THE NATIVE RACES OF SOUTH AFRICA
GEORGE W. STOW, F.G.S., F.R.G.S.
5. THE BUSHMEN'S METHODS OF HUNTING AND FISHING
There can be no doubt that the life of the wild hunters of old must have been one which would necessarily tend to develop in a very high degree habits of endurance, and of both bodily and mental activity unknown to those whose occupation was confined principally to pastoral pursuits.
Caution and strategy, coolness and presence of mind were qualities which must have been steadfastly cultivated through many generations to have enabled a race like the Bushmen to arrive at the degree of excellence which they attained, and which has made their swiftness, their keenness of sight, their ready resource in cases of emergency, the marvel of all those who have taken the trouble to examine these striking traits of their character.
In the days of undisturbed occupation by the early Bushmen, the country literally swarmed with game, both large and small. The Bushmen state that in the days of their fathers a number of large animals lived in the country, which afterwards became extinct and disappeared from the face of the earth.
Some of these extinct species are still to be found depicted in their caves ; and it is certain that animals still living had a much wider distribution in South Africa than they have been known to have since the advent of Europeans. The gemsbok (Oryx capensis) was once found on the plains drained by the Zwart Kei (t'Nu- t'Kay and 'Neiba), and the giraffe browsed on the trees of the Tsomo and other portions of the lower country ; while pythons must have been abundant along the banks of the rivers. Immense herds of buffalo must have frequented the brakes, and thousands of elephants roamed through the forest glades, not only of the coast line, but also in every other portion of the country where a sufficiency of succulent food could be procured ; while the abounding hippopotami laved their broad sides in every deep pool to be found throughout the land.
Instead of the deep chasms now found cutting through and draining the water from the plains, the result of excessive sheep-farming, chains of deep zeekoegats, or hippopotamus' pools, occupied their place, and wide spreading beds of reeds not only surrounded them, but frequently linked them together in one unbroken line. Innumerable herds of gnus, quaggas, zebras, ostriches, elands, and various other antelopes were scattered over the plains in countless myriads. This state of things existed in many parts of South Africa up to the middle of last century, and survived to the north of the 'Nu 'Gariep until the exterminating firearms of the Griquas and the Dutch were introduced.
In such a country, and endowed with the activity which it is known they possessed, it is not at all likely that the Bushmen would be the starving miserable people which some have delighted to depict them, before the stronger races invaded their hunting-grounds. Their powers of vision were extraordinary. They were able not only to descry, but to describe, objects at a distance, which were almost invisible to Europeans except with the aid of a telescope. This wonderful keenness of sight, the unerring manner in which they could follow upon the trail of either men or animals, gave rise to a tradition among the old Hottentots that there was once a race of men in South Africa who, instead of having eyes in their head, had them placed in their feet, so that it was impossible for any one to escape from their pursuit, on account of their quickness in discovering the trail.
Every precaution was taken not to alarm the game more than possible, and for this reason the Bushmen as a rule never drank of the water nearest to their cave or kraal. This was on account of the strong odour which they always, from their peculiar habits, carried about with them, and which they would certainly leave behind if they daily frequented the neighbourhood of the fountain ; thus the scent would frighten away the game, and tend to lessen their means of subsistence. To prevent this, they dug holes at a distance, from which a supply could be obtained.
A number of devices and disguises were constantly employed by the old hunters to facilitate approach to the objects of their attack. When taking the field against the elephant, the hippopotamus, or rhinoceros, they appeared with the head and hide of a hartebeest over their shoulders, and whilst advancing towards their quarry through the long grass, would carefully mimic all the actions of the animal they wished to represent. They appeared again in the spoils of the blesbok, with the head and wings of a vulture, the striped hide of the zebra, or they might be seen stalking in the guise of an ostrich. Sometimes a large tuft of grass like an enormous rayed crown was tied round their heads, and then none but the most practised eye could detect anything besides a slight rustling in the grass as they stealthily moved along.
