The San Bushmen Hunter Gatherers of the Kalahari
This weeks blog is on the San Bushmen who are central to the talk I am giving (April 12; 10-1 at the Schott center Santa Barbara.) Although many have found the title Bushmen demeaning and prefer the word San, many Bushmen prefer this title as reflective of their unique skills as hunter gatherers.
This description was my first journey to the Bushmen and in 1987 was also the first real hero's journey outside of my medical training and surgical career.
I went up to the Kua Bushmen several hours north of Gaberones in Botswana with a group but had arranged with Izak Barnard, the leader, to leave me behind with a 4x4 and the supplies I needed for the rest of a month's stay.
This is what I experienced in a window of time when it was still possible to witness Bushmen living as their ancestors had millennia ago. It was a life changing experience which lead to profound understandings on the healing powers of nature and nurtured the concept of "Wilderness Rapture" (or any altered state of consciousness that can occur whenever we encounter nature's magic.) This is further discussed in Inner Passages Outer Journeys (the summary of which can be downloaded as a pdf from my web site.) This is the first of a two part blog.
A Lesson from the Hunter-Gatherers
The Bushmen, or San are one of the last Hunter Gatherers of Africa. The San have attracted various groups of people for different reasons. Anthropologists see them as a link to long lost stone age cultures and naturalists and hunters admire them for their extraordinary expertise in the bush. Those of a more mystical inclination are fascinated with their oneness with the fauna and flora of the Kalahari, a connection that has enabled them to survive for centuries in a desert that most other peoples have avoided. Through this, they previously remained free from the trappings and problems of more sophisticated societies.
Legends of the Bushmen abound. History tells us how they could not be tamed and how they were pushed further and further into the interior of Southern Africa by the northerly migration of the whites and southerly migration of the Bantu. Many stories are related of their cunning as hunters and trackers, of their botanical and medicinal skills, of their delicate rock art and their bravery. Their desire to be free was paramount and it was said that if you imprisoned a San, he would soon will himself to death in his cell. The San people are so much in the present moment that they are unable to conceive of a time in the future when things might be different and they could be free.
Physically, the San are quite different from other South African Bantu peoples. They are short of stature, have copper-colored skin, peppercorn hair and delicate facial features. They have slanting eyes and high cheek bones. This has led to speculation as to the origin of these original indigenous people of Southern Africa, who origins go back thousands of years. They have called themselves the "First People" and genetic studies have found them to be correct. We all have Bushmen D.N.A. in our cells. The women often are exquisite and have a characteristic sign of steatopygia. This is an excess of fat accumulation in the buttocks, so that they project somewhat behind them. Buttocks are the most important part of the anatomy when it comes to sex appeal and are always covered. Some of these features are disappearing as the Bushman inter-marry with their Bantu neighbors.
The women provide most of the food by foraging. They are outstanding botanists and, while walking at quite a pace, can discern subtle changes in the shapeless Kalahari scrub denoting something edible. Out comes the ubiquitous digging stick, and within seconds a delectable morsel is thrown into the skin bag. Many of the roots, bulbs and tubers are quite deep underground and have to be uncovered a foot or more down. It is only deep under the surface of the earth that they can acquire enough moisture in which to grow. One to two hours later and five skin bags full and they return to camp with enough food for all.
All the men have with them for a hunting trip are a bow, a quiver of arrows, a digging stick, fire stick and a sipping straw to suck water out of hollow trees or from sip-wells in the sand. With these simple implements and their incredible knowledge of the desert they can survive indefinitely. Their back yard has always been their pantry and their skills give them an enviable sense of freedom.
There are few landmarks in the Kalahari and one thorn tree looks like another to the uninitiated. To the San, however, each area has a its own tale to tell. Their knowledge extends many miles beyond their encampments where they are just as familiar with the featureless terrain. It is nothing for them to walk 50 miles to visit friends and they are able to find plenty to eat along the way.
The San are extremely egalitarian. They have no chief or leader and everyone -- male and female -- has a say in the activities of the group. Certain members are known for their extraordinary skills such as hunting or healing but this does not confer on them any additional privileges. Egomaniacal attitudes are not part of Bushman behavior. Children would be considered thoroughly "spoiled" in our terms. When a child picks up a musical instrument, allowance is the rule no matter how distracting the noise. Children rarely have a request refused and no adult can bear to hear a child cry. The Kalahari desert is a cruel enough teacher, and the environment outside of home holds enough to teach youngsters to be responsible adults. Even amongst the adults, an unconditional positive regard for others seemed routine and it is difficult to find judgmental attitudes amongst the group.
Water was like a drug to the San and wells put in by the Botswana government are among the factors that have put an end to their nomadic way of life. It is so much easier to turn on a faucet than to go and dig for tubers and look for Tsama melons, even if it means a walk of five miles or more. Plastic bottles have replaced empty ostrich egg shells as water containers. Previously these were filled with water from hollowed out tree trunks, using hollow reeds to suck the water up and spit it carefully back into the shell. These natural reservoirs were covered meticulously with a log or branch to prevent animals from drinking and polluting it. The Kalahari has no natural water and it rains infrequently. Before the advent of wells these people did not have water, yet adapted happily to the environment.
