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Sunday, 7 January 2018

Book review: Affluence Without Abundance, James Suzman (2017)

Because this book is subtitled ‘The disappearing world of the Bushmen’, it ends with a portrait of the poverty and disadvantage that Khoisan-speaking San people living in remote Namibian communities in southwestern Africa experience. The book chronicles the history, lives and problems faced by the Ju/’hoansi people of the former German colony. Suzman has lived with the Ju/’hoansi people and studied them since the 1990s and still observes them from his current location in England. I personally would have started the book where he ends it.

It should be said at the outset that the author has a forensic eye and a canny knack for choosing the apposite word or phrase, that comes from his training as a sociologist. And he is as interested in the civilisations that stemmed from the Neolithic revolution which brought agriculture to different parts of the world starting in the Euphrates valley around 10,000 years ago, as he is in the hunter-gatherers who had survived until recently in different places, including in remote Australia, as well as in the Nyae Nyae and the Kalahari.

The advantage of agriculture was that it offered the ability to sustain larger populations of people – disease and weather being suitably benign in any one year – than hunter-gatherer societies could. This meant that it tended to expand as people using agriculture for subsistence gradually moved in on the territories of people relying on hunting and gathering. More productive economic systems could also support larger armed bands for combat to enforce their claims on territory. The issue of territorial rights is as much a part of the lives of Ju/’hoansi today as it is of Aboriginal Australians.

What is however clear is that hunter-gatherers think differently from people who use agriculture for subsistence. It’s not in the ways that the farmers might talk about them – where the hunter-gatherers are “wild”, “animal-like” and “primitive” – but there are indisputable differences associated with living in a world where everything was available for little investment of effort and there was little difference between roles that people adopted in society. Humans might have more in common in such societies with lions than they do with the herders of cattle, the beasts that lions are wont to hunt.

Hunter-gatherers have different attitudes toward such things as property and time. Suzman gives evidence of the jealousy underpinning the egalitarianism that factors into the equal distribution of resources in hunter-gatherer societies. A hunter who brings back meat to the village had better be humble about his prize lest he be accused of hubris and attract opprobrium. And if the world is designed to provide plenty of food for little effort, then time is handled differently than it is in societies that depend on agriculture, where you must always plan ahead to take advantage of prevailing conditions, and land that is not worked turns wild and unproductive. For hunter-gatherers, the bountiful gods always provide enough for everyone even in dry years.

There is knowledge involved in the process of hunting and gathering, just as there is in the process of agriculture. The poison used for the tips of arrowheads – the arrows are kept in tree-bark quivers with animal-skin covers that neatly fit, and only have to nick the skin of the target animal so that the poison takes effect and it can be patiently chased down and finally killed – is squeezed from the larva of an insect, for example.

There is further knowledge involved in preparation of the 150-odd different fruits and vegetables that are available for harvesting at different times throughout the year, such as marama beans. Suzman first met Anu when she was a little girl when he first visited the region in 1994, but now he is back and it is 2014 and the girl has grown into a woman. But she still remembers him and calls him by his Ju/’hoan name, /Kunta.
These plants grow from large tubers that establish themselves a foot or so under the desert soil. The tubers are edible and moisture filled. In times of drought they provide an emergency source of drinking water. But it was the series of long, soft, spindly stems, five to ten feet in length, that grow from the tuber and radiate across the sand that were the focus of our efforts that morning. After good rains they are surprisingly easy to find. Decorated by neat yellow flowers, they have distinctive elephant-ear-shaped leaves that ladder their way up the stems. Hidden in among the leaves are green pods with burgundy streaks, each about the size of an infant’s hand. Each pod hosts what look like to big, creamy broad beans. They are tasteless and slimy when raw. But they are packed with complex proteins and other nutritional wonders, and once they have been roasted on a fire they transform into a moreish, rich, oily, nutty treat.
Of course, without the material excess and role specialisation associated with agricultural societies following the Neolithic revolution neither literature nor intellectuals would have been possible for societies to sustain.

Whatever your personal views about the different production systems available for society to use to sustain itself, this is a fascinating book that can be usefully read. It is especially interesting for Australians looking to understand the culture of the Aborigines. The prevailing mythologies of earlier generations – that the Aborigines were just nomads who didn’t properly settle the land – can be instantly dispelled by the descriptions it contains of how hunter-gatherers relied on productive land around waterholes for sustenance, and moved from one place to the other to find adequate food to sustain the community at all times.

Nowadays, in settlements like Twyfelfontein, Gobabis, Tsumkwe and Skoonheid in the Omaheke region of Namibia, remnants of the black tribes, including the hunter-gathering Ju/’hoansi and the cattle-herding Herero who have competed with them for control of the land for hundreds of years, each have their youth gangs who are linked to each another via mobile phones imported from China, and to other people around the world via Facebook.

But as the world migrates to a post-industrial paradigm of work perhaps we can learn something useful from the Old Times before animals and humans were forever sundered by custom. Stories go in Ju/’hoansi lore that in the Old Times humans and lions once interbred before they were split forever due to divergent ways of living among the region’s inhabitants. Remnants of such epochs survive in modern times in such tales as those chronicling the exploits of the Ju/’hoansi’s jackal trickster god. Perhaps we need to revisit such stories to discover once again how to peacefully live side-by-side with other apex predators in a world experiencing more and more severe resource constraints, so that all can share and survive equally on the available land.

This might seem like a novel idea but the fact is – and Suzman describes in intricate detail how it all happened – that agriculture and the modern economies that are based on it, are relatively new innovations compared to the age-old methods of harvesting and distribution of resources traditionally practiced by the Khoisan and other hunter-gatherers around the world. We were all hunter-gatherers once. Perhaps instituting a universal basic income most closely approximates the kind of economic settlement that characterises the hunter-gatherer society, an egalitarian compromise between respecting private property and making sure all are provide for adequately. Why do some people need to own multiple houses, when others struggle to even pay the rent on one, for example?

It is also interesting to note that the countryside in Australia is also referred to colloquially as the “bush”, just like the countryside in Africa’s remote areas. In Australia, we talk perhaps deprecatingly of “bushies” when referring to people living in rural areas, for example.


Above: Ju/’hoansi woman //Eng and a child in her vegetable garden in Skoonheid in 1995. (The slashes and other unconventional symbols used in names in the book represent the different types of clicks made using the tongue in Khoisan languages. In earlier days such people had been referred to by colonists as Hottentots to characterise them by giving prominence to their unique way of speaking.)

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