1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bushmen

BUSHMEN, or Bosjesmans, a people of South Africa, so named by the British and Dutch colonists of the Cape. They often call themselves Saan [Sing. ], but this appears to be the Hottentot name. If they have a national name it is Khuai, probably “small man,” the title of one group. This Khuai has, however, been translated as the Bushman word for tablier égyptien (see below), adopted as the racial name because that malformation is one of their physical characteristics. The Kaffirs call them Abatwa, the Bechuana Masarwa (Maseroa). There is little reason to doubt that they constitute the aboriginal element of the population of South Africa, and indications of their former presence have been found as far north at least as the Nyasa and Tanganyika basins. “It would seem,” writes Sir H. H. Johnston (British Central Africa, p. 52), “as if the earliest known race of man inhabiting what is now British Central Africa was akin to the Bushman-Hottentot type of negro. Rounded stones with a hole through the centre, similar to those which are used by the Bushmen in the south for weighting their digging-sticks (the graaf stock of the Boers), have been found at the south end of Lake Tanganyika.” The dirty yellow colour of the Bushmen, their slightly slanting eyes and prominent cheek-bones had induced early anthropologists to dwell on their resemblance to the Mongolian races. This similarity has been now recognized as quite superficial. More recently a connexion has been traced between the Bushmen and the Pygmy peoples inhabiting the forests of Central Africa. Though the matter cannot be regarded as definitely settled, the latest researches rather tend to discredit this view. In fact it would appear that the two peoples have little in common save diminutive proportions and a nomadic and predatory form of existence. Owing to the discovery of steatopygous figurines in Egyptian graves, a theory has been advanced that the Egyptians of the early dynasties were of the same primitive pygmy negroid stock as the Bushmen. But this is highly speculative. The physical characteristics of Egyptian skulls have nothing of the Bushman in them. Of the primitive pygmy negroid stock the Hottentots (q.v.), once considered the parent family, are now regarded as an offshoot of mixed Bantu-Bushman blood from the main Bushman race.

It seems probable that the Bushmen must be regarded as having extended considerably to the north of the area occupied by them within the memory of white men. Evidence has been produced of the presence of a belated Hottentot or Hottentot-Bushman group as far north as the district between Kilimanjaro and Victoria Nyanza. They were probably driven south by the Bantu tribes, who eventually outflanked them and confined them to the less fertile tracts of country. Before the arrival of Europeans in South Africa the Bushman race appears to have been, what it so essentially is to-day, a nomadic race living in widely scattered groups. The area in which the Bushmen are now found sporadically may be defined as extending from the inner ranges of the mountains of Cape Colony, through the central Kalahari desert to near Lake Ngami, and thence north-westward to the districts about the Ovambo river north of Damaraland. In short, they have been driven by European and Kaffir encroachments into the most barren regions of South Africa. A few remain in the more inaccessible parts of the Drakensberg range about the sources of the Vaal. Only in one or two districts are they found in large numbers, chiefly in Great Bushman Land towards the Orange river. A regularly planned and wholesale destruction of the Bushmen on the borders of Cape Colony in the earlier years of European occupation reduced their numbers to a great extent; but this cruel hunting of the Bushmen has ceased. In retaliation the Bushmen were long the scourge of the farms on the outer borders of the colony, making raids on the cattle and driving them off in large numbers. On the western side of the deserts they are generally at enmity with the Koranna Hottentots, but on the eastern border of the Kalahari they have to some extent fraternized with the earliest Bechuana migrants. Their language, which exists in several dialects, has in common with Hottentot, but to a greater degree, the peculiar sounds known as “clicks.” The Hottentot language is more agglutinative, the Bushman more monosyllabic; the former recognizes a gender in names, the latter does not; the Hottentots form the plural by a suffix, the Bushmen by repetition of the name; the former count up to twenty, the latter can only number two, all above that being “many.” F. C. Selous records that Koranna Hottentots were able to converse fluently with the Bushmen of Bechuanaland.