To get water they dig for the tuber, "Baiee" [Raphion Acme Burkei], grate it with a sharp stick and deliver the juice inside. To this are added one or two different plants to take away the bitterness and possible catalyze the release of more water, since an excessive volume can be squeezed from a modest amount of the shavings. Nothing is wasted, and they use the residue of the fibers to scrub and clean themselves
Except for a few hardy purists, the San tend to settle in close proximity to a well. Nevertheless, the skills for finding water remain and the San are adept in their use. However, future generations growing up with water faucets may lose these skills. Dependency on the well means that women and men have to forage further and further afield for food, game and firewood. The San way of life had been predicated on their being transient. The presence of a well along with other factors have become a strong deterrent to their nomadic way of life.
Many pressures threaten the San way of life besides the introduction of water on tap. Huge cattle ranches have appeared with fences that both limit game migration and inhibit their nomadic pattern. Cattle overgrazing is a problem with regard to the destruction of natural habitat and food to forage. Game preserves and hunting areas have been demarcated and the San are no longer welcome, even though their hunting needs are small and do not affect the ecology. The San hunter-gatherer is slowly disappearing since it is easier for them to assimilate with their Bantu neighbors around them.
Hunting is now a rare event, since little large game remains in the vicinity around their villages. Meat, is still occasionally available from small game because of the Sans' ingenious trapping ability. They now concentrate on the trapping of smaller antelope and birds especially the delicate duiker and steenbok, koraan and guinea fowl. Watching them set a trap is like a surgical exercise. They pay minute attention to detail, and trapping has become a work of practical art. Most astounding is the knowledge of the animals, as they "become" that animal, chatting away to each other and discussing all aspects of behavior and how best to set the trap. It seems uncanny that in this vast expanse of desert, they would be able to eat meat just because one buck placed one foot in a six-inch diameter spot somewhere in the vast Kalahari. It is not difficult to learn how to set a sloppy trap but it takes a lifetime to learn where to set it.
Rope making is essential since without it one cannot make a bow or snare. This basic skill is one of the easiest to learn. Rope was made from a small fibrous-like plant called "Gwi" (Sanserveria, also called mother-in-law's tongue), which is ubiquitous. Even a thin cord is extremely strong and difficult to break.
Hunting of bigger game is now impractical on foot for the San in terms of energy expenditure. The Bushmen have to walk long distances to find their quarry now that their hunting grounds have been encroached on. The San will not expend more energy than they can get back from the exercise since, with water and food being so critical, this could become a life or death situation especially because of the intense heat in the Kalahari.
Skinning of the animal is done quickly and efficiently on a table of broken branches in the sand. Nothing is wasted and the delicacies -- the heart, kidneys and liver -- are wrapped in the stomach and cooked in an ash oven or pot. These are the privileges of the hunter, and the rest is shared. In times of drought the San squeeze the liquid from the stomach contents for a drink. Survival in the Kalahari lays esthetics aside.
The poisonous grub of the diamphidia beetle can be found a foot away from a particular commifora bush and here they sometimes spend several hours digging. It is hard to imagine how the first San discovered that the innards of this grub were deadly when in contact with the blood stream. Perhaps it came to one of them in an altered state of consciousness during the "Trance Dance." The time it takes to kill depends on the size and weight of the prey and the San have been known to track a large wounded animal for a day or more.
Sinew is wound around the metal shaft of the arrowhead and the poison smeared onto it with great care not to put any on the point of the arrow. A mere scratch could be fatal, and there is no antidote to the poison. It is easy to understand why the quiver is solid and made from a specialized piece of hollow bark. This is one activity the children are not allowed to share.
The San are small people, and their bows and arrows are toy-like. They do not rely on a fatal shot from afar, as their incredible tracking ability and stealth allow them a shot from up close. The poison takes care of the rest. The wooden body of the arrow is arranged cleverly to drop away from the poisoned metal shaft which remains stuck in the flesh so the animal cannot dislodge it by rubbing up against a tree. The poison is deactivated with heat, cooking and also by gastric juice. Poison on the arrowheads is easily eliminated by placing them in the fire for a minute.
The Bushmen are master trackers. They can tell how many animals have passed by which were male and female, their size and approximate time of arrival. Even if a track looks relatively recent they will know if the animal has too much of a head start to be worth following.
The San have rudimentary shelters in which they rarely sleep except in the rare event of rain. The grass walls soon become a haven for the small creatures of the Kalahari and every now and then have to be burned down and reconstructed. Kalahari nights are extraordinary and everyone welcomes the release from the heat of the day. If one can find a group far away from the Bantu villages the Kalahari again feels untainted by the 21st century. When evening comes the "veldkos" (veld food) is roasted in the ashes. After eating there is singing and dancing. San music is different from anything else one has ever heard and the haunting sounds of singing and clapping can easily propel one into an altered state of consciousness. Dancing is accompanied by the swishing sounds of ankle rattles the men wrap around their legs. Given the right energy and enough time at the dance, the San are able to trance and travel up to the spirit world. This will be discussed further in an upcoming talk on Wilderness Rapture.
