Animals in Bushman Medicine

Notes to accompany KhoiSan animal use tables

Animal use tables – non domesticated   domesticated , insects


“we tell the researchers what plants we pick or animals we catch, then the conservationists  and government people come along and make it illegal for us to do it. It was better before we told anyone”

I am very aware that publishing these tables constitutes a responsibility and trust between me and the KhoeSan.  Numerous KhoeSan have expressed the above concerns to me. At the same time all have given the information I include willingly, in the knowledge that  it will be recorded and reproduced in the public domain.  We are the public domain. You may be the legislators, academics, NGO’s, conservationists or Khoekhoe or Bushmen interested in this information. The issues are complicated and decisions have real impacts on people and the environment. I extend my trust and their trust to you. Reflect and use it wisely.

I have put together these table as an indicator of recent KhoeSan use of animals in medicine. The tables comprise information from KhoiSan interviewed by me during two principal bouts of fieldwork undertaken respectively in 2000-2001 and 2007-2008. To ensure anonymity interviewees have been attributed numbers. Numbers 1-101 refer to interviews from the first phase of fieldwork and numbers 2201 to 2250 to the second. The first phase was intrinsic to my ESRC funded DPhil, ‘KhoiSan Healing: Understandings, Ideas and Practices’ (UNiveristy of Oxford, 2004). The research examined past and recent healing ideas and practices and involved Damara, Nama, Topnaar, Hai//om, Nharo, Ju/’hoansi and !Kung. The second phase relates to my ESRC funded project “Animals in Bushman Medicine” (2005-2008) which examines the changing relationship between animals, Bushman and medicine from prehistoric times to the present. During the second fieldwork period I principally interviewed Hai//om, Ju/’hoansi, Nharo and ≠Khomani although I have included material from other Bushman groups I encountered, including Khwe  and !Ko.

Interviews were carried out with the aid of translators and were principally held on a one to one basis although the contingency of interview settings often meant contributions were made to interviews by those sitting nearby or dropping in. I have tried to account for the provenance of information as best as possible within my interview name or number attribution. Formal interviews generally lasted between one and two hours although some stretched to as many as four. I held three formal group interviews (H52, H59, N/D 32). Some numbers refer to material taken from multiple interviews with one person or from notes made subsequent to ongoing discussion held over days or returned to over months and years.

In listing animal usage I have deliberately included information which reflects the varying ways in which individuals talk about animals alongside medicinal strategies and ideas. This is important because the presentation of a stripped down list of parts accompanied by a sterile summary of use robs the material of vital context. At times what has been included might seem inconsistent but I have chosen to list it because it has some bearing on wider issues or debates either within my own work or the wider KhoiSan intellectual context. The included taboo-like Khoe speakers concept of soxa, for instance, is something as yet very poorly explored in the literature but something with considerable bearing on human animal relationships. I have deliberately included certain beliefs that say something important about the wider relationship between KhoeSan, animals  and medicine and inform the problems of approaching the subject, medicinal animal usage, from this Western categorical starting point. In certain instances I have also included information regarding more everyday use of animals, particularly as food. This information seems important as an indicator of the wider environmental use patterns or wildlife  trade patterns that background KhoeSan medicinal animal use. Its inclusion broadens the usefulness of this list to those more focussed on environmental or conservation issues.

Although the  interview number is not large,  250, and the material cannot by any stretch of the imagintion be said to be entirely representative of all KhoeSan within the communities I encountered, let alone those living much further away, I am confidant given the repetitive nature of the themes, the repetitive ingredients of ideas and practices and their relationship to information from other sources, that the list captures central poles of KhoeSan medicine over a wider geographical area and for at least the later nineteenth century onwards, if not far earlier. Many of the ideas, procedures and substances seem familiar to those recorded in the Bleek and Lloyd archive from the latter decades of the nineteenth century and similarly to the medicinal references that pepper other early ethnography or traveller texts since the late seventeenth century. Massaging different sorts of fat is a good example of such continuity. Whilst historians are rightly cautious to claims of continuity, arguments for continuity of practices and  ideas are becoming increasingly accepted in the revision of postmodern history. The sort of continuity arguments I have elsewhere proposed (Low 2008) hinge upon continuities in  environmental relationships fine tuning the sorts of things people continue to notice, talk about, work with, dream and ultimately live off. Key to my understanding of change is that different aspects of society change at different rates and, as Barnard suggests (Barnard 2002) , folk ideas enmeshing ontology and epistemology , religious belief and folklore, seem remarkably persistent.

Alan Barnard, ‘The Foraging Mode of Thought’, in Henry Stewart, Alan Barnard, and Keiichi Omura (Eds), Senri Ethnographical Studies 60, (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology), pp. 5-24

Chris Low, KhoiSan Medicine in History and Practice, Research in Khoisan Studies (Koln: Roediger Koeppe Verlag, 2008)

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