Daimon Publishers

Specimens of Bushman Folklore


Bleek and Lloyd -- Publishing to Humanize the Past

Curiously enough, both public and academic views have long tended to confuse contemporary indigenous peoples with past human societies. This conflation has taken place through the trope of primitive simplicity. If social science has any counter to offer, it is its power to reveal the intricate complexity of both past and present systems of indigenous thought and action. Nowhere can this complexity be more compellingly understood than in the realm of religion. Understanding other cosmologies, other worldviews, is one of the most profoundly humanizing activities available in all learning.

The /Xam and other San of southern Africa belong to a group of people whose past and present, to outsiders, have become quintessentially conflated under the rubric of primitive simplicity. One of the strongest keys to unlock this false and frozen equation exists in the Bleek and Lloyd Collection at the Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town. The writings of Wilhelm Bleek, Dorothea Bleek, Lucy Lloyd, and G. W. Stow found in the Collection come directly from the transcribed and painstakingly annotated words of /Xam San ('Bushmen') individuals of the nineteenth century.

The /Xam and their language have since disappeared through genocide. Speakers of other click languages live now, in 2000, with intense pressures, some of them of the kind which led to the extinction of the /Xam. The Bleek and Lloyd Collection can be seen as a 'Rosetta Stone' for understanding both the disappeared /Xam language and the social and cosmological ideas by which the /Xam and their ancestors lived successful lives as hunter-gatherers in southern Africa. Paradoxically, it is also a kind of Rosetta Stone for the present, as it illuminates the worldviews and lifeways which also underlie the recent past of modern San groups of Namibia and Botswana.

Han-Kasso, one of the Bushman narrators The ideologies of present San (Ju/'hoan, Nharo, G/wi, and many others) have been the subject of study by many anthropologists, writers, and filmmakers. Yet a screen has been interposed between the San's present realities and outside understanding. This screen has been woven not only of romantic ideas about their simplicity, but of the assumption that their language is obscure and cannot be parsed by non-native speakers. Further, an academic debate about the 'pristineness' or lack thereof of historical San groups, as well as the dispossessed and marginal status of present San, have served to obscure the enduring relationships of these groups' ideologies to those of the departed /Xam.

Publishing ventures such as the present volume and its planned successors can go a long way towards humanizing both public and academic understanding of these issues. The more than 12,000 pages of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection make possible the reading of the exact words of an extinct people. These were faithfully transcribed in a linguistically professional manner, with English translations on facing pages.

This volume continues the tradition, presenting the /Xam texts on facing pages as did the original publication and later facsimile of Specimens of Bushmen Folklore, while a separate edition will consist of English translations of the stories only.

The fact that a family of trained linguists and their associates sat down between 1870 and 1884 with a group of /Xam people who had been temporarily sprung free of imprisonment in Cape Town's Breakwater Prison has immense potential consequences. San people today, like indigenous peoples all over the world, are quietly organizing educational futures for themselves which will make fine use of this record of the intellectual history of their culture. They are struggling to educate among themselves scholars who will one day put it to use in fields like comparative linguistics, comparative religion, and even development studies. These scholars will help outside academics to understand concepts which have teased and eluded them, concepts which in many cases have been the cornerstones of longevity for some of the longest-tenured lifeways in human prehistory.

Though the Bleek and Lloyd Collection is not well known to scholars outside the relatively small group of anthropologists and linguists specializing in San studies, it has supported scholarly projects and publications of profound import. Perhaps most prominently, it is a source of real data confirming metaphoric patterns to be discerned in the magnificent, enigmatic rock paintings of South Africa. It is also a font of comparative data for the understanding of the contemporary ideas of San-speakers living in the countries north of South Africa, changed by circumstance though their modern lifestyles may be.

An exciting project which could be carried out using this priceless archive is the actual re-learning of the /Xam language, using the knowledge of contemporary speakers of allied languages. This project is contemplated as a collaboration between western anthropologists/linguists and interested San, who see it as a way to reclaim some of the lost roots and identity of their people. It is planned that the language reconstruction project will take place under the auspices of the School of Expressive Culture (SEC) in Texas, which will undertake to work with Namibian speakers and writers of Ju/'hoan, a language with which /Xam has many affinities. Additionally, the Evans Library of Texas A&M University, where the School of Expressive Culture is located, has arranged to acquire a microfilm of the Bleek Collection manuscripts from the University of Cape Town. This microfilm copy will be an exciting addition to the growing SEC collection of expressive culture materials from around the world.

One cannot speak appreciatively enough of archiving and publishing ventures which make possible both comparative study by scholars and reconstructions of culture history by indigenous peoples. This Swiss edition and volumes to follow with further San verbal materials will prove to be classic resources for academia, the public, and indigenous peoples alike. The Bleek and Lloyd Collection has recently become part of UNESCO's "Memory of the World" Register for Documentary Heritage. As described on UNESCO's website it "provides an invaluable and unique insight into the language, life, religion, mythology, folklore and stories of this late Stone Age people." In an age approaching absolute electronic interconvertibility of media, it is appropriate that the unwritten utterances of departed Stone Age individuals, whose knowledge formed the backbone of one of the longest persisting approaches to sustaining human life on our planet, be available to inform us all.

Megan Biesele

Austin, Texas

Autumn, 2000


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