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Solway, J. S. and R. B. Lee (1990). "Foragers, Genuine or Spurious?: Situating the Kalahari San in History." Current Anthropology 31(2): 109-146


Recent stydies of societies hitherto portrayed as autonomous and self-regulating have sought to re-situate them in the context of wider regional and international economies, polities, and histories. In this revisionism there is danger of imputing links where none existed and assuming that evidence for trade implies the surrender of autonomy. Examination of the different historical experiences of two San groups, one largely dependent on its Bantu-speaking neighbours and the other (until recently) substantially autonomous, suggests that contact may take many forms, not all of which lead to dependency, abandonment of foraging, or inorporation into "more powerful" social formations. Accuses Denbow, Wilmsen, Gordon & Schrire of erecting strawmen arguments by "imputing links where none existed and assuming that where evidence exists for trade it implies the surrender of autonomy" (109).
Case studies: 2 groups.
Basis of article: contact does not automatically undermine the hunting-foraging mode of relatedness, that San can be autonomous without being isolated and that stable, variant forms of interaction developed with their neighbours.
Nata, Botleti, Okavango Rivers: "Black" San fishing, cattle, agriculture
Ghanzi, western Botswana: San farm labourers
Central Kahalari & Khutse game reserves: /Gwi + other San hunter-gatherers, some small stock
Central Sandveld: San as herders for Tswana cattle, live around the posts
Iron Age in Kalahari 500 AD
Late Stone Age sites with Iron Age artifacts, indicating linkages of variant natures
Revisionists also draw upon 19th century explorer accounts - trade, warfare, diplomacy, San serfdom
Revisionists argue for oscillating between pastoralism and hunting-gathering modes of production within regional economic and political systems
Wilmsen (1983: 17): "It is more than merely possible that the San are classless today precisely because they are the underclass in an intrusive class structure." This challenges the standing notion that equal distribution of food has to do with a hunting-gathering way of life.
Utilising the eary Iron Age remains, the revisionists propose a scenario whereby the San were integrated into the wider regional social and economic networks, and thereby ceased to function as separate, diverse, related groups of people. Those who continued a variation of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle did so as a consequence of poverty and/or as a means of resisting domination.
To examine these claims, one has to look closely at what constitutes regional variation in the Kalahari, what assumptions can be made regarding the nature and consequence of contact between San and their neighbours, the question of what constituted "servitude" and also "the transformative power of the commodity" (111).


Blacks in an area co-existing with San for min. 200 years.
Dutlwe: southern Kahalari, 250km west of Gaborone.
Three San groups: Tshassi, Kwa, Khute.
Two black groups: Kgalagadi, Kwena.
Kwena are Tswana and reside at the eastern edge of the desert which has more abundant water resources.
Therefore: Kwena-Kgalagadi dominant. San on the periphery socially, economically and demographically. Divided into three periods: Pre- and protohistoric, fur-trade and agro-pastroalism periods.

The pre- and protohistoric period
Oral traditions: symbiotic relationship between San and early Kgalagadi settlers.
Difaqane, resulted in new Kgalagadi settlers after 1820. Brought goats, sheep and dogs. Credit San with teaching them desert survival skills. Their animals obtained moisture from the melons.

The fur-trade period
Post 1840.
Kwena (Tswana) attempted to reassert their hold over Kalahari periphery. Threatened by Boer, therefore eager for guns. Need for desert trade items, i.e. ivory, ostrich feathers, et al.
San traded with Kgalagadi who, in turn, dealt with Kwena.
Tobacco one item traded for skins & labour brought by San.
Contact between Kgalagadi and San primarily in winter months.
Kwena control broke down end of 19th century.
Kgalagadi began accumulating cattle as a result, resulting in inequalities between San and them. Failure in attempting to impose a hierarchical model on the San.
1885 saw the start of British imperial rule over Botswana. Tribute system abolished.
1887, colonial officer moving through western Kweneng - San have no fixed residence, live off the bush.
1899 report - "lives a nomadic life in a wild state and hunts for the masters", which Solway & Lee interprets as "portraying them as simultaneously enserfed and nomadic foragers" (113). Thus some, but not all, San were subservient, the institutionalisation of which came later.

Turn of 20th century, Kgalagadi elite relied on their poor to herd the cattle.
Agro-pastorial production eroding environmental base, with desertification setting in.
Central Kalahari served as refuge, free of livestock and villages by law. But area away from the best water sources. Fluidity between villages and the bush. Bush providing the refuge from total subordination.