Among the various modes that they adopted in watching game or their enemies, without exposing themselves to view, was to lie on their backs, with their feet towards the object they wished to look at, then throwing the head well backward, they gradually raised it until they could look under their eyelids, just over their cheeks, in such a manner as not to expose the forehead above the line of sight, their nose alone being higher than the level of the rock or grass over which they were peering. Doubtless such a mode of observation would be a difficult operation to any except an adept ; but they from constant practice rendered themselves such proficients that they were able to descry, in this position, objects at a considerable distance with the greatest accuracy. In this position also the foot was sometimes used in drawing the bow, whenever they wished to give increased force and impetus to their arrows.
In their paintings we constantly find both huntsmen and warriors using the disguises we have here mentioned. They are shown with the heads and horns of various animals, or else with heads and beaks of different birds ; they evidently prided themselves upon the correctness of the representation. These drawings would appear to any one not acquainted with the habits and customs of this old hunter race to be intended for symbolic, or supernatural deities, around which some ancient myth was embodied.
As it is quite certain that the custom of representing various deities with the heads and coverings of birds and animals must date back to a very remote antiquity, such a misconception is suggestive that all elaborations of this description had their origin in the fact that among the primitive hunter tribes disguises of this kind were constantly used and we can easily imagine that in those early days, when all history was mere verbal tradition, that any of their number rendering themselves more famous than their fellows, by their superior strategy, would after they had passed away have their deeds and successful daring recounted over and over again, and that these would be handed down from generation to generation. Their modes of attack, the disguises they had worn, their appearance and their arms, the great achievements they had accomplished, and the mighty victories they had won, would be again and again recited.
According to the descriptive powers of the ancient narrator, would the recital of their prowess be more and more elaborated and intensified, until the magnitude of their reported deeds would be considered something more than human, proving, as it would be said, the degeneracy of the men of their race then living. The extraneous disguises that they wore would become identified with their own personality, as indicating some great attributes with which the growing veneration of their descendants invested them, until, in process of time, their human origin would be lost in the obscurity of an almost unknown past, and only the deified recollections of them would remain.
Men whose memories were capable of retaining the largest amount of this cherished folk-lore, who could display the greatest energy in its recital, would naturally be looked upon with more admiration by their fellows than others less gifted, while an innate and natural desire to still further arouse the enthusiasm of their auditors would incite their vivid imaginations, at each declamatory repetition, to wilder flights of rude oratory, until the admiration of their hearers grew into awe ; and the narrators, as a necessary sequence, in the course of time were themselves looked upon as men possessed of superior power, denied to their less gifted co-patriots, until they became reverenced as the special keepers of those traditions which were ultimately deemed as possessing some mysterious and sacred authority, thus giving rise to the germ and the development of a priestly caste.
Many, or rather all, the Kaffir tribes, before they came into contact with more civilised races, thought the spirits of their great chiefs were the paramount power of the universe. They had no ideas of a deity beyond this.
The Bushman representations of the disguises of their great huntsmen and warriors would seem to point to the true origin of many of the bull, eagle, and other headed divinities, and much of the human element which we find introduced into ancient and modern religions. In this progression from the natural to the supernatural, the Bushmen shew in their paintings the earliest stages of the process of exaltation ; while the sculptured and pictured remains of the ancient Hindus, the Assyrians, and the Egyptians display, among the other creeds, its highest elaboration and development.
When the Bushmen wished to prevent the game from passing a certain line, and yet were not numerous enough to form a cordon along it, they employed the device of planting stout wands about their own height, dressed with ostrich feathers, and a tuft of them fastened to the top. These were planted at short distances from one another along the line they wished to mark out. The game appeared more terrified at sight of these than of the Bushmen themselves, and generally rushed from them in the greatest alarm. Even the lion himself very rarely approached them, but would skulk away whenever possible. In places where the lions were more daring, a strong sharp point was made at the end of them, which was rendered still more dangerous by being poisoned ; in later days a small blade of an assagai was fastened and concealed among the feathers, so that when the indignant animal sprang upon it, it was so placed as either to impale him or inflict a deadly wound with its poisoned point.
