Emmanuelle Olivier, Manuel Valentin, eds. Les Bushmen dans l'Histoire. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2005. 262 pp. EUR 29.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-2-271-06296-3.
Reviewed by Andrew Brown Smith
Published on H-SAfrica (July, 2006)
Bushmen in History
This interdisciplinary volume on the history of the Bushmen, and the Bushmen in history, comes from the interests of a small group of southern African specialists in France. The editors, Emmanuelle Olivier and Manuel Valentin, have brought together a wide-ranging set of contributors on various aspects of Bushman life.
The editors provide the introduction entitled "Du mythe à l'histoire" ("From Myth to History"), where they begin by situating Jamie Uys's film The Gods Must Be Crazy as symbolic of how the Bushmen are seen in the wider world. The French title of the film Les dieux sont tombés sur la tête comes from one of the central themes where a Coca-Cola bottle thrown from a plane lands among a group of Bushmen. Since it is potentially divisive (being one-of-a-kind) within an egalitarian society, it needs to be returned to its proper place, and so the tale unfolds of the adventures of the Coke bottle.
The caricatures, stereotypes and slapstick comedy in the film are nonetheless situated within a real world of the 1980s: the Bushmen as trackers on the side of the South African Defence Force (SADF) against the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) "freedom fighters." The ethnographic film-maker, John Marshall, in his film '!Nai', showed footage of Uys making 'The Gods Must be Crazy', and how the Bushman actors had to be re-programmed to perform in a different way to that which they would have done naturally. John Marshall's films document the course of changes, and the involvement of the Bushmen in events which are beyond their control, but are formative in where they are today. The book under review pinpoints the poignancy of their exploitation succinctly when the editors say about the hero of Uys's film: "il était une fois un Bushman ingénu et ingénieux confronté à la modernité du monde occidental" ("He is at the same time an artless Bushmen cleverly confronting the modernity of the Western world") (p.12).
But the Bushmen have always been caught up in a world that tries to speak for them, and the different sides have resulted in important decisions that have affected large groups inexorably. That outsiders have always taken up the "Bushman cause" is in part due to them seldom (until very recently, but only in Namibia) having any voice in the corridors of power of the central state. This marginalization may stem from a basic social formation where there are no chiefs or people who are allowed to be spokespersons on behalf of the group.
There is an interesting figure in the introduction showing a relationship tree of Khoisan languages, suggesting that they are all ultimately connected. I believe that linguists might dispute the relationship. Khoe specialists are now suggesting a more or less direct link between Sandawe and Khoe, with Kwadi part of the connection. The DNA connections are only now being analyzed, so we await the possibility of seeing how closely language and genes track each other.
The next chapter, by François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar, is on the longue durée of Bushman history or, as Eric Wolf said, people said to be without history. The chapter ranges widely from prehistoric origins up to the twentieth century, and deals with the relationship with other groups in the more recent past. In particular, it deals with the idea of Richard Elphick that hunters and herders were part of a cyclical fortune, where a person with stock would be a herder, but could fall back to being a hunter if the stock was lost; thus there an easy moving back and forth between the two economies. This idea has been taken up by Karim Sadr as an illustration of how easy it must have been for hunters to become independent herders once stock was introduced to the Cape, and to suggest that the earliest herders were not immigrant Khoe. The opposing, and more conventional "immigrant model," as argued by Andrew Smith, has no problem with an early Khoe introduction of sheep to the Cape, and argues that the transition from the hunting mode of production to that with an economy of herding is an ideological jump that could only occur in a long apprenticeship with a donor society.
Alan Barnard has written the next chapter on the changing view of the Bushmen within the Occidental gaze, and what it means to be a Bushman today. Often this means pandering to their "Bushman-ness," as this is perceived by both the Bushmen and outsiders as the only thing they have to sell. In the case of Kagga Kamma the Bushmen are imported from the Kalahari to put on a show for tourists, and when the visitors have gone, they take off their skins and put on Western clothes. Barnard describes the Great Kalahari Debate, and how this might have revised the image of the Bushmen by seeing them as an underclass resulting from colonial pressures. Barnard concludes that the image of the "primitive" is not unique to the Bushmen, but there is a new way of thinking in the West that gives primacy to the Bushmen having an equal place within history, and in the present. Barnard hopes that the Western image of the Bushmen might go beyond the spiritual, artistic or musical, and that they might still be allowed an identity within their ancestral lands.
Material culture is the subject of Manuel Valentin's chapter, which shows how this is adapting from hunting equipment to making items to sell to tourists. The items include the elaborate beadwork that is prized among the women today. The chapter is sensitive to the changing world of the Bushmen and their adaptive needs, showing how sedenterization has impacted material culture, bringing cloth, plastic, glass beads, etc. into their repertoire.
