Evolving San-Bushmen “Religion”

Scholars have long been fascinated by the quixotic idea that something like the primordial or original “religion” existed until recently among various groups of hunter-gatherers. For cultural evolutionists this amounted to a progression from “primitive” to “modern” religion. The supposed exemplars of such religion were the Australian Aborigines and southern African Bushmen or San. The assumption underlying these views was that the Aborigines and San were frozen in time and that their “religion” did not change (or change much) over time.

We know, of course, that none of this correct — these groups have complex histories of migration, contact, and change. While some may have carried on in ways that more closely resembled ancestral or foraging lifeways, this doesn’t mean their “religions” (a word and concept foreign to most or all of them) are static models of the prehistoric past.

In 1989, Edwin Wilmsen’s Land of the Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari ignited a major and acrimonious debate about the history of southern African Bushmen. The particulars of the debate aside, Wilmsen convincingly demonstrated that the San had a more complex history than was supposed and were not pristine exemplars of the ancestral past. On the basis of archaeological evidence, he was able to show that Bushmen had a long history of contact and exchange with Bantu pastoralists and other iron producing societies. Wilmsen estimated that this began ~1,500 years ago.

There is now genetic evidence supporting Wilmsen’s claim. In the abstract to a forthcoming paper, Pickrell and colleagues contend:

The history of southern Africa involved interactions between indigenous hunter-gatherers and a range of populations that moved into the region. Here we use genome-wide genetic data to show that there are at least two admixture events in the history of Khoisan populations (southern African hunter-gatherers and pastoralists who speak non-Bantu languages with click consonants). One involved populations related to Niger-Congo-speaking African populations, and the other introduced ancestry most closely related to west Eurasian (European or Middle Eastern) populations. We date this latter admixture event to approximately 900-1,800 years ago, and show that it had the largest demographic impact in Khoisan populations that speak Khoe-Kwadi languages. A similar signal of west Eurasian ancestry is present throughout eastern Africa. In particular, we also find evidence for two admixture events in the history of Kenyan, Tanzanian, and Ethiopian populations, the earlier of which involved populations related to west Eurasians and which we date to approximately 2,700 – 3,300 years ago. We reconstruct the allele frequencies of the putative west Eurasian population in eastern Africa, and show that this population is a good proxy for the west Eurasian ancestry in southern Africa. The most parsimonious explanation for these findings is that west Eurasian ancestry entered southern Africa indirectly through eastern Africa.

None of this should come as a surprise. Like all other peoples, the San have a complex history and have experienced continuous cultural change (even as their basic mode of production has remained relatively stable). Evidence of that change is not hard to identify when it comes to their so-called “religion.”

Lorna Marshall’s Nyae Nyae !Kung: Beliefs and Rites is the classic source for insights into San worldviews, at least as they existed in the 1950s when the Marshalls did most of their fieldwork. One of the strengths of Marshall’s presentation is that she does not claim that the San beliefs and rituals she recorded were ancient, timeless, pristine, or unchanged. In fact, she several times suggests they are not and some of the beliefs-rituals appear to be old and some new. To her credit, Marshall makes no attempt to date or sort what she calls different “strata” of belief-ritual and refuses to speculate on the issue. What we get is a snapshot of San worldviews in the 1950s that were undergoing — as they always had — continuous and creative change. I strongly suspect that the San had appropriated (and transformed) neighboring culture god-beliefs due to the changing nature of their lifeways and accompanying social stress.

The San seemingly responded to this change and stress by dancing: “During the thirteen months in 1952 1953, from July to July, thirty-nine Ritual Healing Dances took place where we were present” (Marshall 1999:64). Given the intensity of those dances (which often lasted all night), this is quite a lot of dancing for people who otherwise expended a great deal of caloric energy while foraging. Marshall’s comment (p. 63) on the dances is intriguing:

A Healing Dance is the one activity in !Kung life that draws people together in groups that are of considerable size and are not shaped by family, band, close friendship, or ritual exclusions. Nothing but a Healing Dance assembles all the people present into a wholly concerted activity. During the dance no words divide them. In close configuration they clap, sing, and stamp the dancing steps with such coordination and rhythmic precision that they are like one organic being. 

