2.6 million years ago, the cortex which had started engulfing their reptilian and mammalian brains, brought our ancestors to using crude stone tools. They had become Homo habilis and had thereby opened the Stone Age. Although it has ‘stone’ in its name, this is not a geological designation but rather an archeological and anthropological one. It relates to us humans, to what we did and how we lived. 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus stood up, but he kept on using stone tools. Then 200’000 years ago, was the end of an interglacial period and its warm and comfortable climate gave life on Earth and human evolution a boost: Homo sapiens had arrived, the modern human, our direct human ancestor. He, too, was still using stone tools. But their manufacture had become more sophisticated. Smaller flakes were struck from a prepared core, giving more control over size and shape of the hewn stone, and allowing the composition of stone points with wooden spears and arrows, and scrapers with handles. Archeologists and anthropologists honored this technological progress by promoting our ancestors from the Early to the Middle Stone Age. So, here he is, in the Middle Stone Age and somewhere in East Africa, Homo sapiens: Upright and equipped with tools and fire, the genius of a huge cognitive brain, and consciousness.
The geographical origins of the modern human and the traces of his migrations out of East Africa into the continent are long forsaken. For the rare archaeological finds of human fossils or tools and artifacts, the catch is that their scientific analysis will only reveal the upshot of what was then and there. But thanks to research on differences in language and notably DNA of contemporary Africans, we know that through his primary migrations out of East Africa, Homo sapiens established three African population clusters that are still alive today:
On his move out of East Africa, Homo sapiens first moved south along the Great Rift Valley. But he did not stop in Mozambique. He continued further south- and westward, onto the southern African Plateau. On his way to Cape Town at the southern tip of Africa, his migrations also took him into the area of the Kalahari Desert which lies in parts of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. And there, some groups of Homo sapiens have lived since they arrived, as early as 150’000 years ago. Genetically, the Bushmen of this region, the Khoisan, are the oldest of the three main ancestral population clusters of Africa, as close to the original Homo sapiens as no other modern humans living on the planet. They are known for the click-consonants in their language and their way of life as ‘those who pick things up from the ground’. To this day, they are foragers, hunter-gatherers of the savanna, who take their food from the wild – living in unity with nature and the gods.
According to their cosmology, the Khoisan did not always live on the surface of the earth. Underneath the earth, which was light without the sun, their Lord of Life, had allowed people and animals to live together in harmony. Then he built the wonderful world above the earth. First a tree, and then the other plants. And when the plant world was finished, out of a hole under the tree, he brought the people into the world, and then the animals. The Lord of Life, the supreme being, withdrew from the earth and moved into the sky and humans, the animals and the plants all lived in harmony – until humans built a fire. The fire frightened the animals and since then, the people were no longer able to communicate with them. The unity of humans, nature, and the gods was interrupted, and death came into the world. Order became chaos. And ever since, the Khoisan people have been seeking the gods for redemption, seeking to reestablish the spiritual and harmonious order of the world.
A group of Bushmen are living their happy life in their natural environment. Then a tourist, from an airplane overhead, throws out of the window a Coca-Cola bottle which lands in the camp of the Bushmen. Quickly, the strange and in many ways useful object becomes coveted, and in the community fighting over its use and chaos breaks out. To restore peace and order, the leader of the group decides to take the bottle back to the gods. On his journey to the ‘end of the world’, where he will surrender the bottle to the gods by throwing it over a cliff, he crosses paths with other modern humans, South Africans in their way of life of the 1980s. An intertwined story of a confused scientist, a naïve schoolteacher in the bush, and a group of simple-minded guerilla fighters ensues. The only one who keeps his cool and grounding, and leads the story to its happy end, is N!xau, the leader of the Bushmen, the Khoisan with that click in his name and on his mission to surrender the Coca-Cola bottle to the gods. – You can’t make movies like this anymore, but ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’ is an adorable and teasing film opposing our modern and the ancient Khoisan lifestyles.
Today, things are more complicated. But one thing stands for sure, the end of the white rule of Apartheid in South Africa did not change much for the Khoisan. And with the emergence of identity politics in the new millennium, there are today Khoisan activists who decry racist discrimination against themselves by their fellow black South Africans. They demand recognition as a distinct minority and claim their civil rights – and control of their ancestral land. Not with Kalashnikovs, that would not befit their harmonious cosmology.