The most striking feature of the Bushman’s physique is shortness of stature. Gustav Fritsch in 1863–1866 found the average height of six grown men to be 4 ft. 9 in. Earlier, but less trustworthy, measurements make them still shorter. Among 150 measured by Sir John Barrow during the first British occupation of Cape Colony the tallest man was 4 ft. 9 in., the tallest woman 4 ft. 4 in. The Bushmen living in Bechuanaland measured by Selous in the last quarter of the 19th century were, however, found to be of nearly average height. Few persons were below 5 ft.; 5 ft. 4 in. was common, and individuals of even 6 ft. were not unknown. No great difference in height appears to exist between men and women. Fritsch’s average from five Bushman women was one-sixth of an inch more than for the men. The Bushmen, as already stated, are of a dirty yellow colour, and of generally unattractive countenance. The skull is long and low, the cheek-bones large and prominent. The eyes are deeply set and crafty in expression. The nose is small and depressed, the mouth wide with moderately everted lips, and the jaws project. The teeth are not like badly cut ivory, as in Bantu, but regular and of a mother-of-pearl appearance. In general build the Bushman is slim and lean almost to emaciation. Even the children show little of the round outlines of youth. The amount of fat under the skin in both sexes is remarkably small; hence the skin is as dry as leather and falls into strong folds around the stomach and at the joints. The fetor of the skin, so characteristic of the negro, is not found in the Bushman. The hair is weak in growth, in age it becomes grey, but baldness is rare. Bushmen have little body-hair and that of a weak stubbly nature, and none of the fine down usual on most skins. On the face there is usually only a scanty moustache. A hollowed back and protruding stomach are frequent characteristics of their figure, but many of them are well proportioned, all being active and capable of enduring great privations and fatigue. Considerable steatopygy often exists among the women, who share with the Hottentot women the extraordinary prolongation of the nymphae which is often called “the Hottentot apron” or tablier. Northward the Bushmen appear to improve both in general condition and in stature, probably owing to a tinge of Bantu blood. The Bushman’s clothing is scanty: a triangular piece of skin, passed between the legs and fastened round the waist with a string, is often all that is worn. Many men, however, and nearly all the women, wear the kaross, a kind of pelisse of skins sewn together, which is used at night as a wrap. The bodies of both sexes are smeared with a native ointment, buchu, which, aided by accretions of dust and dirt, soon forms a coating like a rind. Men and women often wear sandals of hide or plaited bast. They are fond of ornament, and decorate the arms, neck and legs with beads, iron or copper rings, teeth, hoofs, horns and shells, while they stick feathers or hares’ tails in the hair. The women sometimes stain their faces with red pigment. They carry tobacco in goats’ horns or in the shell of a land tortoise, while boxes of ointment or amulets are hung round neck or waist. A jackal’s tail mounted on a stick serves the double purpose of fan and handkerchief. For dwellings in the plains they have low huts formed of reed mats, or occupy a hole in the earth; in the mountain districts they make a shelter among the rocks by hanging mats on the windward side. Of household utensils they have none, except ostrich eggs, in which they carry water, and occasionally rough pots. For cooking his food the Bushman needs nothing but fire, which he obtains by rubbing hard and soft wood together.