The organic link
1940s, agro-pastoralism firmly entrenched.
New well-digging techniques lowered water table further.
Plow agriculture.
Kgalagadi young men work in SA mines. San labour fills the gap.
Therefore, altered production base and labour demands which more closely tied in the San's social reproduction domain. Today, San homesteads around Kgalagadi villages: spatial marginality = social marginality.


700km north of Dutlwe.
Not affected by Difaqane.
Not reached by Black settlement until 1925.
Surrounded by waterless belt 70-200km in depth.

The pre- and protohistoric period
No Iron Age settlement remains in Dobe until 20th century.
What Iron Age pottery and iron found attributed to trade with northern Iron Age settlements.
San elders talk of long-term trade relations with "Gobe", with independence, and that the first large number of visitors were whites.
LSA deposits 100cm + in depth, continuity.
Trade relations with Gobe established 500-1500 AD.
Ivory, honey, fur traded for ceramics, iron, tobacco.
Precolonial reports from Europeans portray Dobe San (!Kung) as fiercely independent.

The fur-trade period
Two systems: indirect with Goba and, later, Tswana; direct with Europeans.
European trade brief but intense. For example, Hendrik van Zyl's party who killed 400 elephants, regarded by the San as pests. !Kung remember this as a period of intense social activity and economic prosperity. Also, the Dorsland Trekkers, who reached Angola from the Transvaal in 1880; the trek route was disused by 1900.
1920s and 1930s see first Black settlement movement into Dobe. The catalyst of this movement was probably the European penetration, as Tswana hunter-traders had been used by Europeans and now used wagons to make their own trips.
Period between the Europeans and Blacks is called, by the San, koloi which means wagon.
Two economic systems in use: barter and mafisa.
Mafisa involved changing relations of production, loan cattle-labour exchange, which a minority of Dobe San became involved in.
"But the mafisa families were not peasants; they were islands of pastoralism in a sea of hunting and gathering." (117)
Those !Kung who took part did it originally voluntarily, with the majority never relinquishing their rights to n!ores. Cattle herding super-imposed upon the n!ores.
"In neither instance, however, did the fur trade have much impact on the internal organization of San societies." (119)

Agro-pastoralism Herero pastoralists, mid-1920s.
Deepened and dug new waterholes.
Immigration of more Herero after 1954, increasing demand for San labour.
Herero into subsistence pastoralism.
1960s: 70% of Dobe San in camps. Foraging, mafisa herding, horticulture. Patterns of collective ownership within the camps. Remainder in client groups with Herero. Part of their domestic economy.
By 1970, pastoralism had taken its toll on the nevironment. Boreholes.

"Both the Kgalagadi and the Herero were "devolved" pastoralists with the socioeconomic infrastructure to facilitate the rapid reabsorption of livestock into the cultural system. If, as is suggested by Schrire (1980), the San were also "devolved" pastoralists, why did they not follow in their neighbours' path and become predominantly pastoralists in the 20th century?" (footnote 21, page 119)

"One of the rhetorical devices of the revisionist view of hunter-gatherers is to equate autonomy with isolation - a definition so tringent that no society can possibly satisfy it. But autonomy is not isolation and no social formation is hermetically sealed; we take it as given that all societies are involved in economic exhcnages and political relations with their neighbours." (120)

Sekgalagadi term munyi means master for Black-San relations but in kin relationships also means "elder brother". Tswana bolata signifies hereditary servitude, but no servitude has been witnessed in practice and in reality should be taken as representative of ideology rather than the interdependence which characterises San and non-San peoples.

The situations across the Kahalari are fluid and complex, varying from region to region.


Alan Barnard
Revisionists hold to a regional-historical perspective
Lee & Silberbauer have a more ethnographically-driven perspective
Guenther & Hitchcock have a third perspective, that of economic pluralism and dependency

M.G. Bicchieri
Agrees with Lee & Solway: " is only the rate and mode of change that are open to observation and interpretation...In an evolving system, adaptation is the goal, and well-being is adaptation with minimal stress. In the human context well-being depends on both material and social technology. Thus the forced demise of hunter-gatherers may be no more of an adaptive failure than the demise of social technology among developed societies." (123)

Alec Campbell
Agrees with Lee & Solway.
Tsodilo rock paintings include depictions of cattle, either herded or stolen, plus mythological figures and other animals but excluding sheep.