Twice in my diplomatic career for conferences, I came close to the homeland of the Khoisan. And whenever duty travel took me close to an exotic place of interest to me, I would add a few days for a touristic sidestep and go there. The first time, I spent two weeks in Johannesburg as the coordinator of the Swiss delegation to an UNCTAD conference. UNCTAD stands for United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and with my background of having worked on development for the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Kenya, and for the United Nations in Somalia, I was teased by my colleagues of being the ‘fair trader’ of the delegation, a dreamer. They were mostly from the Ministry of Public Economy and as such, of course, ‘free traders’, dealers. Leaving Switzerland after a glance at the Africa map, a visit to the Khoisan out of Johannesburg looked like a good idea. On-site, it would have turned out to be a trip of just under 1’000 kilometers. Africa is big. So, I let it be. The other time, a migration conference took me to Cape Town. But for my additional days of tourism there, I let the Khoisan be from the beginning and settled for the traditional offers of the immediate region, a wine tour, the Waterfront, the Table Mountain, some art galleries, and another wine tour.
Also, I had been warned of visiting indigenous peoples in guided tours, in the Central African Republic in the early eighties. As the young diplomat I then was, I was sent from Kinshasa, then ‘Kin-la-belle’, to Bangui, then ‘la coquette’, to negotiate the consolidation of the country’s debt to Switzerland. I stayed at the Rock Hotel overlooking the rapids in the Ubangi River, which marks the border to the Congo, then Zaïre, and twenty years after independence, I negotiated the debt of Central Africa with a French technical assistant in their Ministry of Finance.
In my added-on days of tourism, I first visited the palace of Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa who had just been deposed in a bloodless coup, two years earlier. His Central African Empire had only lasted two years, but he had committed enough crimes and atrocities to prompt this intervention, of course lead by the French. The republic was restored but the reputation of his country was ruined. And ever since, the political story of the Central African Republic remained one of coups and failed elections, and since the beginning of the millennium, outright civil war. Bokassa’s palace had been looted, but I was most impressed to still see the cold room of the kitchen in which Bokassa stored human corpses and body parts. I was told that the emperor was a cannibal and out of that refrigerator, had human flesh prepared for meals. Some anthropologists suggest that cannibalism was common in the Stone Age and that some tribes of African forest people practiced it historically. And in our modern times, there are reports of cannibalism from the civil wars in the forests of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Congo. But to create a cannibal cuisine definitely goes too far. Although he had been a cook in the British Army and had admitted to having eaten human flesh, not even Idi Amin Dada, the dictator of Uganda and contemporary of Bokassa, did that. But he also had a frigerated room, except that he only kept the heads of his disposed political enemies there, as trophies.
Remarkable in the palace of Emperor Bokassa was also the court where he dispensed justice. It was flanked by a lion cage and a crocodile pool. Condemned to death by the law of Bokassa, you were passed on to the higher law of the jungle. Survive a night in the cage with the lions or cross the crocodile pond, and you were free. Put on death row by Bokassa, personally, I would have chosen the lion cage. Ever since we humans took their place as the super-predator amongst the animals, the crocodiles have been out and after us for revenge. And my guide confirmed that chances of survival in the lion cage were higher. Because often the lions were overfed to such an extent that the following morning, the convict would walk out of the cage unharmed, and free.
On the market I had found women selling crawling caterpillars out of squirming full basins. Food, fresh from the forest. But very agreeably to me in those days in Bangui, the diet of the African forest people still met French cuisine. So, for dinner that evening, I went to a small French restaurant and opened my meal with escargots, the classic, with garlic and parsley butter.
Another day with another guide, I drove into the forest, to a ‘pygmy village’. The Pygmies are original Homo sapiens who migrated west out of East Africa and populated the rainforests of Central Africa and the Congo Basin, around 130’000 years ago. They are the second population of primal Homo sapiens, the oldest foragers and hunter-gatherers of the African forest. They live in unity with the jungle and the gods and also take their food from the wild. Some scattered small groups still live in the forest, as their ancestors did. According to the Pygmies’ cosmology, the forest is the center of the quiet, peaceful, and abundant world, the primordial womb. Its god, the master of the forest, controls all life in it. Any open space, without the canopy of the trees, is hot and noisy, a dangerous space that brings poor hunt, sickness, social aberrations, and death.
And true, the village I visited was a sad experience. The Pygmies there, had been pulled out of their traditional habitat of the jungle and settled, and forced to stay. By other Central Africans, they were looked down upon because they were gnomes and defied because of their primitive lifestyle. Half-naked, half-dressed in ragged western clothing, many drunk and begging for cigarettes and money, the Pygmies were hanging around their settlement of some decaying cement buildings with mud huts and makeshift hovels of sticks and leaves around them. Their dignity and meaning of life were vanishing with the logging of the trees and clearing of the forest around their village.