Studying the Human Mystery

Thus, the lifestyle of the Bushmen who have lived in balance with the demands of the desert grasslands of the Kalahari for at least 30,000 years may provide invaluable clues to human origins and our original huntergatherer lifestyle. The traditional Bushmen were renowned for an intimate knowledge of the desert that enabled them to make use of every plant and animal. They made an array of effective medicines from plants, often taking advantage of the chemicals plants produce to protect themselves from insects, fungi, and bacteria. They also learned to make a variety of poisons, which enabled them to successfully hunt even elephants using bows and spears. They apparently mastered the same skills as the Ice Age big game hunters that may have played a role in the extinction of creatures like mammoths, giant ground sloths, and other mega-fauna in places like Europe, North America, and even Australia.

The Bushmen were famed for their legendary endurance, since they could go long periods without water and run at a steady jog for days at a time. This lean, relentless conditioning and long-range endurance enabled them to undertake long-ranging hunts. If they wounded an antelope with a poisoned arrow, they could run for hours and many miles along the track of the wounded animal, waiting for the slow-acting poison to bring the creature down. Moreover, the traditional Bushmen displayed amazing powers of tracking and observation. They could read the tracks from a broken twig or a faint indentation. They could use the traces and tracks of the animals they hunted to figure out what they were eating, where they were going, and their age. They often could anticipate storms and shifts in the weather, locate water from the faintest traces, insightfully interpret animal behavior, and thrive in places that would prompt most other people to wander in desperate, dehydrated circles.

Generally, they lived a restless, nomadic lifestyle, taking advantage of their simple technology and mere tracery of possessions to move easily over great distances to follow the migrations of animals and the temporary flowering of resources in one area or another. They developed certain claimed areas, but often moved in and out of those areas with the seasonal resources. Some groups lived for generations in caves in Drakensberg and elsewhere. In that area, clans also inherited rights to tend to and harvest honey nests and certain territories where they could dig for grubs, the larva of certain insects that hollow out and live in roots of various trees.

The Bushmen also made effective use of desert termites, who make up for the lack of wood and moist topsoil by using mud and secretions to build cementlike, raised mounds that sometimes stand five or six feet tall. Biologists calculate that if you combined all the termites in the world, they'd outweigh the human beings. Certainly, the termites play a crucial role in breaking down wood fiber and recycling their nutrients into the soil. Safe in humid, brilliantly constructed, and ventilated aboveground nests, the termite mounds sometimes create bizarre, alien landscapes. The Bushmen learned how to harvest termites and their nutrient-rich grubs, which they fry up like popcorn or pound into tasty snacks, without destroying the termite mound. As a result, the rights to certain mounds are passed along in a single family or clan and jealously protected from outsiders.

The Bushmen lived in loose family bands that combined and split apart as resources and personalities dictated. They had no police, no justice system, and a social system that gives each individual great freedom but essential obligations to their immediate and extended family. The harsh conditions sometimes enforced a hard morality on them, and it was not unusual for a woman with a nursing baby to be compelled to abandon a newborn in times of drought or famine.

Unfortunately, like many native peoples, the Bushmen are increasingly hard pressed to preserve even shreds of their traditional lifestyle. Isolated for thousands of years by the rigors of the desert to which they were so well adapted, they first came under pressure from outside groups when cattle-herding, Bantu-speaking Twsana, Kgalagadi, and Herero people arrived from the north and south in the 1800s. They generally pushed the Khoisan-speaking Bushmen into the more desertlike areas and claimed the seasonally watered grasslands for their livestock.

A small number of European settlers arrived a short time later, ultimately bringing additional wrenching changes to the Bushmen. Initially, the Europeans avoided the driest part of the desert. When the Boers crossed the Kalahari in 1878, 250 people and some 9,000 cattle died in the crossing. But they soon occupied the areas with grass and water. Generally the Bushmen living in the better-watered regions quickly succumbed to disease, absorption, and outright genocide. That left a dwindling number of Bushmen living in the deep desert. Many of the survivors took up cattle raising and assimilated into the developing modern culture. Today, only an estimated 5 percent of the Bushmen still live in the desert in a traditional way. A total of about 100,000 San Bushmen remain alive anywhere.