Rachel Newcomb is an anthropologist and the Diane and Michael Maher Distinguished Professor of Teaching and Learning at Rollins College. She is the author of “Everyday Life in Global Morocco,” due out in October.
Imagine a life in which you would need to work only 12 to 17 hours per week. Your society would be egalitarian, with respect to both gender and social class, and all resources would be shared and not hoarded. With all of your free time, you could devote yourself to leisure, to spending time with family and to creating a strong community. Is this a communist utopia, the subject of the latest financial self-help book or a sustainable reality? In “Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen,” anthropologist James Suzman asks readers to consider what such a world might be like. And for an answer he presents the example of the Ju/’hoansi of southern Africa, a hunter-gatherer group whose numbers have dwindled radically but that still exists as a living reminder of a lifestyle that all humans embraced until the dawn of agriculture, roughly 12,000 years ago.
While the past 400 years of colonialism and globalization have almost destroyed the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, about 8,000 to 10,000 Ju/’hoansi are left, mostly in Namibia and Botswana. The Ju/’hoansi speak in a language of vocalizations and clicks, as represented by symbols such as “/,” and they make up 10 percent of southern Africa’s hunter-gatherer population; they are broadly (and somewhat condescendingly) referred to as Bushmen. Dubbed “the original affluent society” by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, hunter-gatherers have long captured the imagination of scholars interested in understanding how our ancestors probably sustained themselves for hundreds of thousands of years. Living in small groups of 15 to 20 individuals, hunter-gatherers survived by taking only what they needed from the environment. Although certain times of year were leaner than others, by working about 17 hours per week, the Bushmen managed to maintain a 2,300-calorie diet, with an extensive knowledge of how to forage for some 100 types of “fruits, stems, gums, seeds, flowers, stalks, roots, tubers, and bulbs.” Suzman describes how the Ju/’hoansi could hunt large game despite using small arrows, poisoning the arrows with larvae from a beetle found beneath African myrrh trees, evidence of what he calls the “artistry in their apparently archaic technologies.”
In the hands of other writers, such topics could make for dry academic reading, but Suzman’s descriptive prose and affection for his subjects generate the reader’s genuine empathy. Describing how the Ju/’hoansi hunted, Suzman finds a “poetry” in reading animal tracks, such that a “slight bend in a blade of grass or an apparently meaningless scuff on a rock” allows a hunter to “infer their maker’s mood, circumstances, and intentions,” thus enabling him to gain intimate access to the animal’s state of mind.
Most poignant is the story of G/au, the accidental star of the surprise 1980 cinematic hit “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” G/au played Xi, a Bushman who encounters the “modern” world for the first time when he finds a Coke bottle dropped from a plane. The bottle opens a Pandora’s box of first-world problems, of which covetousness of this new object is at the forefront. G/au told Suzman that his meager income from the film (and other movies he starred in) had created resentment among his family and acquaintances. He later died of tuberculosis. Suzman writes that “the anonymity of G/au’s death and the fact that he had died from a disease associated with poverty made me regret that I had not made more of an effort to learn his story, which now will forever be overshadowed by Xi’s.”
Suzman documents the decline of the Ju/’hoansi over hundreds of years of contact with European colonizers and African Herero herders. After the Bushmen’s land became someone else’s private property, white settlers attempted to “civilize” them, often violently, through servitude, military service and other schemes that attempted to put the indigenous people to productive use. The Bushmen, for their part, had difficulty adjusting to agricultural labor and wondered why they were being pressed to want more than what their environment could provide. Today, most of the world’s remaining Bushmen live in shantytowns, resettlement camps and nature preserves, ravaged by diseases such as diabetes, alcoholism and HIV that were unheard of in previous generations. A few “lucky” Ju/’hoansi have managed to live in conservancies, where they host legal trophy hunters who pay astronomical fees to the community to track and kill elephants.
This fascinating glimpse into a disappearing way of life leads Suzman to reflect on our world today: a world where wealth and possessions are valued above all other pursuits. Suzman’s account of the lives of Bushmen, past and present, offers plenty of fuel for thought. Their success was not based “on their ability to continuously colonize new lands, expand and grow into new spaces, or develop new technologies, but on the fact that they mastered the art of making a living where they were.” Could we, he asks, learn from their example and “be satisfied with having fewer needs more easily met”? These are provocative and timely questions.
By James Suzman
Bloomsbury. 320 pp. $29