoyance and telepathy: "It would be wrong . . . to try to isolate such ability for scientific analysis. . . . The reality (these talents) represent is too fragile to withstand that kind of scrutiny." To which the devout empiricist may legitimately reply, "How convenient."

This cavil noted, I find myself in sympathy with the details of Adrian Boshier's remarkable career and even with the prevailing bias of his eloquent nonbiographer. Indeed, Watson indirectly defends his approach in a comment ostensibly about the dingaka: "To be valuable in an individual situation, or valid in a social context, a diviner and a technique of divination need only have dramatic truth. They must be appropriate." Regard Watson as the diviner and Lightning Bird as the technique of divination, and you have a set of literary circumstances completely appropriate, and true, to their subject. The aesthetic merits of this unusual book lend an odd credibility to events and arguments that might otherwise beggar belief. I am glad to have had a chance to read it.