Who would have thought that the longest “serving” hunter-gatherers on our planet, the San people of southern Africa, more commonly referred to as Bushmen, would have some important reminders for the rest of us. But a Christmas book I just finished, intriguingly entitled Affluence without Abundance: The disappearing world of the Bushmen by James Suzman, suggests just that. It appears that modern mankind’s move from hunter-gatherer societies to stay-in-one-place agrarian societies brought us far more stress, far longer and harder working days, and far more inequality. I don’t think many people would want to exchange their modern life for that of a hunter-gatherer, but where did we go so far wrong, and why?
I was fortunate enough to have traveled through Bushman territory in 1970, driving through the Karoo Desert in northwestern South Africa on the way to Oranjemund, just across the border in what is now Namibia. The landscape was flat, dry, and rough, with extremely sparse vegetation. The only animals we saw were a few very scruffy looking ostriches, along with a magnificent, healthy-looking gemsbok. Traffic was more or less non-existent for hundreds of miles. There was nothing enticing about the landscape. We passed a few San “settlements”, collections of very low-to-the-ground shelters made out of sticks and grasses. They were built low so as to provide little resistance to the winds. And they were not built to last because, as seasonally relocating hunter-gatherers, they moved from location to location depending on the cycle of the rainy season, following the animal migrations. They would build and rebuild as needed.
This was a few decades before government actions in Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana took over what had been the land used by the San people for at least 70,000 and perhaps more than 100,000 years to use for pasture land for Bantu peoples and, of course, white farmers and for nature preserves. We didn’t know it then, but we were observing, just in passing of course, the end of as much as 100,000 years of human history. These days, the San people throughout the region have been dispossessed, resettled to small parcels of land, and are now encountering all the social challenges and ills that have befallen so many of the world’s indigenous peoples as they have been “colonized”. That’s a story for another day, and, sadly, one that is exceedingly heartbreaking and has no simple solutions.
But despite the fact that there is nothing compelling to the naked eye (and “modern” mind) about the lives and environment of the Bushmen, this book brings to life the day-to-day lives of the traditional Bushman and their social structure that allowed them to adapt and survive as hunter-gatherers for many, many millennia longer than any other group of human beings on earth. Definitely some food for thought.
First of all, unlike with northern indigenous populations, where for part of the year there is little expectation of finding anything to hunt or gather and therefore planning ahead for acquiring, preserving, and storing food for the winter is essential, indigenous people in warm climates could adopt a routine that could work all year round. No planning ahead was ever necessary. No consideration of preserving or storage was necessary. Sure, there would have been times during prolonged periods of drought when plants didn’t grow and animals died from starvation and dehydration, but if there were dying animals by dried out water holes, all the easier to kill them and feast. And there are some pretty amazing plants that themselves survive by storing water, which worked quite well for the Bushmen. So, although undoubtedly Bushmen lost loved ones to starvation in times of severe drought, their adaptation to their environment, where different kinds of plants and roots provided different kinds of sustenance at different times of the year, allowed them to survive pretty darn well.
Lessons the Bushmen can teach us
1. We should concentrate on working hard enough for what we really need, not so much for what we think we need (which is often more of a want than a need).
Importantly, the average amount of time the Bushmen spent hunting, gathering and preparing their kills (skinning, butchering, etc.) was less than 20 hours a week. The bottom line is that for a subsistence existence in an accommodating environment, people only needed to work half or less the amount of time we’ve been working since we started farming. And although most (all?) of us would not be content with the lifestyle and lack of material goods of the Bushmen, just prior to dispossession and resettlement in the early 1990s, they strongly felt they had all they needed.
