Disclaimer: A majority of this information and opinions have been taken from Ian’s talk on the bushmen at Matobo National Park. He said he’s worked with and studied the community for about 40 years. I recorded his talk and transcribed it for use in this blog post. I have not checked facts and statements online due to limited time and internet connectivity.
The San people, or bushmen as they are referred to, are one of the last known true hunter-gatherer societies left today. Only a few of these Stone Age nomadic people are still living today as they did 50,000 years ago.
About 5,000 (Ian would say 3,000) are living within southern Africa. Namibia has the largest population at 2,500.
These little guys are not African in the traditional sense that we know. They average 4’6” in height and have light Asian Arabic colored skin, high cheekbones, oriental eyes, spare tight peppercorn hair, and fat storage in their buttocks. All male bushmen have a semi-erect penis. All female bushmen have a flap of skin covering their vagina. The reason for this unique evolution is thought to be related to better hygiene in a society where nothing, including using water for bathing, is wasted. Ian noted that the people only bathe twice: once at birth and once at death. These people are the only members of the human race to have adapted physically to their lifestyle, which makes them biologically unique.
This group has been the subject of many anthropology studies. We were lucky enough to visit a traditional village to meet them and get just a small glimpse into their lifestyle.
This day was a particularly special moment for me, because I had studied a group of hunter-gatherers from this area during my senior year at Purdue for a cultural anthropology class. I rifled through my old files and found my final essay for the course.
The tribe I studied seven years ago is the same I was able to meet at the Ju/’hoansi Living Museum.
A note on tourism
After our visit to the community, Ben talked to us about that uncomfortable feeling of visiting communities like this.
I felt it when I walked into the community with my camera, unsure if it would be okay to be taking photos. I feel like an intruder, treating them like they were animals in a zoo. My mere presence felt like a disturbance, lowering the overall authenticity of their lifestyle and commodifying their existence.
I think it’s a good sign to feel uncomfortable. It signals an internal sense of respect for the community. Throughout our entire visit, the community engaged with us, smiling and inviting us to interact with them. Despite the language barrier, you could feel their welcoming nature. When you asked if you could take pictures, they emphatically nodded their permission and smiled for the camera.
Ben also made the point that tourism helps keep their culture alive. This was noticeable when we met up with our tour guide and translator, Pete. Western ideals have been encroaching into the daily lives of these people. The village had Western-style primary and secondary schools, villagers were transporting fresh water in trucks from town, many were wearing Western clothing. Even traditional dating styles have changed to mirror Western traditions. However, it was clear that they all still value their history.
Of course, then you ask is it all just a show for us tourists? It felt authentic to me. Pete’s grandfather-in-law led the bush walk, letting Pete translate for him. He spoke in his native language when sharing his knowledge. Pete told us that he had lived the nomadic lifestyle for most of his life, hunting and living off the land.
We learned so much on the walk including the uses of specific trees for medicine, jewelry, food and how they hunt and track animals.
I think the biggest impression the grandfather left was his positivity. His glowing smile and willingness to share his knowledge was evident in every word he shared with us. We often heard “ah-hey” come from his lips. Someone asked for a translation, and Pete told us the closest thing he could translate it to was as an expression of happiness.
It aligned perfectly with what Ian had prepared us for in our talk on the bushmen in the caves back in Matobo National Park. Pete’s grandfather-in-law was a physical presence that helped me take a step back from the world and re-evaluate myself and my values.
But enough of my experiences. Let me introduce the history that Ian shared with us, so you can understand how truly special these people are.
One of the last hunter/gatherer societies
The bushmen live with the belief that everything belongs to everyone and nobody will take more from the bush than he needs to survive. Staying in one place for too long starts to affect the environment, so they are a nomadic people. However, they left behind artwork, like the caves I saw in Matobo National Park.
As an example, when a bushman hunts, he will never kill an animal bigger than his family could eat in one sitting. The meal takes place over a day and a half before the meat rots. After a kill, the family sits down and gorges themselves. They fall asleep, wake up, and continue to eat until the food is gone.
There are records of bushmen eating up to 20kg of meat in about 36 hours. Thinking back to their stature, that’s about half of their body weight in food.
Researchers have found their stomaches, digestion, and metabolic systems have adapted. All of their excess food is turned straight into fat stored in their buttocks. Within a few days, their buttocks literally expands to the point where after one meal, you could balance a tea tray on it.
That being said, these gorges only happen every couple of weeks. A bushman wouldn’t kill big animals on a regular basis, but instead survive off of his fat stores, small game, and fruit.
Similarly, he would never take more from the tree than he could eat and finish in one day. The bushman’s belief is that he could be dead or forced to move and whatever he stored would go to waste. Instead, each day, he would collect just enough for that day.
