Hunting and Gathering in the Kalahari
Updated: Feb 24
One by one our ragged band piled out of the 4x4’s onto the baking hot sand of the Kalahari. Before us stood a circle of grass huts and khaki safari tents, a fire burning in the centre, a thorn corral to keep out curious lions and hyenas. Men and women were sitting in small groups chatting and children were playing, and as we filtered into the camp they all came over to greet us with broad smiles and half an hour of lively name swapping and handshaking ensued.
This group of Ju/Hoansi Bushmen wasn’t one of the modern settled villages that have superseded the original nomadic way of life of the Kalahari people. In the old times bands would move around following the food and water sources, setting up their camps in just a few days, staying for a while and then moving on. Typical hunter-gatherer band sizes ranged from twenty to fifty people. Altogether we were fifty five including sixteen children and several elders, so you could say we were two bands coming together to create one large band. Yet neither of our two bands were pre-existing tribes or extended families: both had come together independently through a shared interest in the Old Way.
Our own group met for the first time in April to learn ways of living off the land in Britain, foraging, fishing, hunting and crafting over four weeklong gatherings in different parts of Devon. In that time we had formed the beginnings of a tribe and felt ready to make the journey together to Namibia with a good foundation of hunter-gatherer skills under our belt.
The Ju/Hoansi people we were now meeting had come together from all corners of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, an area of Namibia designated to bushmen peoples. They had travelled to this wild spot because they were passionate about the arts of tracking and bowhunting and had been brought together by the vision of Louis Liebenberg, author of The Art of Tracking: the Origin of Science and the brains behind Cybertracker.
The San Tracker Project
Louis has been surveying Southern Africa to find out just how many master trackers and bowhunters are still alive; he considers that human consciousness is where it is precisely because of our reliance on tracking for survival. Now that survival is possible without tracking (thanks to farming and the cash economy) not many people bother to learn the old ways and they are dying out with the few elders who remember. It would be a sad state of affairs if human beings no longer knew about the very things that have made them human.
So Louis hopes to re-incentivise people to hone these arts and to pass them on to the younger generation. Cybertracker incorporates an evaluation system that can gauge trackers’ skill level and identify people as master trackers. Two of the men who greeted us that day were already certified master trackers and during our stay five elders (three women and two men) were honoured.
So this gathering of the two neo-tribes had several purposes: to recognise the master trackers and let them utilise their skills to earn a living; to cross- pollinate different ideas from around the Nyae Nyae and build a support network; to inspire the children and mentor them in hunting and gathering; to show Westerners an alternative way of life that has worked for millennia.
It is that way of life that I want to look at now. Why has it remained unchanged for millennia? It has been sustainable for over 100,000 years because it satisfies our human needs without drawing too heavy a toll on the environment (assuming enough land is available). Clearly people haven’t felt the need to change things because things worked well. Is it also because they experienced a feeling of “affluence”? (The “Original Affluent Society” was a term coined by Marshall Sahlins in the 1960’s that contested the previously held assumption that hunter-gatherer life was one of deprivation. Drawing on anthropological work in Arnhem Land and the Kalahari he argued that hunter-gatherers in fact work much shorter weeks and enjoy more leisure time with family and friends.)
Part of my motivation to re-learn the old way and bring it into my life in the modern world comes from a desire for simplicity. The colonialists and farm owners who drafted bushmen workers into their ranches often called them lazy, but I wouldn’t call it laziness; I’d call it going with the flow of life. This is only possible if you know the ecology of a place intimately, inheriting a knowledge that has built up generation after generation, and your skills are so honed to that environment that there is an ease and efficiency about everything you do.
A Hunter-Gatherer Day
Days in the Kalahari in October begin and end in twilit paradise: that’s when everything happens. Between eleven and five o’clock it’s just too hot to do much at all; for us unacclimatised folk it’s hard enough just to string two thoughts together, let alone do anything productive.
Hunters go out at dawn, they walk in the cooler hours, occasionally they will shoot an animal with their poisoned arrows. The animal, depending on its size, will take a number of hours to collapse, so the hunters hang out in the shade of a tree chatting in their quiet murmurs and clicks or sleeping until it’s time to track and prepare the animal to bring back to camp. The trailing work is intense, but it is so inbuilt into the human psyche and the promise of meat so good that the work feels right in the body.