This sounds an awful lot like Durkheim. It’s hard to know whether Marshall framed her observations through a Durkheimian lens. Though she was not formally or academically trained as an anthropologist, she knew many anthropologists and worked closely with them. I can’t help but wonder whether they suggested she read Durkheim or conveyed their own Durkheimian views (which would have been disguised as functionalism) to her. If Marshall’s impression of the Healing Dance was wholly her own, it is evidence in favor of social cohesion theory.

Bushmen Trance Dance, Aha Hills, Botswana



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7 thoughts on “Evolving San-Bushmen “Religion”

  1. Darryl

    Without pretending that hunter-gatherers were pristine examples of paleolithic religion, why is it such a stretch to imagine that they represent similar structures to prehistoric ancestors, albeit with outer forms altered to address changing local needs? Whenever I hear people argue against such an idea, it is almost always with just a tinge of moral outrage, which makes me suspicious. It is as if they feel the need to stand up for hunter-gatherers and other groups against orientalists and other triumphalists who would reduce them to mere precursors of the modern world, and who would see them simply as historical curiosities and leftovers. (not an unworthy goal, to be sure, but it hinders objectivity when one is taking a moral stand, even when its a good one…)

    For example, we can acknowledge that groups encountered by modern explorers had dynamic and complicated pasts constantly affecting and adapting their mythologies, while still recognizing motifs that seem analogous to what scant evidence we have of paleolithic mythology, as well as motifs shared by HG groups as they were encountered (obviously not by all, but one can argue in favor of generality without claiming universality… there is always the proverbial tribe in New Guinea that doesn’t fit the mold). Of course too many scholars went so far down the road of generalism that one would have been forgiven for thinking that every group from the !Kung to the Iroquois were one and the same, but I think that the reaction against their sins has gone too far down the post-modern path of insisting that it is impossible to really say much of anything about anyone… ever.

    Take the generalist devil himself, someone like Joseph Campbell… certainly his universalism and reduction of all mythology to some kind of unitive mystical experience he imagined to be shared by everyone from Meister Eckhart to Ramakrishna was ridiculous. But I think he demonstrated quite nicely the distribution of noticeable paleolithic motifs throughout HG groups around the world; the rebuttals of which have been mostly to dismiss his credentials rather than the information itself. And even someone such as he, stuck so deeply in the muck of universalism, always maintained that our HG societies did not represent perfect models of paleolithic life, but echoes of it. Even if that’s wrong, I don’t think that’s unreasonable; it certainly doesn’t deserve the acrimony it receives.

  2. Cris Post author

    Perhaps I haven’t been clear about my position on these issues in past posts, or this particular post may have muddied the waters. Either way, I’m not saying and have never said that hunter-gatherer worldviews do not give us insights into what might be called ancestral worldviews. I’m confident they can give us some limited insights into ancestral worldviews.

    In evolutionary terms, we can say that HG worldviews are less derived than the worldviews (and “religions”) that were derived in association with agriculture. Agriculture was a game-changer for certain societies, and those societies developed highly derived worldviews in association with those changes.

    Yet as all this was happening among agriculturalists, HGs continued developing their own worldviews. Thus, when western colonialists began encountering them perhaps 500 years ago, we were not seeing “faint echoes” — we were seeing the complex and sophisticated outcome of a long course of change and continued development. In this sense, they were a culmination rather than an echo. This is especially true of the HG worldviews that have been ethnohistorically and ethnographically rendered over the past 100 years.

    What I’ve been insisting all along is that these HG worldviews were never static, continued to develop, are not simple, and therefore are not “primitive.” Besides having equal time depth, they also have (in my estimation) equal complexity.

