Contemporary Namibians reading Stone Age Tracks: Advances in- and the flipside of - applications of indigenous knowledge

By Aglaja Kempinski (Staff Writer)

In 2011, two German pre-historians started a project called “Tracking in Caves” [i]. The premise of their idea was simple: Pastoors and Lenssen-Erz invited three San hunter-gatherers from the Kalahari in Namibia to help them interpret some human footprints they had found in a cave in the Pyrenees. These were of course no ordinary tracks. They had been left there by people who had inhabited the caves in the Late Stone Age sometime between 12 000 and 18 000 years ago.

It is not unusual to find tracks in caves which have been preserved through the ages, surviving from Stone Age until the moment the cave was discovered by contemporary explorers. According to a recent article published in Bild der Wissenschaft some of the footprints in Tuc d’Audoubert (this particular cave’s name) are well preserved due to the distinctly stable climate and air conditions of the cave. A layer of dust that can be brushed away or soft clay protects the footprint (bdw page 58[ii]). Regardless of the fact that footprints are nothing new, scientists have thus far still struggled to interpret them.

The San of the Kalahari Desert, also known as ‘Bushmen’ (Khoi-San) or in Botswana the ‘Basarwa’, are the indigenous inhabitants of the Kalahari Desert. Even though very few – if any - still live as full-time hunter gatherers, many have retained the tracking skills they are famous for. Learning this delicate and intricate skill takes a lifetime. Experienced hunters can identify the sex of an animal by its tracks, the exact time it walked past and often they can also tell the animals age, the speed at which it was moving, the state of its health, its posture and what it was doing in relation to other tracks around it. Human tracks, apparently, are more difficult. Nonetheless the hunter’s ability to interpret human footprints goes far beyond that of any Western archaeologist.

This example of the application of indigenous knowledge is fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, it is beautifully simple. The archaeologists lack a specific kind of knowledge, the San hunters can directly fill in the gap. Secondly, the San’s readings were able to turn many previous assumptions about the cave’s inhabitants upside down. For example, in addition to telling the scientists exactly how many different people and of which age and gender caused the prints, they were able to dispel the previously held theory that the tracks in the Tuc d’Audoubert cave included the oldest shoe print. Thui Tao, Tsamkxao Ciqae and Ui Kxunta simply noticed what scientists had thus far failed to see: the faint imprints of toes.

As devastating as this de-sensationalisation of the now not-the-first-ever-shoeprint might have been for the scientific community (according to the BdW article the two prehistorians leading the project took it well, I am happy to report), it was only one of many instances in which the San’s findings dismiss previous assumptions. In one part of the caves, scientists thought they had found tracks of children. Based on the extremely low ceiling they assumed that the children must have been crouching and further hypothesised that the younglings had been performing a ritualistic initiation dance. Here, too, the San had to disappoint the scientists. From the tracks they deduced that 12 000 years ago[iii] a single girl had been standing in the spot; upright not crouching and certainly not dancing.

I am a great fan of this project. It is refreshing to see such a fruitful cross-fertilisation of knowledge across cultural boundaries. It renews my faith in the more positivistic sciences to see how some scientists are willing to branch out, try new things and engage with indigenous people on equal footing. Last but not least, I cannot deny a feeling of strange satisfaction with the fact that three San just managed to stroll into a cave a nonchalantly show up all the archaeologists who tried to tackle the mystery of the tracks before them.

The point is that I think we can all agree that this is pretty great project. However, as an anthropologist writing her thesis about the discourse around San representation, I cannot help but feel an ever so slight sense of unease when reading publications about it. The problem is that a project which calls in San to interpret footprints from the Stone Age might lead the careless reader to conflate Stone Age people with the San as an ethnic group. It might give the wrong impression that their ability to read the pre-historic tracks is related to a similar life style or ‘culturally evolutionary stage’ as opposed to a skill which happens to come in handy in this context. While of course none of the publications explicitly allude to this notion, it is tempting for anyone telling this story to embellish it with idealised notions of who the San are stereotyped to be. Put bluntly, a story like this just becomes that little bit more sensational if assumed links between the San and people from the Late Stone Age are exaggerated. If we are not careful, drawing a direct line between the Stone Age and the San is an easy step to make– after all, they manage to read what the cave people of the Pyrenees where doing when Western scientists, already too far removed from the Stone Age, failed to do so.

The link also works the other way around. The reason why scientists had hypothesised that children had been performing a dance for an initiation rite at the site was because similar rites are present around contemporary hunter gatherer groups. It is perhaps fitting that one of the San, when asked whether he was sure there had been no dancing just replied: “[No.] Why should they have been dancing?”[iv]

Linking the San with Stone Age people has haunted the indigenous inhabitants of the Kalahari throughout the 20th century. Many scholars have been interested in them precisely because they assumed the San could provide a window to our pre-historic past. This association with what is in public discourse often considered a ‘lower evolutionary stage’ has had severe social and political implications for the San. They are just now beginning to challenge prejudices like this and to positively construct their public image as equal citizens of a globalised world. By calling on San expertise projects like this can have a positive impact, as long as it tracking expertise which is called upon rather than Stone Age knowledge. However carefully such a project is approached, it remains a minefield of representations and harmful stereotypes which needs to be treaded lightly.

I wholeheartedly salute the initiators of the “Tracking in Caves” project and all those who work to publish its results. However I do hope that now that an international precedence has been set for the usefulness of San tracking skills[v] it will be increasingly used in other fields as well- not just enquiries related to (and linking the San with) the Stone Age.

[i] See for an English summary by one of the scientist’s home institution

[ii]Schlott, K. (2014) Faehrtenleser auf der Spur unserer Urahnen. Bild der Wissenschaft (issue 7) 56-63

[iii] Even though this is not explicitly mentioned in any of the publications I read, I assume that the dating of the tracks was not done by the San but by the Archaeologists and Geologists. Techniques which the San use to tell the age of a footprint in the desert cannot apply in caves since they are based on considerations about the weather and the presence or lack of specific insect tracks. Either way, it would be unreasonable to assume that the San have the ability to tell how many centuries footprints in a European cave are old

[iv] Bdw, page 63, translated from German

[v] I emphasis ‘international’ because on a national level, both sides involved in the Namibian independence war were in fact also very aware of and keen on the San’s tracking skills.