PHILLIP V. TOBIAS AND THE ‘BUSHMAN HUNTER-GATHERERS’ (1964)

The first book to be published explicitly entitled Ecological Studies in Southern Africa appeared in 1964, edited by D.H.S. Davis of the Medical Ecology Centre in the Department of Health in Johannesburg. Today, a work called ‘Ecological studies’ would suggest content around ecology, ecological systems, trophic levels, resilience and other principles relating to the natural world. However, an earlier meaning and usage of the word had more to with environmental relationships – the place of animals and plants within particular habitats and their interrelationships, adjustments and accommodation thereto. ‘Ecological studies’ is never defined in Davis’s book, which ranges extremely widely. The work comprises 18 chapters – stretching through the Pleistocene environment and palaeoecology, human origins and fossil studies, vegetation and plant succession, invasive plants, freshwater and estuarine studies, ornithology, genetic studies of flies, gerbil fleas, climatic change, bilharzia, the history of game preservation and veld burning. In all, it is a fascinating miscellany with contributions of uneven focus and quality.
This short article analyses just one of these chapters in order to reflect on the changing discipline of San (Bushman) studies over the past 50 years. It also considers an aspect of the career of Professor Phillip V. Tobias (1925-2012), one of South Africa’s most renowned scientists and a former President of the Royal Society of South Africa.
In 1964, then aged 39, Tobias was already Professor of Anatomy at the University of the Witwatersrand. His chapter in Davis was entitled ‘Bushman hunter-gatherers: A study in human ecology’ (Tobias 1964: 67-86). The content was largely based on Tobias’s experiences more than a decade earlier as a member of the 1952 French-sponsored Panhard-Capricorn Expedition led by explorer and geographer Francois Balsan. As Tobias explained in his 2005 memoir, Professor Raymond Dart, then head of the Department of Anatomy at Wits, encouraged Tobias’s participation in what was to be his first long (11 weeks, 6 800 km) expedition. Despite his frequent attacks of asthma, Tobias found the experience of travelling along the Tropic of Capricorn from Namibia to Mozambique through the Kalahari exhilarating, and he credits it with his lasting enchantment of Africa (Tobias 2005: 63-69).

Bushman sucking water through a straw and filling an ostrich egg shell

Bushman sucking water through a straw and filling an ostrich egg shell

Tobias’s secondment to Balsan’s expedition was specifically in order to study and measure (anthropometry) the Bushmen (Tobias 1964: 86). San studies today focus largely on their spiritual life, their rock art and belief systems. In this regard, the many publications of Professor David Lewis-Williams FRSSAf , originating in the re-discovery and reinterpretation of the material collected in Cape Town by Wilhelm Bleek and his family in the late 1800s, have deepened our understanding immeasurably. The people that Tobias called ‘Bushmen’ in his chapter in Davis are more frequently today referred to as the ‘San’ so as to avoid the derogatory term that ‘Bushman’ was considered to be, but in fact, ‘San’ may also be pejorative and many San prefer to be called ‘Bushmen’ instead. (In this essay, the terms are used interchangeably.)
In the Davis volume there are two chapters on the San, one is by Tobias and the other by Robert Story, then employed in the Division of Botany in the Department of Agriculture in Pretoria and later at the C.S.I.R.O. in Canberra (Story 1964: 87-99). Story describes the ‘Plant lore of the Bushmen’. Story was extremely knowledgeable about San use of plant material, but not – as Tobias came to be – of their anatomy, their biology and their physical and cultural adaptation to desert life.
Reading ‘Bushmen hunter-gatherers’ today one cannot but be struck by the racial tone of Tobias’s chapter – the indignity of physical anthropology, of measuring people, of considering issues such as morphology, height (dwarfing), the amount of body-fat, genital and infantile features and the like. In his memoir, Tobias acknowledged how his scientific thinking changed over the years and how, at the time of the Balsan expedition (and thus the chapter in Davis), he was ‘under the influence of Raymond Dart’s typological approach to the analysis of the “racial affinities” of African peoples’. While this approach forms the basis of the chapter in Davis, Tobias said that he soon shook off Dart’s influence because ‘it went hand in hand with stereotyping and forms the basis of what the Germans used to call Rassenkunde. Surely such thinking was to be eschewed in an age when we were learning so much more about how the hereditary material worked ….’ (Tobias 2005: 68).
The arrangement of the chapters in the Davis volume is suggestive of the state of scientific thinking at that time and the place of ‘prehistoric people’ in it – as part of the natural rather than the truly human world. The book begins with a chapter on the Pleistocene environment and it is followed by pollen analysis and palaeoecological studies of that era Chapter 3 is concerned with ‘The Pleistocene mammals of southern Africa’. Humanity enters ‘ecological studies’ with Raymond Dart’s exposition on the South African ‘man-apes’ and the chapters by Tobias and Story on the Bushmen follow. There are no other chapters on humans.
Following the theoretical thinking of Marston Bates (1953), Tobias argued that biology and culture were difficult to separate. After describing Bushmen morphology, Tobias pondered the numbers of the surviving San, a task made difficult because of their nomadism and inaccessibility. Definition itself was problematic: What is a Bushman? Are they to be categorised according to their hunting and gathering economy? Their characteristic ‘click languages’? Their physical appearance? Following Schapera, and for the purposes of his discussion, Tobias decided upon language and a mutual recognition of each other. Far from being a ‘vanishing race’ in the region (as many thought), he estimated a population total of 55 531, of whom only 20 lived within the Republic of South Africa. Early European settler massacres of San in South Africa were responsible for their almost complete extermination together with a particularly virulent smallpox epidemic of 1951. By far the majority of San (more than 50 000) were citizens of South West Africa (now Namibia) and the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana).

