The Bushmen

THE ORIGINS of the Bushmen go so far back that they are lost in the mists of time. There have been a great many theories put forward about the beginnings of these mysterious little men. They were certainly at the peak of their culture when Europeans first came to Southern Africa, and the evidence they left behind of their way of life clearly shows what it was like to live in a Late Stone Age society.

Bushmen lived in clans and loosely-connected family groups, never in anything like a tribal entity. They spent their lives wandering in hunting parties, obsessed with the thrill of the chase and the need for constant renewal of a dwindling larder. To spend an evening with a Kalahari Bushman of today is to lose oneself in a world of hunting anecdotes which are so much a part of the Bushman's life that they pervade superstition, rumour and folklore. The Bushmen inhabited the whole of Southern Africa; high mountains, deep valleys and wide plains alike were their homes. They showed their appreciation of their environment by the beautiful paintings they left behind them in rock shelters all over the country. These ancient galleries exhibit no amateur daubs. Only experts were allowed to exercise their talent and from what we know of the Bushmen of the south, many of these artists were widely renowned. They passed from hunting group to hunting group, supported by them out of respect for their talent. The artists were also the invokers of the spirits and tellers of tales, but their true genius lay in recording and bringing to life upon the enduring rock the ceremonies, rites and myths which their people whispered around the fires at night.

The techniques they employed are largely unknown. The few painters actually encountered by Europeans used about ten differently coloured paints which they kept in small gourds hanging from their waists. The ingredients varied with the locality but in general, charcoal provided the black, white came from kaolin or bird droppings, and red came from iron-oxide or weathered haematite. The mixing medium was a speciality of each artist. Some chose to use animal fat, others resins, milk or rock salts. The brushes were soft bones, teased-out twigs, feathers or other natural fibres. There is no means of knowing how the Bushmen came to paint. Elementary examples and faded traces of paintings are to be found in Tanzania and these increase in number and improve in quality as one travels south. Across the Zambezi River they are abundant almost every suitable overhang and rockface in this vast area is covered with drawings which attain a high degree of skill and artistry.

Moving still further south across the Limpopo the finest examples of polychrome rock art can be found in some 1 600 caves and shelters, particularly in the mountain complex of Lesotho. South West Africa, too, has paintings, but these are closer in kind to the rock art of Rhodesia.

The age of rock paintings is measured in hundreds rather than in thousands of years, for their rate of fading and erosion is very significant. Degeneration can even be seen in paintings which are revisited after an interval of only a few years. The earliest paintings still visible in the rock galleries are primitive efforts, apparently the beginnings of rock art, and these are not more than two thousand years old. But, wherever or whenever prehistoric art originated, the amazing Bushman artists have given to South Africa one of the greatest collections of prehistoric art to be found anywhere in the world.

These small, light-skinned people called Bushmen by Europeans know themselves as the 'Khwai' or 'men'. They were dispersed over an area stretching from Walvis Bay to the Zambezi valley and then southward past Lake Ngami and Botswana to the southeastern coast near Port Elizabeth. Having at different times in the past run foul of Hottentots, Bantu, Dutch and British in the Cape, they are now mostly concentrated in the Kalahari, and number between 30 000 and 55 000 people.

The early Dutch colonists observed that they were amazingly prolific, being much less subject to disease than Europeans, and every woman almost without exception bore children. Bushmen were feared by Hottentots and Bantu alike for their deadly accuracy with their small poisoned arrows and their ability to melt away unseen into the surroundings, like the spirit of the wilderness itself.

Their closeness to the land from which they wrested their precarious living, and to the animals which were almost their brothers and sisters, bred in them humour and imagination the fertile ground from which sprang the many myths and tales which they loved to tell as they huddled in their flimsy shelters at night while the wind whispered through the long dry grass and the leopard coughed among the rocks.

   Listen to the Wind    Sun, Moon and Stars
   God and an Afterlife    Death comes to Mankind
   Cagn and the Baboons    Haiseb, the Magician
   Witchcraft    Haiseb and Ikaamagab
   Animals and Insects    The First Bushman
   Self-mutilation    Mantis, Ostrich and Fire
   The Mantis    The Mantis Family
   The Origins of Men and Animals    Weeping Willows
   Mythological Beasts    How the Zebra Got his Stripes
   Rain and her Son    The Hidden Husband