The San spirit dance is a phenomenon that enables the healer to leave his or her body and do battle with the spirits for the restoration of the health of the patient. It also is known as the "Little Death," since the dancer is in danger of not returning to the body and has to be carefully watched. Trance dancers have been known to do remarkable things with fire, including putting parts of their anatomy in the flames without suffering burns. They are known for their psychic and healing abilities, and many Africans prefer to see a San healer than be treated by their own medicine person. There are also many whites who can testify to being cured by a San healer after Western medicine had failed them. In trance the San travel into the spirit world to get diagnostic information and then come back out of trance to administer energy with hands on healing. In this out of body trance state the shaman is also capable of remote viewing of game or water sources which information helps the clan survive.
Bushman rock art depicting a shaman shape shifting during trance. The line coming out of the top of the head has been described as a "rope to God"
These unique people seem to have found the balance we lack in our modern society and it is disturbing to hear visitors say that they find the San intriguing because of their “primitive” lifestyle. In many ways the San are more sophisticated than we are. Without much effort they have attained the higher principles so often quoted by the mystics of Eastern religions -- joy and living totally in the present moment, lack of judgmental attitudes, unconditional love and being in the flow of nature and the cosmos.
The only spiritual practice they appear to have that enabled them to reach this enlightened state is the purity of their relationship with wilderness. They have no esoteric techniques such as meditation or Yoga and many cannot read or write. Hence nature alone may be one of the most powerful spiritual forces available for personal growth if accessed in the right way. If we were to derive this benefit as Westerners we need to have as little as possible between us and the wild. The more we separate ourselves from nature, the more diluted the effect. We need to simulate the Bushman model as much as is feasible and keep it simple to experience the benefits.
The Kua San depicted the mother earth as a pregnant woman created by the Great Spirit "Bisi." The huge belly of the woman that they drew for me ruptured, giving forth all the animals of the veld. The skin of the woman then became the crust of the mother earth whom the San treat with the greatest respect. The concepts of Gaia and Deep Ecology that we are only now beginning to embrace are second nature to them. Although many Westerners are enthralled with the superb bushcraft or “hard” skills that the Bushmen have mastered in their brutal environment, just as noteworthy are their group interaction or “soft” skills, as well as their spirituality.
These qualities seemed to arise from their austere way of life, which had been self-imposed for generations. Rather than assimilate with the Bantu or work on white farms, the San chose freedom in the depths of the Kalahari. Unfortunately, cattle ranching, game fences and the four-wheel drive have put an end to their unique, unfettered way of life. Change has now overtaken the San and some have been overwhelmed by the temptations of modern consumerism and alcohol. They are well aware of some of the commodities that could make life easier. But with each acquisition they become a little less free, without understanding that by gaining something material they are actually losing something far more precious.
The change in their way of life is most obvious in the alterations in their dwellings. They now have simulated the Bantu way of building and are separated from each other by the construction of small huts with doors on them. There are fences between the homes. Previously, the San would sleep together on the earth, next to the fire. As they acquire more possessions, they develop fear about who might dispossess them. San healers who trance danced in an altruistic, holistic fashion for the sake of the clan now charge for services rendered.
There is nothing special about the San psyche. They are the same as we are in the West and, if anything, more prone to the temptations of materialism. What is unique is their habitat and their connection with the earth and cosmos and this birthright has being taken away from them. Moreover, the San have tasted the fruit of our consumer society and have been seduced by its power. The attraction of "things" has overwhelmed them, and the ego sense of the San has changed. The social structure that kept everybody humble and egalitarian with little emphasis on ego has fallen away. And with this depletion, their spiritual life continues to deteriorate. Nevertheless, there are small groups of San who continue their ancient healing traditions and some San have learned to live in two worlds, reconnecting with the wilderness as the need arises.
As Westerners we can use the San model to reconnect with that primeval hunter-gatherer part of ourselves which resides deep in our psyche and was operative and functional for eons. By doing so, and by keeping as little between us and nature as possible we can tap into a different spiritual dimension in wilderness. We can learn from their egalitarianism and humility since Eastern philosophy teaches that ego is the greatest obstacle in reaching our inner being. The spirit dance of the San is a powerful way of harmonizing the group, connecting with the ancestral spirits and the Great Spirit, as well as healing sick members of the clan. The San believe that sickness or imbalance resides in all of us but only becomes illness or disease in some. It is only with regular rebalancing with the use of the healing dance that health can best be retained or restored in the group. At a more basic level, it is when we reconnect with that hunter-gatherer part of ourselves or any deep spiritual practice that we can understand what this balance is.