Linguistic, archaeological, and genetic approaches to the integrity and origin of the Khoisan populations:
What do they have in common? Where did they come from?
Ever since they were “discovered” by European colonial invaders, the Khoisan – or, as they used to be called, “Bushmen” – have fascinated us.
In fact, I’m sure that you’ve heard some reference to them – they’re the nomadic tribes in Africa, the ones who speak with clicks.
They’ve been seen as remnants, as “living fossils”. They’ve been relatively isolated, have extremely limited material culture, and adhere to traditional practices long since abandoned by other tribes.
Their language and lifestyle has entered into pop culture, a subject of curiosity for researchers and racists alike. They’ve been turned into case study after case study as we’ve tried to bleed every bit of insight we can from their lives – we’ve sought to turn them into analogies to shed light into the lives of our long dead ancestors – for cave painting, for hunting practices, for body proportions, for medicine, or for social structure.
Their history is ripe with sociological implications. Activists and historians have their own set of case studies to cull from the “Bushmen’s” history, for indigenous rights, for history, for labour, or for race relations.
On a third level of metaphor, the very nature of the academic inquiry presents a critical opportunity. With such a breadth of disciplinary studies into these populations, we can begin to not only synthesize disparate data, but even to analyze syntheses. We can examine the integration of the differing bodies of data and approaches, corroborate conclusions, and consider the relationships between these different lines of evidence.
So, if they’ve been so extensively studied – what is there left to ask?
Not quite like this…
Quite a bit.
It turns out, that for all the interest in their behaviour, it’s still less than clear whether it’s really fair to refer to “the Khoisan” as a group. And the more we look into it, the clearer it becomes that each round of research has been based on a number of assumptions.