In stalking the quagga the Bushmen generally disguised themselves in skins of the ostrich, with a long pliant stick run through the neck to keep the head erect, and which also enabled them to give it its natural movement as they walked along. Most of them were very expert in imitating the actions of the living bird. When they sighted a herd of which they wished to attack, they did not move directly towards them, but leisurely made a circuit about them, gradually approaching nearer and nearer. Whilst doing so the mock bird would appear to feed and pick at the various bushes as it went along, or rub its head ever and anon upon its feathers, now standing to gaze, now moving stealthily towards the game, until at length the apparently friendly ostrich appeared, as was its wont in its natural state, to be feeding among them.
Singling out his victim, the hunter let fly his fatal shaft, and immediately continued feeding ; the wounded animal sprang forward for a short distance, the others made a few startled paces, but seeing nothing to alarm them, and only the apparently friendly ostrich quietly feeding, they also resumed their tranquillity, thus enabling the dexterous huntsman to mark a second head, if he felt so inclined.
But as these primitive hunters never wantonly slaughtered for the mere sake of killing the game, like those who boast a higher degree of civilisation, they generally rested satisfied with securing such a sufficiency as would afford a grand feast for themselves and their families, quite content with knowing that as long as the supply lasted their feasting, dancing, and rejoicing would continue also.
That these huntsmen, as long as the game was comparatively undisturbed, had an abundance of food is proved by the testimony of every observant traveller, some of whom have also noticed that the very dogs among the Bushmen were invariably fat and in good condition, whereas among both Kaffirs and Hottentots the dogs were never more than a pack of wretched-looking, half-starved curs.
Captain Harris, who travelled through the country with the eye of an intelligent sportsman, is conclusive upon this subject : " In many places," he writes, " the ground was strewn with the blanched skeletons of gnus and other wild animals, which had evidently been slaughtered by Bushmen, and traces of these troglodytes waxed hourly more apparent as the country became more inhabitable. The base of one hill, in particular, in which some of their caves were discovered, presented the appearance of a Golgotha ; several hundred gnus and bonteboks' skulls being collected in a single heap."
As the ostrich was one of the most wary of the inhabitants of the South African plains, the Bushmen adopted several methods of hunting it, but all depending on imitation or strategy.
Somewhat allied to hunting was their searching for bees' nests, and they showed not only their dexterity in the manner of discovering their retreats, but also their daring in securing this much coveted spoil. They would watch for the laden bees as they were returning to their hives towards the evening, at which time they fly straight to their habitations ; and with their keenness of vision the Bushmen would be able to detect the direction which the industrious insects took. This they would follow, still watching for returning bees, until they at last came to the spot where the nest was hidden. Should they pass it in their first attempt, they would soon perceive that the bees were coming from the opposite direction, when they would try back until the place was found. A beehive of this kind in the mountains when once discovered became the sacred property of the finder. Woe to the man who carried off the honey from a marked hive, which was usually distinguished by stones heaped up before it as a beacon. There have been instances where such an encroachment was punished with death.
They had also a most useful ally and assistant in carrying out this work in the honey-bird — the " Bee-cuckoo " — (Cuculus indicator), of Sparrman, and called " honing wijzer," the honey- guide, by the Hottentots and Dutch. As soon as a Bushman heard its well-known and alluring cry of " cherr, cherr, cherr," he was immediately on the alert, as he knew by experience that the bird was desirous of attracting attention. Finding that it had been successful in doing this, it flew a short distance in front, repeating the cry. As the Bushman followed, it again went a little farther, slowly and by degrees towards the quarter where the swarm of bees had taken up their abode, all the while repeating its cry of " cherr, cherr." The Bushman answered it now and then with a low gentle whistle, to let the bird know that its call was attended to. Approaching the bees' nest, it flew shorter distances, and repeated its note with greater earnestness. On arriving at the cleft of the rock, the hollow tree, or cavity in the ground, it hovered over the spot for a few seconds, and then perched in silence on some neighbouring tree or bush, awaiting results. A small piece of comb containing young bees was generally left on the ground as a reward to the bird for its information. Bushmen searching for honey say that the bee-hunter must not be too generous at first, but merely give enough to stimulate the bird's appetite, when the shrewd little thing will show a second hive if there be another in the neighbourhood.