    My position on this has nothing at all to do with post-modernism, morals, politics, equal human dignity, or any of the other fuzzy positions that drive structurally (but not substantively) similar kinds of arguments.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    On another post you made, what seemed to me to be odd, statement that HG CHOOSE to be HG. That is, they could chose to be agriculturist and such. I never really thought about that. But you made it sound like you felt the choice was made because they felt HG offered something over Agricult/Industrial options. I thought about it. I know subcultures in the USA that chose to stay that way — poor and dumb. And I guess for them it is choice — a lazy one, but also an inherited, trapped one for many. It is complex.

    But in this article you seem to be alluding to the fact that if there is 1,500 yr encounter proven genetically, and still HC culture thrives, there must be “choice” involved. It seems more evidence of choice. Do you feel that this that an implication of this study?

  4. Joe Miller

    I don’t like identifying these groups as “Khoisan”. As you probably know, “San” means “vagabond” in the Khoekhoe’s language. One adopts the pastoralists’ perspective over and against that of the foragers’ when using the term because it implicitly accedes to the pastorlists’ assertion that the foragers are merely former cattleherders who lost their flocks. It doesn’t make sense to refer to these groups with a word taken from the lexicon of a set of tribes who haven’t lived in the region as nearly as long as the foragers.

  5. Joe Miller

    “But you made it sound like you felt the choice was made because they felt HG offered something over Agricult/Industrial options. I thought about it. I know subcultures in the USA that chose to stay that way — poor and dumb. And I guess for them it is choice — a lazy one, but also an inherited, trapped one for many. It is complex.”

    That’s a loaded comment. Many foragers don’t want to adopt agropastoralism because it entails much more work. They also realize that cattle herding leaves one exposed to the pathogens that are an inevitable product of livestock. Also, forager women who marry into these societies often divorce their husbands when they experience the misogyny endemic to many agropastorlist cultures first hand.

    Foragers often resist incorporation into industrial societies because they want to avoid subjection to the chains of command that the latter are founded upon. They don’t like being bossed around.

  6. Cris Post author

    There are several lines of evidence demonstrating that hunter-gatherers have made this choice, the most obvious and important of which is that all known HG groups have long been aware of encroaching and surrounding agricultural, pastoral, or industrial societies, and have consistently stated they have no desire to live that way. In fact, they’ve nearly always taken a close, long, and hard look at those lifeways and decided they are not appealing.

    In many cases, they have experimented with those ways of life or joined those communities, only to come back or eventually reject them. If there is a consistent theme in the HG record, it’s that HGs strongly prefer their way of life and it’s not out of ignorance. As long as hunting-gathering is viable, it’s the way they want and choose to live.

    One of the reasons they have typically been found in marginal environments over the past few hundred years is because they have consistently been retreating from advancing agricultural societies. At some point, the only refugia they have left are relatively marginal environments. This sometimes makes their lifeways look desperate to us, but they have a completely different view of the issue. They have chosen to live in these places.

    This article indirectly supports this because it shows that southern African Bushmen have long been aware of alternatives, and rejected those until the 1970s, when they no longer had any place to go or retreat to.

    All HG’s that I’ve read about have steadfastly resisted alternative lifeways and when their own has been lost, they’ve gone into long periods of cultural mourning and nostalgia for what was lost.

  7. Cris Post author

    This debate over names reminds me a bit of similar debates over Native American tribal names or references. The Anasazi are now called “Ancestral Pueblo” for this reason. I think the term “Sioux” and several others were also derogatory or negative in some way. Ironically, in some cases the tribes themselves have adopted those names. I’ve never been comfortable calling Native Americans “Indians” but that’s what they often call themselves. As for the “San,” many scholars and activists who work with them use this term, and they also use it themselves. When I was in the Cape Province a few years ago, I met several who stated they were “San.” And I just finished reading David Lewis-Williams’ book titled “San Spirituality.” So I’m not going to worry about it.

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