tags: books, anthropology, prehistory, Deep History
Daniel Immerwahr teaches history at Northwestern University and is the author, most recently, of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.
“They must be the most contented people in the world.” This is how the 1980 comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy introduces the San peoples of the Kalahari Desert, better known as the Bushmen. They eke out a simple living, the narrator explains, digging for roots and tubers, hunting with bows and arrows, and collecting dewdrops from leaves. “For the most part they live in complete isolation, quite unaware that there are other people,” the narrator continues. Thus they remain until a pilot drops a Coke bottle from his plane, and a hunter named Xi finds it. The shiny object quickly roils his otherwise happy community, so Xi sets out to hurl the “evil thing” off the end of the world.
The South African movie broke box-office records, including the U.S. record for the highest-grossing foreign film, and spawned four sequels. Much of its success stemmed from the winning performance by the San actor N!Xau, in the role of Xi. The film’s director and writer, Jamie Uys, played up N!Xau’s image as a naïf, telling The New York Times that, before Uys found him, N!Xau had only ever seen one white man. Plucked from the bush, he was baffled by the ways of the wide world, Uys said: He didn’t understand what “work” meant, and the sight of a toilet amused him. Even after the film turned N!Xau into an international star, Uys had to keep the bulk of N!Xau’s pay in a trust fund, he explained, as N!Xau couldn’t “handle big sums yet.”
Or so he said. N!Xau, when anthropologists interviewed him later in life, told a different story. He’d grown up on a farm, not in the bush. He understood money perfectly well; he’d worked as a cook at a local school and had been making a bow and arrow set to sell to tourists when he first met Uys. On the topic of money, N!Xau expressed annoyance that Uys was “living in luxury” after their first film’s success while N!Xau was still “living in a hut.” And Uys’s portrait of the San as living in placid isolation? “The image of the Bushmen given by the Gods films is not really good,” N!Xau felt, “because it does not show how people are really living.” Indeed, by the 1980s, foraging was a thing of the past, and most of the San were living impoverished lives in resettlement areas. N!Xau expressed surprise that audiences mistook the film for reality and didn’t get that he was “just acting.”
Still, The Gods Must Be Crazy, more than any other movie or book, has cemented the image of the San in the public eye. This has been enormously frustrating to anthropologists, who tend to regard Uys’s portrayal of the San as both condescending and misleading, in that it conceals the wretched treatment of Kalahari populations by Southern African governments. The San’s prime chronicler, Richard Lee, deemed it a “thinly disguised piece of South African propaganda.” The idea that “some San in the 1980s remain untouched by ‘civilization,’” Lee added, was “a cruel joke.”
Yet there is one anthropologist who has grudging respect for the film. In the eyes of the South African anthropologist James Suzman, The Gods Must Be Crazy carries a “subversive message,” one worth contemplating. The San, who in the middle of the twentieth century were “one of the last of the world’s few largely isolated hunting and gathering societies,” represent one of our closest links to the world before agriculture, Suzman writes. What we know of their foraging lifestyle suggests that they were, if not the “most contented people in the world,” then at least surprisingly well-off, heirs to an easy abundance that characterized most of Homo sapiens’ history. The San, Suzman writes, “by rarely having to work more than 15 hours per week had plenty of time and energy to devote to leisure.” In offering a glimpse into their disappearing world, The Gods Must Be Crazy makes a withering critique of our present-day, toil-obsessed labor regime.