IN - DEPTH

 

Hunters-Gatherers

The earliest ancestors of man may well have originated in what is now East Africa, as far back as five - perhaps even eight million years ago, taking into consideration the recent findings of the “Tugen Man” in Kenya. Most of this pre-history of mankind is contained in bones and stones, in middens (dunghills or rubbish heaps) and museums, in scholarly theories and painstaking excavations. The history of our ancestors continues to live in present peoples and cultures.

The most prolonged past of any people of Eastern Africa and the Horn is that of the hunter-gatherer groups. These groups are not the survivors of the Stone Age nor are they direct descendants of an ancestral race once inhabiting parts of East Africa, but are rather the elements of Stone Age cultures that have survived through them and their way of life. The hunter-gatherers are not primitive, but rather the aspects of their technology are – and in the best meaning of the term: Easy, highly adapted and very effective.

The fact that there was a pre-food-producing population or hunter-gatherers once inhabiting East Africa is undisputed. Also indisputable is the fact that a Bushman-type people was once present, although there are no true Bushmen e.g. in Kenya today. Quite possibly there were hunter-gatherers of still other stock also. Kikuyu legends, for instance, talk of pygmies, the Agumba, living in the forests to which the Kikuyu migrated. But one thing remains in dispute - where did these people originate from?

Economically, then, hunting and gathering peoples and their cultures are obviously characterised by exactly what they are called: hunting and gathering. Although many hunter-gatherers attempt to herd or cultivate, so that hunting has become a secondary economic pursuit for them - an addition to other food-producing pursuits, the inclination to hunt continues to be strong, but present-day laws make it hard to follow. Keeping bees and collecting honey is an economic pursuit not hindered by legislation, and of far more greater value than of economic alone.

The social value of honey is incalculable. The bee and honey are to the hunter-gatherer what a large stock and milk are to the herdsman. Even if honey has never constituted more than one-fifth of their diet, it is the substance which binds the total social life of hunter-gatherers together in different ways. It is the gift given at marriage, the pre-eminent element in ritual and a form of social communication through the process of exchange. That is also the reason why certain attempts by people and organizations under the flag to “help”, who start to buy all the honey and market it, is actually the very way to destroy the culture of these people.

Although the bands of men are bound by the hunt and the groups of women are bound by gathering - honey binds them all. Hunter-gatherers live in loosely organised societies lacking centralised authority and government. Their attachment to place is proverbial, yet they have always been mobile and nomadic within the general bounds of their hunting grounds. Territorial rights to these grounds broadly “ belong “ to line-ages, so do the rights to hunting and gathering.

The simplicity of economic and social life is marched by the simplicity of material culture. Home is a
dome-shaped hut constructed from a frame of sticks and branches which is thatched with leaves or grass. Bows and arrows, spears, beehives, honey baskets and pottery are the most characteristic items of the Hunter-gatherer’s material culture. The pottery style is distinguished by paired lugs on the rim of bowls and below the neck of the pots.

One last outstanding cultural characteristic of hunter-gathering peoples is their adaptability, a manifestation of their capacity for survival. They adopt the customs, imitate the material culture of
their neighbours, don the dress and learn the languages of their neighbours when it suits them. When it suits them they do it so well that they may become indistinguishable from their neighbours. But beneath the assumed identities the people remain hunters at heart, with a taste for honey on their tongues and senses attuned to the desiccated bush of the hinterland or to the forest of the highland.

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