Ju/’hoansi: The Living Remnant of the First Humans on Earth

Ju/’hoansi: The Living Remnant of the First Humans on Earth

Long ago, in the freest period of my life, I had worked as a teacher in Africa for six years straight. I had revisited the continent every few years after that, sometimes staying for months. I had been up and down half a dozen great rivers, including the Nile and the Zambezi, hiked the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon, and crossed Lake Victoria and Lake Malawi. I had travelled overland from Cairo to Cape Town. I had fraternized with, and worked among, Angoni people, Baganda, Nubians, Karomojong, Watutsi, WaGogo, Masai, Zulus, Kikuyu, the Sena people of the Lower River, the Batwa Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, and scores of other peoples. Yet in all that time I had never met a Ju/’hoansi — elusive, dwelling in small related groups — on his or her own turf.

But I had glimpsed them (Ju/’hoansi people) with fascination, the way you see a bird of passage flashing onto a nearby branch and twitching its brilliant tail. Their physiognomy — the look of these people, their whole physical being — was unmistakable. Now and then, on a busy Cape Town street or in a sleepy dorp in the countryside, I would see that light-hued, faintly Asiatic face, the narrow eyes, the delicate hands, the small stature, a distinct upright way of standing and a swift, almost skipping way of walking — and, even if the person happened to be wrapped in a heavy coat and scarf against the wind blowing from Table Bay or the Great Karoo, I knew whom I was looking at.

I always suspected that Ju/’hoansi people, oblique in answers to my direct questions, were far from home. And I felt there was something radiant about them. It was no illusion. It was the radiance of peacefulness from the core of their being, what Elizabeth Marshall Thomas called “their magnificent nonviolence.” They are known as, in a rendering of their own name for themselves, the Harmless People.

These were the people who had endured, and they had a claim to being the living remnant of the first humans on earth, with an ancient pedigree that was an unbroken link to the present. Bands of other Africans, mainly Bantu, those who were rovers and conquerors, had travelled — some settling, others moving on — through the forests in the heart of Africa, at first clockwise through the Congo and then fanning out and descending, percolating east and south as far as the Great Fish River. That river became a traditional boundary of the Cape Colony, where in the late eighteenth century a confrontation between the Xhosa on one bank and the Dutch and English settlers on the opposite bank led to a series of bloody wars. But both the Bantu and the whites were another story; they were migrants or the children of migrants.

The Ju/’hoansi were not migrants. Some had scattered because of persecution and land grabbing, but most of them had remained pretty much where they had always been, in this southern part of Africa, since the Upper Pleistocene, loyal to each other and clinging to their skills and traditions, famously peaceful and accommodating — no thieving, no fighting, and divorce so simple a matter that adultery was almost unknown among them.

Celebrated as trackers of game, masters of the hunt — just a small hunting party could bring down and butcher a fleet-footed, full-grown giraffe, as John Marshall had shown them doing in one of his earliest films. Brilliant as botanists, Ju/’hoansi people recognized an enormous taxonomy of bush and savanna plants — used for food, for medicine, as fetishes, as ornaments. They knew the entomological chemistry of poison and the art of weapon making, the skills of using arrows and spears and snares. Despite all this, they hardly fought or raised their voices, had never gone to war with each other, nor had they become inflamed by bellicosity even against the greatest provocation — slave raids, intruding white settlers, and predatory Bantu hunters. And the Ju/’hoansi believe, as do many other peoples on earth, that humans were once animals, and still retain the characteristics of wild creatures. And the other way around: certain animals can be tricky and selfish like humans, because their ancestors were human.

It was amazing, in the face of all the encroachments — they lived in a land where diamonds littered the ground like pebbles, where trophy animals might be slaughtered, where cattle might graze — amazing that the Ju/’hoansi still existed. Yet they did, though in dwindling numbers, and they had become the obsessive subjects, even the darlings, of ethnographers, for what they were able to tell us about how we as humans had lived in prehistory, and also as “noble savages” — “one of the most heavily scientifically commoditized human groups in the annals of science,” wrote Robert J. Gordon in The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass.

Ju/’hoansi people seemed a timeless people, as eternal as the features of the landscape — the rocks, the gullies, the termite mounds. They didn’t grow old, they didn’t change, they endured in their ancestral land.

The image of the Ju/’hoansi we cling to — I did anyway — is that of a wild-dwelling, self-sufficient people. We seem to need them to be that way, not merely different from us, and purer, but more different than they really are — tenacious, resourceful, generous, peaceful, as if inhabiting Eden. They are reminders of who we once were – our ancient better selves. At one time, long ago, all of us were foragers on earth. What a relief it is in a world yearning for authenticity to know that though we have blighted our habitat, there is an unspoiled place on the planet, and a people who have defied modernity by clinging to their old ways. The past recaptured. Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Extract from Paul Theroux “The Last Train To Zona Verde”