How do people survive under the most extreme conditions, such as in the polar regions or the most remote deserts on Earth? Readers and television viewers can ponder this question in the comfort of their living room and wonder at the courage and fortitude of mountaineers and explorers whose expeditions may last at most a few weeks. But how do you manage for much longer periods, as did hunter-gatherers in the Namib Desert, not as well fed and equipped adventurers but as families with young children and even elderly people among them?
This is one of the questions that drove my archaeological research over the last forty years in the Namib Desert, located on the southwestern coast of Africa and extending over an area larger than the British Isles. Rainfall in this desert is negligible, usually less than 100mm per year and successive years may pass with none at all, making fixed settlement nearly impossible. Precolonial hunter-gatherers were perforce as mobile as the antelope and other prey with which they shared this bleak but extraordinarily beautiful landscape.
Other than being tough by any standard, these people had no special physiological adaptations to desert life; neither did they have any developed technology to protect them from the sun or ensure successful hunting. But they did have two advantages that would be the envy of any modern explorer: an exceptional knowledge of the desert and its resources and, more important still, an intricate and very extensive social network maintained by the circulation of gifts which promoted social integration and mutual obligation, a veritable safety net strung across the dunes and mountain valleys of the Namib.
Climatic conditions became even more unstable in the last few thousand years and large parts of the desert became entirely waterless. In isolated refuge areas hunter-gatherers honed their skills and developed extraordinarily specialized subsistence practices based on close observation of desert ecology. When grass germinates after brief showers of rain, harvester ants crop the seed heads, strip off the husks and store the grain in underground caches. These are found by following the converging trails of the ants, and the seed so obtained was winnowed and stored in large clay vessels. Once excavated, the seed caches were closed with flat stones and left to recover.
As in the Old Testament advice “Go to the ant thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise…[she]…gathereth her food in the harvest…” (Proverbs 6: 6-8), the hunter-gatherers of the Namib took their lesson directly from their environment. By storing food that was already gathered by the ants, desert communities were able to alleviate the risk of famine. They applied the same approach to wild melons, to bees’ nests that were carefully managed as sources of honey, and the result was a degree of sustainable living that amounted to a domestication of the desert itself.
These improved methods of gathering, processing and storage of wild foods also had important social dimensions, and the most fundamental of these was the adoption of initiation practices that schooled young people in the principles that underlay a more intensive relationship with desert resources. Women were inducted to adult roles through special rituals in which proper behaviour was exemplified by the habits of particular antelope species which were depicted in the most graceful form as paintings and engravings at secluded initiation sites.
Young men were separately initiated, passing through a period of isolation where the important values of manhood, including vigilance foresight, memory and self-control were reinforced through games of skill. Just as women initiates learned the value of cooperation in the work of gathering plant foods, men formed age cohorts needed for new methods of cooperative hunting adapted to the migratory cycle of desert antelope. With cooperation based on common social values established through initiation practices, hunter-gatherers in the Namib Desert survived and flourished where others might have failed. They provide an object lesson in human resilience at a time of global climatic change.
This guest post was written by John Kinahan, an independent Namibian scholar, Adjunct Professor of Archaeology at Arizona State University and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand. His research on the archaeology of the Namib has been widely published internationally.