Problems in Kalahari Historical Ethnography and the Tolerance of Error
History in Africa
The !Kung San or Bushmen of Namibia and Botswana are one of the most thoroughly documented hunting and gathering societies in the annals of African anthropology. In recent years two radically different views of the !Kung San have emerged in the anthropological literature. One sees the !Kung as hunters and gatherers living under changed circumstances and maintaining an old but adaptable way of life: the characteristic features associated with the hunter-gatherer subsistence or foraging mode of
... foraging mode of production. The other sees these same !Kung as products of a very different history, a history of long association with Bantu-speaking overlords, followed by intense involvement with merchant capital. In this view it was the !Kungs' experience of domination and incorporation, not the dynamics of autonomous foraging that shaped their economy and social life. Their well-documented egalitarian politics and gender relations are thus a product not of their own history, but of their history of shared poverty. The San are classless today precisely because they are the underclass in a more inclusive class structure (Wilmsen 1983:17). Which view more accurately reflects the historical realities and experience of the !Kung? A body of opinion within contemporary anthropology holds that this "revisionist" view provides a much-needed corrective to the anthropological tendency to treat African societies ahistorically. Others have denied this charge and have countered that the history of Kalahari peoples showed great variation; while some may have formed an underclass at an early date, others persisted as relatively independent (but not isolated) hunter-gatherers into the modem period.