Bushmen are the most diverse group of humans

Review: Myrna Robins

First People: The lost history of the Khoisan, by Andrew Smith (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

This well-written book’s introduction, which doubles as a summary of the author’s career, makes a great start to a great read.

The extent of Andrew Smith’s research, physical excavations and accumulation of knowledge is truly impressive. Run your eye down the list of his published titles and you will see that this professor of archaeology published a history of the Khoikhoi of Southern Africa (1996) and one of the Bushmen (2000) and now combines them with this accessible history.

But the real difference between this title and previous books on the subject is that Smith is among the first to focus on writing for the Khoisan descendants of today, many of whom want to know more about their archaeological, linguistic and genomic history.

Smith says he is able to provide this using the fragmentary evidence available, but also because new evidence on the genetics of the populations at the Cape add a greater dimension about who the Khoisan were.

In this way old colonial histories of the past are replaced by up-to-date knowledge based on scientific findings.

After describing the differences between the hunter-gatherers (Bushmen) and the Khoe herders or pastoralists, Smith relates that the early contact between European sailors (Portuguese) and the First People in the 15th century was not friendly.

Some 150 years later an exchange with a Dutch crew wrecked at Bloubergstrand in 1649 proved to be a peaceful encounter that helped influence the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam to set up a refreshment station at Table Bay to supply ships.

This developed, as we know, as the burghers became farmers, with unfavourable results for the Khoisan. They were also treated as virtual slaves while mission stations set up to convert the Khoe to Christianity – with Genadendal near Greyton developing into a centre of Khoe literacy.

Smith reports new evidence indicates that the genetic descendants of the Khoisan live today in the Cape, Namibia and Botswana.

The chapters on how the Bushmen perceive their world are absorbing. They are followed by similar history of the Khoekhoen and the development of herding in Africa.

In chapter seven Smith considers how herders meet hunters – the effect the arrival of herding people had on the hunter gatherers of Southern Africa.

Linguistics and genomics make the foci of the following with recent studies suggesting that the Bushmen are the most diverse of any living population of humans.

The effect of colonialism on Khoisan history has been tremendous, and the study of the Khoisan has, as Smith points out, always been “from the outside in.” In this book he has presented information about what might have existed before the colonial intrusion.

And he finishes by repeating his assertion that the Khoekhoen played an important role in world history and it is time they be celebrated as a crucial part of Southern Africa’s past.

Smith dedicates this title to the descendants of the San and to Khoekhoen herders who survive today in several parts of southern Africa.

One thought on “Bushmen are the most diverse group of humans

  1. David Bristow

    One more for my wish list.
    Do you do “guest” reviews – I think I’ve seen one.
    I’ve got one, the second of Bathurst sleuth Bernie Bernard, by local scribe Monty Roodt (ex Rhodes Sociology prof)
    Could I submit something?


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