Tag Archives: Kalahari

Affluence Without Abundance

My father in law is an excellent amateur mixologist. I don’t drink alcohol very often, but we’re all up at the cabins, so last night I had a paper plane. And I believe this is what led to a night of strange and extensive dreams, and in my dreams was my recently deceased PhD adviser, Irv DeVore. (Irv was not dead in the dream.) DeVore is famous for having initiated, with Richard Lee, the first scientific study of extant living foragers, and they worked with the Ju/’Honasi of Botswana/Namibia/South Africa.

So, it was strange to have the lingering dream on my mind as I opened the latest Science magazine to see a review, by Alan Barnard, of a recent and interesting book on those people: Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen.

A vibrant portrait of the “original affluent society”–the Bushmen of southern Africa–by the anthropologist who has spent much of the last twenty-five years documenting their encounter with modernity.

If the success of a civilization is measured by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen of the Kalahari are by far the most successful in human history. A hunting and gathering people who made a good living by working only as much as needed to exist in harmony with their hostile desert environment, the Bushmen have lived in southern Africa since the evolution of our species nearly two hundred thousand years ago.

In Affluence Without Abundance, anthropologist James Suzman vividly brings to life a proud and private people, introducing unforgettable members of their tribe, and telling the story of the collision between the modern global economy and the oldest hunting and gathering society on earth. In rendering an intimate picture of a people coping with radical change, it asks profound questions about how we now think about matters such as work, wealth, equality, contentment, and even time. Not since Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People in 1959 has anyone provided a more intimate or insightful account of the Bushmen or of what we might learn about ourselves from our shared history as hunter-gatherers.

Barnard says:

The book is full of illuminating observations from the Bushmen themselves. In one passage, for example, Suzman relates an encounter with ?Oma, one of the resettlement community’s most established residents, who once served as a foreman when Skoonheid was still a working farm: “If you are foreman,” ?Oma tells Suzman, “then you are the eyes and the ears of the baas [boss] on the farm. You are the chief of the workers and are in charge when the baas is away.” Despite better pay and greater social standing among the white farm owners, ?Oma never entirely succeeded in securing the respect and deference he demanded from his fellow Ju/’hoansi. Today’s Bushmen are part of two worlds, one guided by the group’s traditional commitment to egalitarianism and the other based on subjugation.

In general, anthropological commentary is kept to a minimum, but Suzman’s descriptions are full of insight. “To them everything in the world is natural and everything cultural in the human world is also cultural in the animal world, and ‘wild’ space is also domestic space,” he writes, for example, in chapter 7. “So while Ju/’hoansi consider the litter to be an irritation, few see it as pollution—at least in the way the tourists do.”

Suzman’s frequent reflexivity (e.g., “I never hunted with /I!ae. I was too clumsy, loud, and slow.”) makes the book far more interesting than typical accounts full of statistical detail, academic references, and the like. The book offers few references, and details are limited to those that make for good reading. There are, however, several useful (albeit simple) maps of the areas described and a brief explanation of how to pronounce clicks.

The review is here, but I’m not sure if you can see it without a subscription.

No Way Home

When wildebeest, such as those famous for crossing the Mara River in Tanzania during their annual migration, run into a crocodile or some other danger it is often the first time they’ve seen that particular thing. This is because most wildebeest don’t live very long so many are on their very first migration. One wonders what would happen if you killed all of the wildebeest migrating in a particular year and set new ones out on the landscape to take their place. Would the migration continue?
Continue reading No Way Home

Africa. Some time in the early 1990s.

… Continued …

I started out walking a good six feet behind her, to avoid the sand she was kicking up and the occasional thorn-lined branch that might swing back in the wake of anyone walking through the African Bush. We were traversing open country in the Kalahari, in an area sealed off from people owing to the presence of unfriendly lions and other dangers. We were doing this in part because we both felt like we had been locked up for days and needed some freedom; We needed freedom from confinement, freedom from the people we were with, freedom from patronizing park employees, freedom of movement, freedom from the sound and smell of a diesel engine in a “safari vehicle,” and a taste of the freedom, which I can’t describe, you get when you walk through the wild bush in Africa knowing that you are being slightly annoying to the unfriendly lions and have the chance of almost anything happening and no way to stop it. Over every dune was a question, in every cluster of brush and camel-thorn tree was a mystery, in every patch of long grass a cobra or a rodent or a game bird or, at least, some kind of interesting spider or something.
Continue reading Africa. Some time in the early 1990s.

From Fit to Fat to Fit and Back: Exercise and Weight Loss

Did you ever watch cattle? I mean, really watch them, for a few hours? Mostly they just sit or stand around munching on grass, chewing their cud, or snoozing. But every once in a while a handful of them will stand up and point in one direction. And they may take a few steps in that direction. Then a few more will join them. And once a critical mass has been reached, the whole herd will just go. Domestic cattle, wild African cape buffalo, whatever. This is what they do.

And as the cattle do, so do Scienceblogs.com bloggers. And the current stampede about to form up is about fitness. I’m not sure where it started, but I first noticed it at ERV‘s blog, but Page 3.14 has also picked it up.

We’re not talking about Darwinian fitness, but rather, physical fitness.

So, because I’m as much a member of the herd as the next cow, I decided to join in and tell you my fitness story … or at least, a version of it. Part I is below the fold.
Continue reading From Fit to Fat to Fit and Back: Exercise and Weight Loss