In winter months, most trees run out of fruits. Perhaps a bushman will find four or five berries. The bushman will not take more than half of what’s there. He believes there could still be another bird, animal, or human that could need that. If he takes everything, something could suffer or die because of him.
This is the single biggest belief guiding their actions. How does whatever they do as a race affect everything else around them? The problem with this belief is it is exactly what’s killed them.
Enter the invaders
The bushmen have been in southern Africa for thousands of years. African tribes invaded the land home to the bushmen 600-1,000 years ago. Europeans came after. With them, they brought concepts of wealth, possessions, and land. These are ideas bushmen did not understand.
Consider a family of bushmen overlooking a valley and seeing a cow standing in a field. They sneak down the hill and kill that cow. The child looking after his dad’s animal comes running home and says, “Dad, this ugly little brown fella has come out of the bush.” The owner comes out to see the bushman and his family around a fire getting ready to eat. He’s comes to them and says, “What on earth do you think you’re doing? It’s mine.” Of course, not in such polite English.
Now comes the language barrier. A fight would take place and the bushman and his family would be killed. The bushmen are confused, wondering what they have done. In their mind, they were just trying to survive and doing what they’ve been doing for thousands of years.
That’s the problem. Rather than trying to stand up for themselves, these people have been pushed further and further back, now to the Kalahari Desert. The only reason they are there is because the edge of the desert is the last place anyone else wants to live.
Enter an American researcher with good intentions
In 1997, a young American girl completed a survey in Kalahari National Park in Botswana where 2,000 bushmen were living. She found that the bushmen were living to about 36 years of age with two children. She made a recommendation based on her research via the US government: relocate them, because central Kalahari was unsuitable for human population. She felt that given better land, they’d grow older, have bigger families, and be better off.
The theory is reasonable. The practical problem was that to be given better land, they had to integrate into modern society, which is exactly what these people have run from. A number of NGOs, along with Germany, banded together to stop the movement.
April of 1998, Botswana gave the go ahead to relocate them. By the end of that year, 1,000 bushmen had died. October of 1999, less than 200 of the original people were left. By May 2000, they were gone. In two years, we killed nearly half of the existing population of people.
A month after relocation came into effect, there was a news report in the Botswanan radio that the now uninhabited land was a massive diamond field. Ian believes the whole thing was a setup. He doesn’t blame the American researcher. To him, she was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Further, up until 1956, there was a bounty on bushmen in South Africa. Sixty years ago, anywhere south of the Zambezi river, people were paid to kill the bushmen.
Bushmen are not treated as humans. They are seen as this animal-type man there to be destroyed. In Ian’s opinion, they are more civilized than any other member of the human race he knows.
Revisiting the meaning of ‘civilized’
They live by the simplest of rules. There is no concept of a lie. There’s nothing anyone could lie about.
There’s no hierarchy. Everybody is an equal. A child of eight could get up at the camp and have a say about something. If the idea is good, it’s acted upon.
Elders of the tribe are respected for their knowledge, but have no status.
They don’t have possessions. Whatever they have is shared, no matter how much or how little there is.
If a man ends up in the middle of the desert dying from dehydration, the bushman would rather give him half the water he has in the hope they both will make it to the next watering hole or both die trying.
What civilized race behaves like this? It is exactly who and what they are. Civilized is becoming the questionable reality.
For thousands of years, their lifestyle worked. There’s no respect for the records these people have left, let alone the people who made them.
With many tribes and cultures claiming back land rights around the world, here’s the one race sitting back and saying, “Show us what you don’t want and leave us alone.” However, we won’t even allow that to happen, because we’re the civilized ones. We know better.
Full circle via the Human Genome Project
The Human Genome Project was started by Hitler to prove the Aryan people as ultimate beings. It was picked up in the 1980s by the United States with the mapping program. Completed in 2010, homo sapien was pinpointed down to one gene named the Adam gene. No matter what race, black, white, Asian, Arabic, that gene is always our baseline.
If you get a DNA test, you send in a smear of your cheek cells. They will then break down your DNA all the way to the base point.
If you take bushmen DNA, it is the Adam gene. As modern man, no matter what race, here’s our origin as an entire modern species of homo sapien.
There’s less than 5,000 of them left. Knowing all of this, we should be trying to protect them.
I want to leave you this with this summary from the Southern Africa Lonely Planet guidebook:
“For some people, witnessing the stark reality of the modern Ju/hoansi San lifestyle is a sobering experience fraught with disappointments. Hunting is forbidden throughout the region, and most communities have largely abandoned foraging in favor of cheap, high-calorie foods such as pap (corn meal) and rice, which are purchased in bulk from shops. Try to look beyond the dire realities of the San’s economic situation, and attempt to use the experience as a rare chance to interact with the modern-day descendants of perhaps all of our ancestors.”
If you ever have the opportunity, go and learn from these people. See what’s happening for yourself.