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.
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.