Up to a few years ago, in portions of the country visited by the writer, the miserable remnant of scattered Bushmen who still clung to the land of their fathers returned regularly during the summer to their old haunts, for the purpose of examining and taking as much honey as they required from the swarms of bees which had occupied the same hollows and crevices from time immemorial. On their departure they always left certain private marks by which they could at once detect any attempt that might be made during their absence to pilfer from the hives, which, they considered, had descended from their ancestors to themselves. Some of these krantz-nests, as they are termed, were reached, as before mentioned, by a kind of rude ladder formed of sharpened pegs of hard wood driven into the cracks and crevices in the face of the precipice, and often to a height that none except Bushmen or baboons would ever have dreamt of climbing on such a precarious footing ; but the writer has been assured by those who have witnessed them that they not only ascended without the least hesitation or symptom of fear, but also with a rapidity that was perfectly astonishing.
The writer has seen the remains of some of these ladders still sticking in the face of the krantz, in positions where, without the evidence of the projecting pegs, it could never have been believed possible for any human being to have scaled and driven in these holdfasts as he ascended to such heights upon such a perilous foothold. In some cases, where even they found it impossible to reach the spot from below, on account of over-hanging rocks, they were frequently let down by their companions, with a long leathern thong, from some projecting ledge to the level of the nest below, and here, while dangling in midair, they would drive in a line of apparently fragile wooden supports, and thus form a sort of narrow platform, upon which they could either sit or stand whilst they abstracted the honey from the nests. This was transferred to one of their leathern sacks, made of the skin of an antelope which had been flayed without any incision being made along the belly. The bags as they were filled were let down by another thong to the foot of the precipice, where another Bushman was in waiting to receive them.
In 1870 there was still a small platform of this kind to be seen just under a bees' nest in the face of a precipice above the opening of Madolo's cave, the Cave of the Python, on the Zwart Kei. This was still visited every year by a small party of Bushmen, who up to that time had sheltered themselves in some of the fastnesses of the Great Kei, in their annual rounds, when they let themselves down in the manner described to secure their harvest of honey.
One of the disguises very frequently used by the Bushmen, both in attacking an enemy and stalking game, was to bind a large tuft of long grass round their heads with a band, the ends of the grass covering not only their foreheads, but forming a mask for their faces, leaving only apertures through which they could look. In this manner they could gently raise their heads and securely survey from among the tall grass whatever might be approaching, without fear of being discovered when moving from one position to another. They could rapidly wriggle along, with a snake-like movement on the ground, until they again raised their heads to see what progress they were making and the position of the game or their foe. Thus prepared, they would with great coolness and daring approach, totally unperceived and unexpected, within a very short distance of their enemies, and there remain watching their movements until a favourable opportunity presented itself of making an attack.
When it was their intention of attacking under such disguises, they generally divided themselves into two parties, one remaining out of sight at a distance until they knew that those advancing under cover of the tufted grass had attained their appointed position. The reserve party would then make their appearance at a considerable distance, and would commence endeavouring to draw their opponents towards the ambuscade, by flying long shots at them. In all probability their enemies,, supposing that the only party of Bushmen attacking was that in front of them, would freely expose themselves in the attempt to drive them off, until on a sudden they found themselves assailed almost at close quarters with sharp flights of poisoned arrows, whizzing apparently from what seemed to be merely the long grass around them.
Although the great plains and many other places were frequently so infested with lions, that they were met with hunting about the country in packs of eight and ten together, and it would have been dangerous for others to traverse them, yet the little Bushmen were able to do so with impunity. It has been already pointed out that many of the small clans spent their lives in the midst of these wilds, with no other protection at night than their frail mat-huts, and yet, notwithstanding this, they slept in security, whereas multitudes of fugitives who fled into their country at various times were devoured when attempting to sleep in the same exposed situations. It is said that the safety of the Bushmen depended upon a certain powder, long kept as a most profound secret, which they sprinkled at night upon their camp fires, and to which the lions showed such an antipathy that they would not approach the spot. The writer has been assured that this powder was composed of the spores of a peculiar fungoid plant, which grows exclusively upon the ant-hills of the country.
Daring as the Bushmen were in their attacks upon the lion, they were very cautious in their attacks upon the wild boar (Sus larvatus, Harris). " We would rather attack a lion on the plain," so they informed Sparrman, " than an African wild boar ; for this, though much smaller, comes rushing on a man as swift as an arrow, and, throwing him down, snaps his legs in two and rips up his belly before he can strike it and kill it."