All they needed. Affluence without abundance. There’s the rub. I think it’s pretty clear that none of us think that’s all we’d need, but on the other hand, how many of us have moved on way past what we need to whether we have everything we want. Everything we need versus everything we want. It so happens that the “western” world has the capacity for its entire population to have everything it needs and a lot of what it wants. But those western-world needs and wants take up nearly all of the world’s resources, leaving precious little for the rest of the world as it tries to catch up. Catching up is impossible. This reality does not make for a stable world in the near future, even if man-made climate change and frighteningly self-serving world leaders weren’t already heading us in that direction.
2. Society functions better when there is more equality among its citizens, not less.
The overriding social convention of Bushman society was to remain egalitarian. They lived successfully with challenging environmental conditions in social groups that interacted positively with other groups over a period of 70-100,000 years. They understood that their societies would only be successful by being egalitarian. Fully egalitarian. Everyone, male and female, had a contributing role to pay. Kids played. When the food was gathered, everyone played.
They understood the threat of jealously and similar human emotions that endanger this creed. Accordingly, they developed customs to ensure that nobody thought that they were better than everyone else. The best hunter, who of course was expected to share his bounty as did every hunter, was not praised for his skill or success. Instead he was teased and demeaned as a way of reminding him that he was no better than anyone else; he was part of the group. Interestingly, when it is in people’s best interests to level the playing field, they do so. This approach is typical in a hunter-gatherer society; they need each other and they know it. Apparently they knew it as far back as at least 70,000 years ago.
What changed? Agriculture.
Depending on what source you read, humans began moving to an agrarian way of life sometime between 23,000 and 10,000 years ago. This included the planned cultivation of grains (wheat, lentils, peas, chick peas, flax, etc.) and domestication of animals. It’s hard to imagine how this change can be seen as anything but a positive step forward. And I don’t think anyone would dispute this. However, this book points out some of the unintended consequences of the change from hunter-gatherer to an agriculture-based society that have played an abiding role in the weaknesses in our current societies along with the strengths. You can decide which ones you think were to our huge advantage and which ones maybe not so much so.
- People did not have to move with the seasons and animal migrations. Towns and then cities eventually came into existence, along with architecture.
- People went from believing that they were a part of nature and living their lives accordingly to trying to control nature, believing that they were superior to nature as opposed to a part of it.
- People started working far harder. They had to plan their plantings, cultivating, harvesting, and preserving in advance. They had to worry about weather and pests destroying their crops, because now they were dependent on a few crops of their own as opposed to virtually tens or hundreds in nature.
- Populations were decimated by epidemics, spread from their close proximity to diseases borne by their domesticated animals, their close proximity to each other, and lack of hygiene in a large and close population.
- Families started having far more children than previously because they needed as many hands working in the fields as possible.
- Men came to realize that with this new model of living, they had an advantage over the women. Their strength was as advantage for much of the work in farming, and the women were also kept more isolated at home with the increase in the number of children. This mindset is taking a long time to dissipate in some sectors of the population. The seeds of patriarchy sown by the Neolithic Revolution have been carefully tended for a long time!
- People had to become far more resourceful and innovative to solve a myriad of new problems and challenges that presented themselves. And we have continued in that vein ever since.
- People came to realize that if they had more than they needed they could trade for other commodities. The more surpluses you had, which could be translated into debt and wealth, the more power you had. Power became a “thing”. Control. The haves and the have-nots. So much for egalitarianism.
As I said earlier, no-one wants to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, not even young Bushmen living in shameful conditions in contained settlements, having poorer nutrition than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. But the lessons we can learn from their millennia-sustaining philosophy on living are worth consideration. Our current way of life is not sustainable, especially if many other people try to join the party. We are simply using far too much of the planet’s resources for our current needs. And this does not even include the reality of climate change and how there will be less for all of us.
Surely we can give some thought to sticking closer to satisfying our needs rather than our wants. And surely we can speak up about the inexcusable rise in inequality around the world, including in the western world, where the United States leads the pack.
Thanks to the San people of southern Africa for giving us much food for thought. And thanks to author and anthropologist James Suzman for sharing his long-time experiences with the San.