The only archaeological chapter is the one by David Lewis-Williams dealing with southern African rock art and San religion, which stresses the centrality of the healing dance and trance symbolism in the art. There is nothing new here that Lewis-Williams has not been saying for the past twenty years, which is perhaps unfortunate, since there have been other voices to suggest that not all the art may be trance related.
The healing dance today is a theme taken up by the chapter by Thomas Widlock, who stresses how flexible these dances are in the modern context. He also discusses dances among different Khoisan groups, and how the variability within the culture of communication has been vital for the survival of their societies, by being inclusive of all members of the group. Egalitarianism is stressed, when the modern world intrudes and when Bushmen have a chance to travel abroad as representatives.
Megan Biesele is the only author in the book who can be said to have been part of the original Harvard Research Group so reviled by the revisionists in the Kalahari Debate. Inevitably, her focus is the literature of the Ju/'hoansi of Northern Namibia/Botswana where she has worked. This oral tradition is multi-faceted, and each person can have his/her own style of narration. She goes on to discuss how the literature fits into healing and traditional values, especially trancing.
The chapter, by Emmanuelle Olivier, on the musical tradition of the Ju/'hoansi follows. This includes a detailed description of how the music is organized, the intricacy of which is not easily understood by a non-specialist casually reading the chapter. Perhaps of greater interest to the wider audience might be the section on the role of music within the society.
In the final chapter, the editors look at some of the stereotypes that continue to exist around "Bushmanité," and use the example of the Kagga Kamma Bushmen mentioned above. They also look at the recent debate among NGOs about pressure being put on a recalcitrant Botswana government that has evicted all the hunters from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, probably to prevent any aboriginal claims to diamond concessions that have been awarded to de Beers and BHP Billiton within the reserve's confines. The Working Group on Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) takes a moderate, more measured view, so as not to alienate the Botswana government from discussion, while Survival International takes a more confrontational stance, and has recruited high profile people internationally to boycott the diamond industry.
While the editors are to be commended for putting together a wide-ranging volume on the Bushmen for a francophone audience, the book Les Bushmen dans l'Histoire gives all too little space to the archaeology of hunters in southern Africa (pp. 47-50), and this by an historian. Nor does it address the more recent archaeology and ethnohistory which gives strong support to the thesis that Ju/'hoansi groups were indeed independent, despite being in contact with outside world. In essence many decades of archaeological research into hunting societies of South Africa is ignored. This lacunae could have been filled by having an archaeologist contribute a chapter. The result is that the book has a very strong Kalahari focus, which will give the wrong impression to a French audience that this is the only locale where the Bushmen always lived. Equally, the brief outline by Fauvelle-Aymar (p. 61) about the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fails to tell the tale of resistance to colonial expansion and hegemony by the Bushmen of the interior of the Cape, which is well documented by Nigel Penn.
. Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
. Richard Elphick, Kraal and Castle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), pp. 30-41.
. Karim Sadr, "The Neolithic of Southern Africa," Journal of African History 44 (2003): pp. 195-209.
. Andrew B. Smith, African Herders: Emergence of Pastoral Traditions(Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2005), pp. 164-185; and Excavations at Kasteelberg, and the Origins of the Khoekhoen in the Western Cape, South Africa (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, forthcoming).
. Anne C. Solomon, "The Myth of Ritual Origins? Ethnography,Mythology and Interpretation of San Rock Art," South African Archaeological Bulletin 52 (1997), pp. 3-13; and John E. Parkington,The Mantis, the Eland and the Hunter (Cape Town: Krakadow Trust,2002).
. In some ways this is surprising, since the last two publications (listed here) are included in the bibliography. John E. Yellen and Alison S. Brooks, "The Late Stone Age Archaeology of the !Kangwa and /Xai /Xai Valleys, Ngamiland," Botswana Notes and Records 20 (1989), pp. 5-27; Andrew B. Smith and Richard B. Lee, "Cho/ana: Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Evidence for Recent Hunter-Gatherer/Agropastoralist Contact in Northern Bushmanland, Namibia," South African Archaeological Bulletin 52 (1997), pp. 52-58; and Richard B. Lee, "Solitude or Servitude? Ju/'hoansi Images of the Colonial Encounter," in Ethnicity, Hunter-Gatherers and the "Other": Association or Assimilation in Africa, ed. Susan Kent (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), pp. 184-205.
. Nigel Penn, The Forgotten Frontier(Cape Town: Double Storey Books, 2005).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-safrica.
Andrew Brown Smith. Review of Olivier, Emmanuelle; Valentin, Manuel, eds., Les Bushmen dans l'Histoire.
H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.