Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be called societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don’t form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident.
Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.
Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.
The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter
Nevertheless, there is enough that’s credible in Tainter’s retelling of Turnbull’s findings to chill you to the marrow. Tainter’s point is that the Ik hadn’t always lived that way. Clan surnames and village cohabitation indicated a former level of social organisation that had collapsed – whether lost or abandoned.
It’s a familiar trope. Strip away the veneer of civilisation and what remains is the Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all. The dystopian destiny of The Road. There’s a Lord of the Flies in all of us, by this way of thinking. It’s simply who we are. Thank goodness we have the modern world to keep a cap on all that.
But maybe we’re not doing ourselves justice. The boys in Lord of the Flies are exemplary little mid-twentieth-century Brits, crudely replicating the hierarchies and violence of empire in which they’ve been schooled. The Road is peopled by survivors of a nuclear winter who also happen to be remnants of an arrogant, rapacious civilisation overrun with soulless weapons and machines. And the Ik who Turnbull encountered were in the midst of a holocaust, with no-one to nurse them back to health. In each case, victims-turned-malefactors, equipped for a hazardous new environment with the wrong skills and values – skills and values developed for their formerly complex, sick society.
The Kalahari Bushmen who in the 1950s were still living in what Elizabeth Marshall Thomas called ‘the Old Way’, clung to an apparently precarious existence on arid terrain among lethal predators. But they were not sick and there was no war of all against all. Theirs was an interdependent way of life, honed over hundreds of generations and tailored to the available environmental niche. A way of life which, if Marshall Thomas is right, long pre-dated humankind’s sideways step, via settlements and farming, into civilisation.
The Bushmen devoted much energy to establishing and maintaining harmonious relations, both locally and across a dispersed web of kith and kin. The necessities of life were shared, and there was a constant traffic of long-distance visits, facilitating the spread of news and the circulation of little gifts, handmade hairclips and the like. Qualities or advantages in an individual which might manifest as arrogance, or trigger envy, were downplayed. Discord was discouraged, with the whole community on hand to pacify and reassure disputants. Violence was rare. There were no stockades and no Lord of the Flies-style brutality. Children were not cast out to fend for themselves.
The Ju/wasi [Bushmen] were unfailingly good to their children. An infant would be nursed on demand and stay close to its mother, safe in the pouch of her cape, warm in cold weather, shaded in hot weather, complete with a wad of soft grass for a diaper. Ju/wa children very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about. No child was ever yelled at or slapped or physically punished, and few were even scolded. Most never heard a discouraging word until they were approaching adolescence, and even then the reprimand, if it really was a reprimand, was delivered in a soft voice. At least the tone was soft, even if the words weren’t always.
We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative, and usually without close siblings as competitors, the Ju/wa children were every parent’s dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likeable, more confident children.
The Old Way: A story of the first people by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Those confident, likeable, intelligent children grew into accomplished, collaborative, self-assure adults. But it’s gone now, the Old Way. The Bushmen were evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for pastoralists, farming settlements, and safari-style game reserves. They were thrust into the cash economy on its bottom rung, exposed to the ravages of extreme poverty just as they were struggling to accommodate complete cultural dislocation. Yet the Old Way, the memory of it, was their culture’s parting gift. An ancient code for living relatively peaceably, relatively in balance with nature, without the prop of modernity.
That capacity for harmonious living in challenging circumstances must be deeply rooted in all of us, beneath those more recent codes and values we rely on to function in this bewitching, troubled world. Amid relentless pressure to compete and consume, the rest be damned, we do still find ways to support and encourage one another, and nurture our habitat to boot. Perhaps the fate of the Ik, in their time of crisis, doesn’t have to be the only future that awaits.
Image by kind permission of James Suzman at Anthropos. See more of his Kalahari portraits at Things from the Bush. ‘The Holboom is a giant baobab tree estimated to be 4,500 years old. It lies near the village of Djokxoe in north-eastern Namibia. It feeds both the Ju/’hoansi [Ju/wasi] and elephants that devour its pods.’