Louis Herman | Those who never left

Louis-Herman-for-MoonSOME SIXTY THOUSAND YEARS AGO, when modern humans moved out of Africa and eventually colonized every habitable continent on the planet, some humans remained in southern Africa. Their direct descendants are the San Bushmen, who until recently lived a traditional hunting-gathering way of life in the great Kalahari Desert covering eastern Namibia, northern South Africa and much of Botswana. After decades of intense debate among scholars as to the origin and identity of Bushmen, the click-language-speaking hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari are now being accepted as most likely the closest living relatives to that aboriginal African population from which all modern humans are descended.

The picture emerging is that of the original hunter-gatherer continuing to develop in wilderness close to the sites of our last leap into modern human culture and consciousness. While conditions have changed over the past hundred thousand years, and the San themselves continue to  develop, nevertheless they hold a privileged position among all living societies in helping us imaginatively reconstruct the “lost world” of that original population from which we all descended.

We need to realize that most of the first-hand accounts of the traditional life of the Bushmen have been shaped by the methods, motives, and perspective of professional academics—a world that couldn’t be further from that of the subjects themselves. In that sense, from a Bushman perspective, we could say that scholars live in another “lost world,” cut off from that shared hunting-and-gathering, wilderness-immersed way of life that originally defined what it meant to be human. Bringing these two radically different life-worlds together takes us further along in our quest for a healing vision of a primal-postmodern synthesis — a future primal politics.

Much of modern anthropological work has tended to focus on the measurable externals of San political economy and emphasized the variability of Bushmen society. When game was scare they would work as serfs on neighboring farms or become traders or professional hunters.  More recent studies by philosophically self-reflective anthropologist  go beyond  the materialism of the  earlier studies and reveal  at the center of San life a shamanic political philosophy—a “primal truth quest” at the heart of a “primal politics”—which gives San life its inner coherence and extraordinary resilience.  It also turns out to be a vital resource for us today with our civilization in crisis.

As the philosophical anthropologist Mathias Guenther points out, as soon as conditions are appropriate Bushman groups seem to snap back into their preferred form—what he calls “the foraging band blueprint” of hunting and gathering:  compact, egalitarian, with minimal, flexible division of labor, without any externally imposed grid or enforced boundaries among roles. Typically most participate in all social roles within the limits of age, ability, and sex — hunter, gatherer, healer, home builder, dancer, singer. Everyone has direct access to valued resources — the water holes, the great dry lake beds or pans, the plants and animals of the veldt. Relevant knowledge is openly discussed, easily overheard, and readily shared.

Both hunting and gathering are opportunistic, open-ended activities, guided by individual intuition, dreams, and luck. People work together in a relaxed stop-go style, making and repairing tools, clothing, and jewelry and exchanging items as needed while constantly talking, joking, and telling stories. Despite the fluidity of roles, most of the gathering is in fact done by groups of women and children, and most of the hunting is done by men, who hunt alone or in small groups. Women work harder at child care than men, but since children are included in virtually all activities, they continue to participate fully in productive work and in public and social life. Fathers are attentive and loving and spend much of their leisure time playing with and holding children.

Marriage is informal. Traditionally, the couple will live with or next to the wife’s parents, with the husband performing bride service to feed the extended family until his own children are teenagers. Divorce is even more informal; it is generally initiated by the woman, who announces to the group that the marriage is over simply by moving out of the husband’s hut. Most Ju/twasi are monogamous, but occasionally a woman will take two husbands or a man two wives. Rape is virtually unknown, and domestic violence is rare. Women desire children and often complain of not having as many as they would like. Childbirth is entirely their domain. Upon giving birth, the mother examines the new baby for signs of defect and decides whether or not to invest the enormous energy required to care for it. Though infrequent, infanticide remains an option if necessary and is solely the mother’s decision. Her announcement of a stillbirth is accepted without question.

San communalism is balanced by its opposite — fierce individualism, argumentativeness, and assertiveness. In all spheres of San life, we see a fluid crossing of boundaries back and forth between all the opposites of politics — between individuality and communal bonding; argumentativeness and agreement; assertiveness and egalitarianism; recognizing excellence while putting down boastfulness. No one in the band has formal authority over others; there is no mechanism for the group to enforce its will on members. The San can only persuade one another using eloquence, skill, and wisdom. Tension between individuals and the group is mediated by discussion, which is ongoing and includes everyone. Coherence is maintained by collections of stories, myths, and teachings — a shared but open-ended cosmology.

A caring and sharing society

Perhaps the most elaborate institution for generating an ethos of caring and sharing among the San is !hxaro — a Bushman system of making, giving, and receiving gifts. The gifts are generally any nonfood item of value, most typically something decorative that becomes a conspicuous symbol of mutual concern and willingness to share in times of need. The system also opens the way for visiting and hospitality and thus the enduring wealth of companionship, caring, and sharing.

A child may be introduced to !hxaro between the ages of six months and a year. For example, a grandmother would give a bead necklace to the child, then at some point she would cut off the beads, wash them, and put them in the child’s hand to give to a relative. She then replaces the necklace and repeats the procedure, whether the child likes it or not, encouraging the child to give the beads to an interested adult, until the child starts to develop a taste for the joy of giving and initiates the !hxaro.

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