Others go out gathering roots and leaves, there is so much to notice. Have there been leopards or hyenas close to camp? What antelope are around, are they still close? Maybe some of the teenagers could dig out a porcupine if the hunters have no luck as there seems to be a lot of activity at one of the burrows. Is it time to dig for the larva the hunters use for poison? Are the mangetti nuts nearly ready? All the time there is a lot of chatter and laughter: the only bit that feels like hard graft is digging for roots and no doubt carrying them home if you’ve harvested a lot of them.
Maybe a hut needs to be built; now that is hard work... It involves finding materials and bringing them back, working together to make something functional. There’s a sense of playfulness and the work is done quickly and efficiently, the women’s skill and experience, again, make it a pleasurable task, and it’s unbelievably satisfying, not to mention a cool retreat from the sun, when it’s finished.
In the intense heat of the day the camp is quiet, people are lying in their huts or talking quietly together. We often had siestas or chilled out in hammocks in a shady spot; some of us sat together playing the guitar or talking while we started preparing the veggies we had brought with us for dinner in a slow, relaxed way. Nothing can be done fast in that heat.
If the hunters return with a kill it is skilfully skinned and gutted: there is no waste.
After it has been butchered, children take small steaks and cook them in the ashes while women prepare a stew. It’s a real treat to have meat, and this is where affluence becomes apparent. It is true that four people out working all day in a city could easily earn enough to buy the same amount of meat, but it depends on your choice of life-way: I’d rather be walking, sensing, stalking, trailing and spending time with my friends in the shade of a tree than doing many of the jobs on offer in our culture. It’s a different kind of richness.
By the time it has cooled down, dinner is almost ready and a convivial atmosphere is rising, children and adults alike are playing games or having archery competitions.
We all eat together in a big circle made up of small huddles of enthusiastic conversation, as the days go by our two groups become more and more integrated thanks to the layout of the camp and the food sharing. The food gives way to informal singing and storytelling from whoever wants to offer something; there’s a party every night.
While I acknowledge that the camp was a construction rather than a totally genuine hunter-gatherer life-way, and thus the atmosphere of conviviality and leisure may have been heightened due to its temporary nature, I feel we can safely say there was definite sense of wellbeing, lightness and timelessness. A spaciousness which could be called affluence.
So the question I’m left with is, “How can I bring that sense of affluence in time into my own life?”
One way is to partake fully in the procurement of my own food and to see that as an integrated path to health and wellbeing. For example, an afternoon out in the woods gathering chestnuts not only brings in calorific nutrition, it also moves my body in primal ways keeping me supple and fit - no need to go to the gym! I’d usually go gathering with a friend or two so I’d be meeting my need for connection with others. Thus “work” becomes leisure.
There is an abundance of wild food available to us if we learn the skills to harvest respectfully and efficiently. With practice we may be able to replace some of our weekly shopping budget with wild food.
The obvious piece that was missing from the hunter-gatherer life-way we experienced was distraction. Distraction in the form of technology (though I’m not saying there was none, mobile phones have crept in and coverage is just about adequate even in the wilderness of the Kalahari), but there are no laptops or TV’s to pull us in with things we need to do or see, that separate us from each other and the rest of nature. There is no to-do list or work agenda outside of what we are doing right then and there, we had all put our work lives on hold to be there, I imagine the trackers and their families don’t have complicated admin to do for work outside of tracking and day to day living. If you can't communicate with people who aren’t there, you can be fully present for the people that are and life becomes infinitely simpler, you drop in to a rich reciprocity with the place and you can fully focus on enjoying life.
The Ju/Hoansi have so few possessions, having honed their needs for a nomadic lifestyle; similarly we had packed our lives into a rucksack so we weren’t weighed down with the pressures of running a house and a life full of material stuff (although we did have to change a few tyres!). Without the need for so much stuff we could potentially spend less time working.
So it seems there are two modes of being affluent: in the post-modern world we work long weeks to buy luxury foods and enjoy technology, entertainment and creature comforts. Hunter-gatherers “work” could be deemed leisurely and yields adequate but simple food and shelter where entertainment is derived from connecting directly with others. For us, there’s a choice; for the Ju/Hoansi there hasn’t been, although the new cash economy they are part of is creating some choice for them and the people we met are striking a healthy balance that retains their old way as they join the current global life-way. Can we reclaim our old way and strike our own balance? Not many of us could give up our jobs or houses or cars - or could we?
Photo credit: Lily Bognuda
Liebenburg 2012, The Art of Tracking, Origin of Science
Marshall Thomas 2006, The Old Way, A Story of the First People
Sahlins 2005, The Original Affluent Society
www.theoldway.info for more information about the San Tracker Project or The Old Way Yearcourse.