The Disappearing World of the Bushmen
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A spirited ethnography of the ancestral peoples of the Kalahari.

Suzman, the head of a Cambridge-based think tank devoted to real-world anthropological applications, has vast experience living and working among the people once mostly known as the Bushmen, which has a derogatory connotation, later as San or Khoisan. “A staple of safari lodge–style coffee-table books and glossy posed postcards,” they have been mythologized in several ways, perhaps most effectively by Laurens van der Post’s Lost World of the Kalahari, published nearly 60 years ago. One of the most enduring images to emerge from the many books about them is what the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins characterized as “Stone Age economics,” gathering and hunting enough to stay alive but working not much more. Suzman complicates this account with a closer view of what Khoisan economics really entails, but on the whole, he agrees that the Khoisan traditionally lived freer and easier than most wage slaves today. Their world has largely disappeared, though, in at least some measure because their Kalahari homeland has been transformed by settlers from outside who have introduced a cattle-based economy. Indeed, Suzman writes, the last generation of Khoisan to live traditionally has already passed away, their people having lived in spatial stability, as the author puts it, even as other populations were moving out of Africa to populate the rest of the world hundreds of thousands of years ago. Suzman writes with skill and appreciation of ancient concepts such as n!ow, a kind of inborn spirit, but glances over larger ideas such as his provocative thought that “language is neither the primary medium of culture nor is it a universal tool capable of translating everything from one culture into another.” (If not language, then what?) He does better, though, in showing how old San ideas of how to live can be applied to our overly extractive, Western consumerist society, spearheaded by the rising generation of millennials.

A welcome contribution to a once-vibrant anthropological literature without many recent entries.

Pub Date: July 11th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-63286-572-4
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2017


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