The huntsman's eyes survey a parched horizon. Note how his skin has lost its characteristic elasticity

The huntsman’s eyes survey a parched horizon. Note how his skin has characteristically lost its elasticity

In accordance with the now abundant confirmation from studies by Lewis-Williams and others, Tobias discussed the earlier widespread distribution of Bushmen in southern Africa, but also included speculation that their being forced into arid environments favoured those with physical attributes and strengths that enabled them to survive under harsh circumstances. Genetic adaptation is a long-term process and thus, according to Tobias, probably did not play a large part in the ability of Bushmen to live in the desert, but their ease of acclimatization did. Better physically able than other communities to withstand extreme heat and cold, Bushmen – as explained by Tobias – were also culturally more flexible. The construction of windbreaks and sleeping quarters partially scooped out as protection from wind, the use of fire, an ethic of sharing, all played their part in survival. Perhaps even more important, however, was the organisation of the community into a variable number, small when food was scarce, large when food was available. Population growth might have been curtailed by infanticide or by abandoning the aged or infirm thus allowing a viable clan or band to persist. The relevance of a gender division and reliance on ‘veldkos’ and water storage were also explained by Tobias as survival techniques. Most significantly, however, he concluded that despite these enduring characteristics of a precolonial lifestyle, the San are modern humans and they are neither static or unchanging – as many apartheid politicians deemed, or wished, them to be. As all humans do, they maximise opportunities that they either make or with which they are presented. Southern African researchers in the 1950s and 1960s were thus, according to Tobias, privileged to be ‘provided with a unique opportunity of studying the dynamics of the transition from the Palaeolithic existence to pastoral life, such as was taking place in the river basins of the eastern Mediterranean thousands of years ago’ (Tobias 1964: 85).

Jane Carruthers

Suggested reading:
Balsan, F. and Marion P., L’Expédition Panhard-Capricorne. Translated by Pamela Search. An account of an expedition across Africa from the Atlantic Coast to the Indian Ocean. (London, 1954).
Hollmann, J.C. ed., Customs and Beliefs of the /Xam Bushmen. (Johannesburg, n.d.)
Lewis-Williams, J.D., The Rock Art of Southern Africa. (Cambridge, 1983).
Deacon, J. and Dowson, T. eds, Voices from the Past: /Xam Bushmen and the Bleek and Lloyd Collection. (Johannesburg, 1996).
Story, R. ‘Plant lore of the Bushmen’, in Davis, D.H.S., ed., Ecological Studies in Southern Africa (The Hague, 1964), pp. 87-99.
Skotnes, P., ed., Miscast: Negotiating the Presence of the Bushmen (Cape Town, 1996).
Tobias, Phillip, Into the Past: A Memoir. (Johannesburg, 2005).
Tobias, P.V., ‘Bushman hunter-gatherers: A study in human ecology’, in Davis, D.H.S., ed., Ecological Studies in Southern Africa (The Hague, 1964), pp. 67-86.