Bushmen do not possess cattle, and have no domestic animals except a few half-wild dogs, nor have they the smallest rudiments of agriculture. Living by hunting, they are thoroughly acquainted with the habits and movements of every kind of wild animal, following the antelope herds in their migrations. Their weapon is a bow made of a stout bough bent into a sharp curve. It is strung with twisted sinew. The arrow, which is neatly made of a reed, the thickness of a finger, is bound with thread to prevent splitting, and notched at the end for the string. At the point is a head of bone, or stone with a quill barb; iron arrow-blades obtained from the Bantu are also found. The arrow is usually 2 to 3 ft. long. The distance at which the Bushman can be sure of hitting is not great, about twenty paces. The arrows are always coated with a gummy poisonous compound which kills even the largest animal in a few hours. The preparation is something of a mystery, but its main ingredients appear to be the milky juice of the Amaryllis toxicaria, which is abundant in South Africa, or of the Euphorbia arborescens, generally mixed with the venom of snakes or of a large black spider of the genus Mygale; or the entrails of a very deadly caterpillar, called N’gwa or ’Kaa, are used alone. One authority states that the Bushmen of the western Kalahari use the juice of a chrysalis which they scrape out of the ground. From their use of these poisons the Bushmen are held in great dread by the neighbouring races. They carry, too, a club some 20 in. long with a knob as big as a man’s fist. Assegais and knives are rare. No Bushman tribe south of Lake Ngami is said to carry spears. A rude implement, called by the Boers graaf stock or digging stick, consisting of a sharpened spike of hard wood over which a stone, ground to a circular form and perforated, is passed and secured by a wedge, forms part of the Bushman equipment. This is used by the women for uprooting the succulent tuberous roots of the several species of creeping plants of the desert, and in digging pitfalls. These perforated stones have a special interest in indicating the former extension of the Bushmen, since they are found, as has been said, far beyond the area now occupied by them. The Bushmen are famous as hunters, and actually run down many kinds of game. Living a life of periodical starvation, they spend days at a time in search of food, upon which when found they feed so gluttonously that it is said five of them will eat a whole zebra in a few hours. They eat practically anything. The meat is but half cooked, and game is often not completely drawn. The Bushman eats raw such insects as lice and ants, the eggs of the latter being regarded as a great delicacy. In hard times they eat lizards, snakes, frogs, worms and caterpillars. Honey they relish, and for vegetables devour bulbs and roots. Like the Hottentot, the Bushman is a great smoker.

The disposition of the Bushman has been much maligned; the cruelty which has been attributed to him is the natural result of equal brutalities practiced upon him by the other natives and the early European settlers. He is a passionate lover of freedom, and, like many other primitive people, lives only for the moment. Unlike the Hottentot he has never willingly become a slave, and will fight to the last for his personal liberty. He has been described as the “anarchist of South Africa.” Still, when he becomes a servant, he is usually trustworthy. His courage is remarkable, and Fritsch was told by residents who were well qualified to speak that supported by a dozen Bushmen they would not be afraid of a hundred Kaffirs. The terror inspired by the Bushmen has indeed had an effect in the deforestation of parts of Cape Colony, for the colonists, to guard against stealthy attacks, cut down all the bush far round their holdings. Mission-work among the Bushmen has been singularly unsuccessful. But in spite of his savage nature, the Bushman is intelligent. He is quick-witted, and has the gift of imitating extraordinarily well the cries of bird and beast. He is musical, too, and makes a rough instrument out of a gourd and one or more strings. He is fond of dancing; besides the ordinary dances are the special dances at certain stages of the moon, &c. One of the most interesting facts about the Bushman is his possession of a remarkable delight in graphic illustration; the rocks of the mountains of Cape Colony and of the Drakensberg and the walls of caves anciently inhabited by them have many examples of Bushman drawings of men, women, children and animals characteristically sketched. Their designs are partly painted on rock, with four colours, white, black, red and yellow ochre, partly engraved in soft sandstone, partly chiselled in hard stone. Rings, crosses and other signs drawn in blue pigment on some of the rocks, and believed to be one or two centuries old, have given rise to the erroneous speculation that these may be remains of a hieroglyphic writing. A discovery of drawings of men and women with antelope heads was made in the recesses of the Drakensberg in 1873 (J. M. Orpen in Cape Monthly Magazine, July 1874). A few years later Selous discovered similar rock-paintings in Mashonaland and Manicaland.

