Until recently, hunter-gatherer people were regarded as ‘living fossils’, who pursued their way of life only because they were prevented by environmental circumstance from developing beyond it
This view was challenged in the 1960s, when anthropologists began to argue that rather than enduring a precarious existence, peoples such as the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari actually lived well with relatively little effort – and certainly got more sleep than the average worker in the ‘developed’ world. Far from being at the base of the evolutionary tree, they pretty much had life sussed, and as such were a refutation of the problem foreseen by Maynard Keynes: that the human race’s evolutionary impulse towards working hard in order to create wealth would be difficult to discard once a general sufficiency had been achieved.
Suzman’s book, which investigates that possibility, is as much a study of a study – a history of anthropology’s attitudes towards the bushmen – as of the people themselves, but there’s plenty of first-hand experience on offer too: for more than 25 years, he’s been visiting and living among them, and alongside the broader history, he recounts the stories they have to tell. ‘After the farmer tied me to the gate,’ one begins, ‘he just left me there in the sun.’
While that’s as good an opening line as you’re likely to encounter, the brutal truth it encapsulates is depressingly familiar: the main threat to the bushmen’s way of life has always been other people. Suzman’s scope is wide, reaching back to first encounters in the 15th century, and covering much more recent, frequently well-meaning attempts to introduce the cash economy to a people fundamentally uninterested in it.
The notion that we might have more to learn than teach hasn’t yet gained traction, but Suzman seems optimistic that it’s an idea whose time is coming.
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