James Denbow Calls Solway & Lee's contention that there was no Iron Age occupation in the Dobe area until the 20th century misleading.
Points out the last archaeological reconnaissances were 20 years prior and contends they were looking in the wrong areas for Iron Age settlements.
Queries what it takes to recognise a change in hunter-gattherer lifestyles and territory range, and queries whether an extended range could have extended to the sandveld where the Tsodilo Hills are.
13 faunal remains from Mahopa, 0 from /Xai /Xai I and 2 from /Xai /Xai 2. Levels 2-6 (600 years ago) at Mahopa have the remains of 5 remains, 60% of which are buffalo; the lower levels (2-3000 years ago) have no buffalo remains with zebra instead making up 63% of the faunal assemblage; Denbow suggests this may be representative of a shift and queries whether this was the result of the impact or influence wagons or guns or iron spears.
From the Tsodilo Hills, Denbow focuses on two sites: Divuyu (550-730 AD) and Nqoma (850-1090 AD).
Divuyu: lithics virtually absent, large numbers of iron implements. Fish and other delta animals means inter-regional exchange was occuring. No copper deposits within 200km of the Hills, and iron ore to the north and in the delta area, means that the metals were being imported along system routes.
Nqoma: 1km south of Divuyu. Amongst its remains are 13 marine shells from the Indian ocean, ivory fragments and glass beads. A number of stone tools were also present.
The two sites represent changes in subsistence economy and material culture, which drew the Dobe San into regional networks of exchange.
Accuses Lee & Solway of perpetuating " kind of historical apartheid" (126)
"Perhaps the exhortation to continue to believe in the historical uniqueness of the shrinking Dobe waterhole has more to do with the ideology of intellectual self-definition among some anthropologists than with any need for outside "authentication" of their lives by Kahalari peoples." (126)

Robert Gordon
Schinz (1891) and Passarge (1907) show maps with wagon roads through Nyae/Nyae.
"Solway and Lee chide me for presenting an account for which less than 20% (?) of the material refers to the !Kung of the Dobe-Nyae/Nyae area." (126) However, Solway & Lee use the word "conflate".
Accuses Lee of portraying the San as living in "primitive affluence" with superior veldcraft skills, in line with Afrikaner anthropologists. He then states that, by contrast, San are good soldiers because of "their pariah status within the wider society" (126).

Mathias Guenther
"I find Solway and Lee's basic point eminently reasonable - that in some regions of the Kalahari and at some times in the history of its various hunting-and-gathering inhabitants people were relatively isolated and autonomous, while in other regions and at other times they were relatively incorporated and dependent." (127)

Henry Harpending and Patricia Draper San not timeless relics.
Food sharing not a consensus to avoid outside domination - !Kung know if it isn't eaten it would rot. !Kung more fussy about sharing nuts.
Evidence lacking for Solway & Lee's assertion that without the San the Herero would not have enjoyed the level of prosperity which they did during the 1960s and 1970s.
Not hint of oscillation, in the !Kung elders' memories, between hunting-gathering and pastoralism.
Ghanzi !Kung had !Kung visitors from Dobe, therefore would have been in contact with Iron Age peoples.
Caution urged in interpreting the meaning behind 19th century terminology.
mtDNA distinct and ancient.

Robert Hitchcock
Agrees with Solway & Lee.
Mentions ecological and economic constraints with regards to herding.
San on the periphery of villages may tend to be less involved in pastoralism than San further away.
Oral evidence that 19th century San kept cattle in the central Kalahari.
Mentions masifa relationships are normally with own kin. When San refer to themselves being in mafisa, Hitchock suggests this may be presentative of a more institutionalised situation.

Tim Ingold
"Society" is a neglected term.
Discerning quality and kind of relatedness between peoples.
Hunter-gatherers: relations of incorporation and trust.
Agrarian: denial of autonomy of others.

L. Jacobson
600 - 1100 AD was sporadic Iron Age occupation of the Kalahari.
Small numbers of potsherds = hxaro
"Obviously, one is not dealing with "pristine" foragers who could serve as direct models for, say, the Pleistocene. They may have been involved in sub-continental trade or exhcnage networks, but it is certainly wrong to consider them all as having been subordinated to a dominant mode of production. The social reality of contact between modes was as variable as the land, the motive force behind prehistoric economies." (131)

Susan Kent
Revisionists have robbed the San not only of their history but also of their diversity.
Contrast in economic diversity seen by comparing the Dutlwe and Kutse San.
Also makes the important point that "one must demonstrate that cultural assimilation accompanied trade as is assumed by some "revisionists" " (132).