The lions, on the contrary, seemed to have a dread of the Bushmen. When the latter discovered evidence that one of these beasts had made a full meal, they followed up his spoor so quietly that his slumbers were not disturbed. One of them then discharged a poisoned arrow at the savage sleeper from a distance of a few feet, while another threw his kaross over the animal's head. The surprise caused the lion to lose his presence of mind, and he bounded away in terror. In a short time the effects of the poison on the lion were terrible, and he was heard moaning in distress, while he bit the trees and ground in his agony and fury.
In hunting the larger game, such as the hippopotamus, the elephant, and the rhinoceros, three methods were employed. The first was by attacking them openly with their arrows and darts, when the animal was assailed on every side until it sank from its wounds, or it was disabled by being hamstrung, the tendons of its legs being severed by one of their large stone-headed harpoons.
A second method was catching them in pitfalls, and a third by constructing a trap, which has been called “ the harpoon- trap.” Pitfalls were at one time found along the banks of every stream and around almost every large pool in the country, and in many of the bush paths made by the wild animals.
Some of the tribes, where wood was procurable, made long fences, filling up the open spaces so that the only passages were those which were occupied by these treacherous traps, others again, where trees were scarce, erected long stone fences for the same purpose. Some of these were of such great length that after the tribes were broken up and they became a race of fugitives, travellers who saw them believed that works which displayed so much labour and perseverance could have only been accomplished by some pre-Bushman people. In later years the most extensive series of these works were found along the banks of such rivers as Zak River, Beer’s Vley, the ‘Nu ’Gariep, Caledon, Gumaap, ‘Gij ’Gariep, Kolong, and their tributaries.
In 1801, along the valley of the ’Gariep or Great river, pitfalls, with sharp stakes of hard wood in the bottom, and covered with grass, were numerous in the neighbourhood of the river. The points of these stakes were frequently poisoned. The spaces between the several holes were obstructed with fences, and thus the deer coming to the river for water, by striving to avoid the fences, fell into the pitfalls.
At the time of Governor Van Plettenberg’s visit to the Bushman country on the northern frontier, Colonel Gordon, who accompanied him, narrowly escaped with his life, by being precipitated with his horse into one of .these small abysses. They were even to be found in the country which was said by the friends of the Griquas to have been uninhabited when they first took possession. In 1820, at the time of Mr. Campbell’s second visit, although the game had then become very scarce owing to the increase of muskets among the Griquas, a number of pitfalls were yet to be found at Kogelbeen Fontein and other places beyond Griquatown, which had been dug by the Bushmen for catching game. These were so spread round the pools that it made it hazardous to approach them in the dark.
Some of the large pitfalls intended for catching hippopotami were nine feet deep and proportionately large at the top. The labour, therefore, of making a number of such excavations with an implement of so primitive a description as the ’kibi must have been immense. The capture of a hippopotamus was the signal for feasting for the whole tribe, and nothing but gormandizing, dancing, and boisterous revelry continued as long as the supply lasted.
The exaggerated expressions of triumph employed by some of the Bushmen on returning from a successful hunt, either with their bows or the pitfall, showed the intense and somewhat extravagant joy with which they contemplated such an approaching feast, which may have followed after one of their enforced periods of fasting. This feeling was well illustrated in the hyperbolic address made by a successful Bushman on his return to the waggons of the traveller Baines, after making a few successful shots. “ Behold me ! ” he shouted, “ the hunter ! Yea, look on me, the killer of elephants and mighty bulls ! Behold me the Big Elephant ! the Lion ! Look on me, ye Damaras and Makalaka ! Admire and confess that I am a great bull-calf ! "
It was this same feeling which made the Bushmen, before they were driven from their country with such inhuman barbarity, welcome any party of hunters that came amongst them merely for that purpose. Thus it was when Messrs. Chapman and Baines passed one of their Kalahari villages, that the whole female community ran out after them in all possible stages of dress and undress, joyfully clapping their hands and singing the praises of the “ flesh-givers ” who had made them thick and sleek. And it was not long before the greater number of them, laden with their household gear, took the road ahead of the hunting party, with, the intention of keeping company to the next water.
