Archive for January, 2013

If the story I am telling is correct, a crucial point in human history would have been reached once there were visions of all three types in play. At that moment, it might have seemed that all aspects of human experience had been accounted for and that nothing remained to be added.

There was one vision that encompassed the physical world and its plants and animals. Another focused on human society and the kinship system that held it together. And a third proclaimed the reality of the magical dreamscapes of the early shamans.

In fact, there are some peoples that appear to have gotten along perfectly well with just these three in all the long years since — most notably, the Bushmen, or San, of southern Africa, who genetically, linguistically, and culturally are closer than any other group to the human root.

According to an online summary of their culture, “Their knowledge of both flora and fauna is vast. The San categorized thousands of plants and their uses, from nutritional to medicinal, mystical to recreational and lethal. … Kinship bonds provide the basic framework for political models.”

The site goes on to describe the medicine and rain dances during which “the dancers reached trance-like, altered, states of consciousness and were transported into the spirit realm where they could plead for the souls of the sick.” It also notes that “the most important spiritual being to the southern San was /Kaggen, the trickster-deity. He created many things, and appears in numerous myths where he can be foolish or wise, tiresome or helpful.”

Certain aspects of San culture — such as bows and arrows and representational art — appear to be relatively recent and are unlikely to go back more than some 50,000 years. But even those have been incorporated into a belief system which is clearly much older.

There is a mystery about the San — but the real question, I suspect, is not why they have stayed the same but why the rest of us have changed. All of us except the San have abandoned what would seem to be a simple and functional system in favor of one that is infinitely more complex and fraught with internal tensions.

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