Friday, August 28, 2009

194. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 13

Just about all Pygmy groups (until recently at least) are situated "geopolitically" in very similar ways, as forest dwellers who have for many years spent varying amounts of time in symbiotic association with farming people whose villages are typically based at the forest edge. The situation with Bushmen (or if you prefer, Basarwa, San, Khoisan, etc.) is much more complicated. The various so-called "Bushmen" groups are thought to have once dominated the entirety of southern Africa, surviving as hunter-gatherers (aka "foragers") and possibly also as herders, prior to the Bantu expansion. As a result of encroachments on their territory, first on the part of Bantu farmers and then much later with the coming of the European colonialists, certain Bushmen groups were displaced, dominated and/or exploited, forced to become farm laborers or herders, or induced to take up farming or herding on their own, while others retreated into the Kalahari desert, where they were able to take refuge and maintain their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Complicating the picture was the presence of a closely related herding people, also khoisan speakers, known popularly as the "Hottentots," almost all of whom were tragically either wiped out or almost totally assimilated, along with many Bushmen, into a "racially" mixed group now known as the "Cape Coloreds."

It's no wonder, in view of the complexity of the above history, that anthropologists have had difficulty characterizing "Bushmen," and that disputes have arisen in that regard. What does seem strange, and even -- to an outsider -- almost comical, are the extreme nature of these disputes and the excessive degree of personal animosity they have generated.

To get a better handle on the similarities and differences among the various Bushmen groups from a reasonably balanced perspective, I'll return once more to the very useful volume, Cultural Diversity Among African Foragers, beginning with a chapter entitled "Neither are your ways my ways," by George Silberbauer. Silberbauer defines "cultural diversity" as follows: "the variation in time, space, and ethnicity of patterns of social and cultural behavior, and the products and meanings of that behavior. What is selected as significant variation depends on the purpose of the analysis" (p. 26 -- my emphasis).

To judge by much in the literature these days, the purpose of many anthropologists is to "debunk" the "romantic" views of the past by emphasizing the effects of "modernity," minimizing or even ignoring the more fundamental issue of long-term forager traditions and identity. What is often forgotten, and this is a theme especially important as far as I am concerned, is the highly significant difference between groups that allowed themselves, or were coerced, to compromise with or accept the forces of modernity and those who refused to be assimilated, retreating to the relative safety of refuge areas, such as, in the case of the Bushmen, the Kalahari desert.

Silberbauer notes that
Ample archaeological evidence links ancient cultural and physical remains in the southern third of Africa to modern Basarwa sufficiently closely to suggest their ancestry. Combined with the genetic evidence this appears to justify formation of a category of people whose ancestors, or who themselves, lived as hunters and gatherers in the southern third of Africa, including the Kalahari in what is now Botswana. There is a long history of the use of bows and arrows; of digging sticks; ostrich eggs . . . ; game hides for blankets, skirts and breechclouts; and of brush windbreaks and roughly thatched huts for shelter by all groups (p. 51).
Even in the Kalahari, however, what Silberbauer mostly sees is diversity:
That is about the extent of shared characteristics beyond which cultural generalizations about Kalahari Basarwa are of dubious or no validity. As Barry Hewlett shows in his chapter, the extent of characteristics common to forest foragers is comparably narrow (ibid.).
Comparing two groups of Kalahari Bushmen, the !Kung (or Ju/'hoansi) and the G/wi (who also vocalize in P/B style), he finds that "!Kung beliefs differed in many respects" from those of the G/wi. For example,
Both peoples had trance dances which were medicinally and socially therapeutic but G/wi dancers gathered their power from the other participants. . . . Outwardly both peoples' dance performances were alike -- women sat in a circle, singing and clapping, while men danced round them until one or more fell into trance. !Kung dancers did their curing while in trance; G/wi men fell into trance once they had gathered the ill from others and then had to be revived by their fellows, an act which dispelled it harmlessly into the night (p. 54).
There are clearly many points of similarity in the above, especially with respect to behavior, but for Silberbauer what counts most appear to be relatively minor differences reflecting nuances of interpretation. With respect to the handling of conflict he finds that "antagonistic sentiments were more freely and intensely expressed [among the !Kung] than within G/wi bands. . . !Kung also had devices for resolving conflicts, but appear as well to have been fairly ready to come to blows" (p. 55), a conclusion that contrasts strongly with just about every other characterization of !Kung attitudes toward violence I've ever read. As far as kinship is concerned, both had "universalistic" kinship systems, but there were significant differences, since !Kung terminology was of an "Eskimo" type and G/wi terminology was "Iroquois."

For Silberbauer, overall, "The social, ideational, and mystical contents of G/wi and !Kung life were clearly very different, allowing very limited direct generalizations from one people to the other" (p. 57). He continues, however, with a long digression regarding the dangers involved in any attempt by an outsider to compare these two groups in this manner. Responding to the extreme skepticism of the Kalahari revisionists in his conclusion, he states:
It is clear that hunting and gathering did not persist because foragers were forced into it by their inability to do anything else. [For a great many] their customary social, political, and economic arrangements that constituted independent band life were more attractive and rewarding than were the alternatives that ranch or cattle-post offered (p. 64).
In the following chapter, "Diversity and Flexibility:The Case of the Bushmen of Southern Africa," Mathias Guenther approaches the same problem in a very different manner. Acknowledging that "diversity is evident in all systems of Bushmen society and culture, from subsistence patterns to religious beliefs," his explanation for that diversity is in sharp contrast to that of Silberbauer:
The diversity of Bushman society and culture is a function, I would argue, of two basic dynamic factors, one internal, pertaining to social organization, the other external, pertaining to the ecological and historical settings within which the diverse Bushmen groups have been situated and to which they have had to adapt. The first factor is the institutional, structural, and personal flexibility of the Bushman society, culture and individual; the second is the variability of the . . . contexts in which Bushmen have lived . . . However, within these ecologically or politically engendered changes, Bushman society appears generally to have retained its cultural integrity and its capacity for social reproduction. . . .

Flexibility is all-pervasive within Bushman social organization. . . It is loosely corporate with respect to ownership of land or other resources . . ; it is slack in its political organization . . . Interpersonal and gender relations are not structured by any hierarchical order but are egalitarian . . . and there is a virtual absence of craft specialization, except for a basic division of labor by sex. . .

Individual men and women enjoy a high degree of personal autonomy within Bushman society . . . Each individual in this small-scale egalitarian society is self-assured and self-directing . . .

Thus we see Bushman men and women living their lives within a culture that contains beliefs and values that are variable, flexible, and undogmatic. . .

The supremely flexible and adaptable quality of Bushman band society, ethos, and personality explains, I suggest, the rich diversity of such societies and, at the same time, why so many of these people have basically retained their cultural integrity and their social autonomy throughout centuries and even millennia of contact with encroaching and encircling settler groups (pp. 77-82 -- emphases mine).
While Silberbauer produces an inventory of very real, but relatively superficial practices and beliefs that are, indeed, different, Guenther insists on commonalities and continuities that appear more fundamental with respect to the most basic values, indeed the ethos, of the Bushmen understood "as a regional totality, over space and time" (p. 86). Significantly, many of the characteristics he emphasizes might best be understood as aspects of cultural style, as opposed to so many of the content-oriented descriptions we find in the literature.

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