Little is known of the family life of the Bushmen. Marriage is a matter merely of offer and acceptance ratified by a feast. Among some tribes the youth must prove himself an expert hunter. Nothing is known of the laws of inheritance. The avoidance of parents-in-law, so marked among Kaffirs, is found among Bushmen. Murder, adultery, rape and robbery are offences against their code of morals. As among other African tribes the social position of the women is low. They are beasts of burden, carrying the children and the family property on the journeys, and doing all the work at the halting-place. It is their duty also to keep the encampment supplied with water, no matter how far it has to be carried. The Bushman mother is devoted to her children, who, though suckled for a long time, yet are fed within the first few days after birth upon chewed roots and meat, and taught to chew tobacco at a very early age. The child’s head is often protected from the sun by a plaited shade of ostrich feathers. There is practically no tribal organization. Individual families at times join together and appoint a chief, but the arrangement is never more than temporary. The Bushmen have no concrete idea of a God, but believe in evil spirits and supernatural interference with man’s life. All Bushmen carry amulets, and there are indications of totemism in their refusal to eat certain foods. Thus one group will not eat goat’s flesh, though the animal is the commonest in their district. Others reverence antelopes or even the caterpillar N’gwa. The Bushman cuts off the joints of the fingers as a sign of mourning and sometimes, it seems, as an act of repentance. Traces of a belief in continued existence after death are seen in the cairns of stone thrown on the graves of chiefs. Evil spirits are supposed to hide beneath these sepulchral mounds, and the Bushman thinks that if he does not throw his stone on the mounds the spirits will twist his neck. The whole family deserts the place where any one has died, after raising a pile of stones. The corpse’s head is anointed, then it is smoke-dried and laid in the grave at full length, stones or earth being piled on it. There is a Bushman belief that the sun will rise later if the dead are not buried with their faces to the east. Weapons and other Bushman treasures are buried with the dead, and the hut materials are burnt in the grave.

The Bushmen have many animal myths, and a rich store of beast legends. The most prominent of the animal mythological figures is that of the mantis, around which a great cycle of myths has been formed. He and his wife have many names. Their adopted daughter is the porcupine. In the family history an ichneumon, an elephant, a monkey and an eland all figure. The Bushmen have also solar and lunar myths, and observe and name the stars. Canopus alone has five names. Some of the constellations have figurative names. Thus they call Orion’s Belt “three she-tortoises hanging on a stick,” and Castor and Pollux “the cow-elands.” The planets, too, have their names and myths, and some idea of the astonishing wealth of this Bushman folklore and oral literature may be formed from the fact that the materials collected by Bleek and preserved in Sir George Grey’s library at Cape Town form eighty-four stout MS. volumes of 3600 pages. They comprise myths, fables, legends and even poetry, with tales about the sun and moon, the stars, the crocodile and other animals; legends of peoples who dwelt in the land before the Bushmen arrived from the north; songs, charms, and even prayers, or at least incantations; histories, adventures of men and animals; tribal customs, traditions, superstitions and genealogies. A most curious feature in Bushman folklore is the occurrence of the speeches of various animals, into which the relater of the legend introduces particular “clicks,” supposed to be characteristic of the animals in whose mouths they are placed.

See G. W. Stow, The Native Races of South Africa (London, 1905); Mark Hutchinson, “Bushman Drawings,” in Jour. Anthrop. Instit., 1882, p. 464; Sir H. H. Johnston, Jour. Anthrop. Inst., 1883, p. 463; Dr H. Welcker, Archiv f. Anthrop. xvi.; G. Bertin, “The Bushmen and their Language,” Jour. R. Asial. Soc. xviii. part i.; Gustav Fritsch, Die Eingeborenen Südafrikas (Breslau, 1872); W. H. I. Bleek, Bushman Folklore (1875); J. L. P. Erasmus, The Wild Bushman, MS. note (1899); F. C. Selous, African Nature Notes and Reminiscences (1908), chap. xx.; S. Passarge, Die Buschmanner der Kalahari (Berlin, 1907).