Nor did hippopotami and antelopes alone fall into these treacherous pits ; the lion, with all his activity and strength, has been found impaled in them, and even the wary and prudent elephant thus fell into the hands of the Bushmen. These animals with their superior sagacity have been known to attempt to assist their unfortunate companion out of his difficulty by aiding him with their trunks, and cases are upon record where they have succeeded in doing so when the animal has been young.
The third method employed by Bushmen for capturing large game, such as the hippopotamus, was that which has been called the harpoon trap. This ingenious contrivance consisted of a great block of wood, to which a poisoned blade was attached, which was suspended by a line over a bough that hung immediately over one of the foot-paths used by the animals on leaving the water ; the line was brought down and so placed across the path that when the victim struck his foot against it, it set loose the great block immediately above him, which falling with its weight and impetus drove the poisoned barb deep into its flesh. Some of the Bachoana adopted a similar method for entrapping these great brutes, but it is probable that in this, as in so many other methods which they employed in securing game, they have merely imitated the plans of the older race of hunters.
The Bushmen on some occasions, in order to ensure a supply of food, resorted to the expedient of poisoning the water of some of the drinking places. The substances principally used were the bulbs of the poisonous Amaryllis and branches of the tree Euphorbia , the latter when procurable appearing to be the most powerful. These poisons were also more fatal in their action upon some animals than others. This practice proved an additional danger to travellers who were unacquainted with the circumstance, though the natives generally used the precaution of leading off the water which was to be poisoned to a small drain, covering up the principal fountain.
The Bushmen had discovered several methods of capturing fish. One of these was that in which the national weapon was employed. The shaft was fastened to a long light line, and was used to strike the smaller sized fish as they came near the surface, when their dexterity in the use of the bow enabled them to ply their arrows with wonderful precision and success. For the larger fish the harpoon, such as we have already described, was used with a certainty of capture which astonished all those who were fortunate enough to witness these piscatory exploits.
A third, and equally ingenious device, was in the employment of fish-baskets, which have been called by some, as they answered the same purpose, Bushman fishing-nets. They were constructed upon the same principle as the eel-baskets of Europe. They were about six feet long, and from one and a half to two feet in diameter. Their manufacture displayed a wonderful amount of neatness and ingenuity. They were composed of reeds and twigs of the taaibosch, a wood noted for its toughness, placed alternately side by side, so that this alternation of dark and light bars gave the structure a pretty appearance. They were bound together with cord made either of bruised rushes or inner bark of the mimosa. These were placed at intervals in proper positions along the reedy margins of the rivers, and near passages through which at certain seasons of the year the fish passed in great numbers, when ascending the streams before the spawning and rainy season. Similar to the fences so frequently placed between the spaces of the pitfalls, the reeds and rushes were so interlaced as to form a net-work which prevented the fish from passing in any other direction than through the openings left for baskets, to which they were further directed by the erection of small weirs, built of stones, leading to them. The quantity of fish caught in this manner was sometimes very considerable, and added much to the feastings of the old Bushman race.
A plan identical with the above appears to have been adopted by the natives living on the banks of the Albert Nyanza. Sir Samuel Baker states that he went to the water side to examine the fishing arrangements, which were on an extensive scale. “ For many hundred feet the edges of the floating reeds were arranged to prevent the possibility of a large fish entering the open water adjoining the shore without being trapped. Baskets were fixed at intervals, with guiding fences to their mouths. Each basket was about six feet in diameter, and the mouth about eighteen inches.”
This remarkable identity between the methods adopted by wild tribes so widely separated as the banks of the Albert Nyanza and those of the ’Nu and ‘Gij ’Gariep is particularly interesting, and would seem to indicate that, as they are strikingly identical in every detail, the palm of invention must be awarded to the more primitive hunter race, which carried its discovery along with it in its southern migration, and that those farther to the north are mere copyists, having possibly acquired their knowledge from some of the scattered remnants of the rear-guard of the former, who were cut off in their retreat by the intervention of the stronger races.
The Native Races of South Africa
01. Editor's Preface
15. The Koranas
17. The Griquas
24. The Barolong