Pnina Motzafi-Haller With regards to the Afrikaaner period, "Yet in their effort to cast this generation-long era of "intense irruption" only in terms of whether it entailed a "basic restructuring of relations of production," the authors do not explore the multiple social, political, and even ecological implications fo such interaction and dismiss it as short-lived." (132)
Mechanisms - social, cultural, political, economic - necessary to transform a society.

Thomas Patterson Basically provides an overview.

Carmel Schrire
Brings up Nancy Howell, a revisionist, being a former member of the Harvard Kalahari Research Group who now decries the Group's methodology.
Barrier surrounding Dobe can be crossed, using ostrich eggshell water containers, in a couple of days.
Pattern of archaeological evidence for San-Black interaction throughout the Kalahari.

Bruce Trigger
Revisionists rely on post-modernist dependency and world-system theories.
Agrees with Solway & Lee: "My own recent analysis of 17th-century Huron society strongly supports Clastres's (1977) argument that small-scale egalitarian societies have powerful built-in mechanisms that actively oppose the development of social and political inequality." (135)

Polly Weissner
Hxaro networks of the Dobe !Kung.
Permitted !Kung to visit partners and utilise their resources, including partners who worked for pastoralists.
Suggests that there might have been a second system uniting the San of the region in the past, an initiation system.
These two systems created the environment for !Kung self-sufficiency and explains the paultry Iron Age fragmentary remains inside Dobe.

Edwin Wilmsen
Harvard Kalahari Research Group was guided by a flawed paradigm.
States Solway and Lee are "unable to appreciate that a social formation is forged in the ideological arena of social and property relations whereas "culture" is an intellectual organizing principle of anthropology" (136).
Accuses Solway & Lee of misrepresenting the revisionists.
Asks what sort of pastoralist would entrust his cattle to hunter-gatherers, and what sort of hunter-gatherer would look after cattle.
Colourises Solway & Lee's stance on the subject as an "apologist stance on subservience" (136).

John Yellen
"In some areas Khoisan peoples acquired goats and developed an independent pastoral life-style. The "Black Bushmen" groups of northeastern Botswana document an instance in which indigenous culture proved dominant...With the advent of Iron Age peoples along the Okavango margin, small amounts of pottery and metal appear in the western Late Stone Age sites and this clearl indicates either direct or indirect contact. The effect of these Iron Age peoples, however, is minimal. In contrast with the situation in margin sites, both metal and pottery are extremely rare. The diverse stone tool assemblages remain unchanged over time, suggesting continuity int he kinds of activities people conducted... In 1975 and 1976 I excavated a series of Dobe San camps, the earliest of which dated to 1944 [Yellen 1987]. Although Herero pastoralists were in the region at that time and !Kung undoubtedly had access to goats and cattle, faunal analysis indicates a minimal presence of these species in the Dobe !Kung diet prior to 1962... Thus archaeological data from both older and more recent sites support Solway and Lee's Dobe analysis." (138)

Aram Yengoyan
Knowledge of internal historical processes of peripheral societies required.
Emerging social formations.
Contributions by Marxism to anthropology.
Political hegemonies and evolving social formation - a dynamic dialectic.

Solway & Lee's reply

"We see Yengoyan's observation that among the Australian Aborigines foraging relations of production can be regenerated in the "bush" as another indication of the existence in these societies of an internal dynamic apart from the dynamic of their articulation with capitalism and the state." (139)
Different ecological zones in the Kalahari relate to different archaeological patterns.
Reiterates long period of absence of Iron Age settlements within Dobe.
Agrees with Wiessner's hxaro trade.
Meaning and value of items differ in varying social contexts.
Agrees with Motzafi-Haller and Hitchcock, pointing out they raise important questions for future research avenues. Should not accept 19th century documents and reports at face value.
Should take into account the weaknesses of economic theory when utlising it, and bear in mind that "has been notoriously unsuccessful in dealing with societies that lack either or both" state and markets (141).
Mechanisms for San social and cultural reproduction in place, and the ferocity and passion of !Kung identity and internal coherence.

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