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date: 24 June 2021

Southern Africa’s Later Stone Age and Hunter-Gatherer Ethnographyfree

Southern Africa’s Later Stone Age and Hunter-Gatherer Ethnographyfree

  • Tim ForssmanTim ForssmanUniversity of Pretoria


Reviews of southern Africa’s Later Stone Age (LSA) have seen many different iterations. Generally, however, they summarize the technocomplex from its earliest industry until it ceases to be recognizable in the archaeological record, summarizing the variety of research topics, questions, and approaches. Binding much of this together, despite the diaspora of studies, is the use of ethnography to understand past hunter-gatherer lifeways. This resource has guided interpretations of the past and helped design research approaches since the 1970s. And yet, from as early as the 1980s, archaeologists as well as anthropologists have debated the influence ethnography plays in understanding the past. Nonetheless, without it, significantly less would be written of hunter-gatherer prehistory in southern Africa, which includes belief systems, settlement structures, mobility patterns, subsistence habits, and social relations. Using ethnography as a vehicle, it is possible to navigate the LSA pathways created by scholars and examine the aforementioned contributions this knowledge system has made to interpretations of the past. From this vantage, envisioning a future for ethnography within the field is possible. This should involve expanding the ethnographies archaeologists use, moving beyond the Kalahari Desert, creating a diverse group of LSA researchers, and decolonizing the discipline.


  • Archaeology
  • International and Indigenous Anthropology

Framing the Later Stone Age

The Later Stone Age (LSA) of southern Africa has been reviewed many times before and in many different iterations. Some have sought to present regional syntheses (e.g., Sampson 1974; Deacon 1984a, 1984b; Wadley 1993; Mitchell 1997, 2002; Deacon and Deacon 1999; Lombard et al. 2012; Pearce 2012), up-to-date reviews of LSA affairs (e.g., Parkington 1980; Mitchell 2005a; Wadley 2014), or the future of LSA research (e.g., Mitchell 2005a; d’Errico et al. 2012; Pargeter 2014). Other studies have refocused on the LSA with highly nuanced examinations, discussing issues related to ethnography (Mitchell 1996, 2003, 2012; d’Errico et al. 2012; Villa et al. 2012), hunter-gatherer identity (Mitchell 2012; Pargeter 2014; Pargeter et al. 2016; Forssman 2019), or genetic research (Tishkoff et al. 2007; Soodyall et al. 2008; Mitchell 2010). In an ever-growing and complexifying field, the purpose of these reviews is clear: syntheses of the LSA are needed due to the highly variable nature of research programs. LSA studies presently recall a variety of themes in answering research questions that themselves span an impressive inquiry panorama. While on the one hand, this has led to a broad-spectrum understanding of the LSA past, on the other, it has created confusion within the field (e.g., Underhill 2011).

Further muddying the LSA waters are highly regionalized approaches. Hunter-gatherer studies in South Africa’s Cape tend to focus on transhumance and the movement of people between different resource areas (Parkington 1980; Sealy 2006; Parkington et al. 2015; Jerardino, 2016). North of here, in the Northern Cape and Namibia, much of the focus is on the identification of hunter-gatherer and herder cultural assemblages (Smith 1992; Beaumont, Smith, and Vogel 1995; Kinahan 2004; Parsons 2007; Orton 2013; Sadr 2015). In central southern Africa, studies typically examine shifting social relations between hunter-gatherers and arriving farming communities (Hall and Smith 2000; Sadr 2005; van Doornum 2005; Forssman 2014, 2015, 2017). In Lesotho and parts of KwaZulu-Natal, a diversity of studies has investigated LSA chronology, paleoclimates, resource access, rock art sequences, and settlement habits (Mitchell 1996; Mitchell et al. 2008; Challis 2012; Stewart and Mitchell 2018). Confusing the matter further, to some extent, is the inclusion of both rock art and excavated sequences under the LSA umbrella and the appearance of agropastoralist residues and European artifacts in hunter-gatherer sites within the last two thousand years. Generating a coherent and inclusive synthesis is understandably challenging given both the diaspora of studies and the diversity of cultural remains (Mitchell 2003, 2005b).

Instead of attempting such an immense trek through the LSA wilderness, the purpose of this article is rather to focus on what is one of the most central theoretical themes within LSA studies: ethnography. This paradigm articulates past cultural material remains with the construction of hunter-gatherer lifeways. Although considered indispensable (Stahl 1993, 235), it is not without its own internal problems (Ascher 1961; Goulld 1980; Gould and Watson 1982; Wylie 1985). In a southern African context, among other criticisms, it has been accused of being ahistorical (Denbow 1986; see Wylie 1989; Lee and Guenther 1993; Lewis-Williams 1996, 290) and rooted in a colonial past (cf. Stahl 1993, 1994; McGranaghan, 2012; Forssman 2019). Nonetheless, ethnography has helped construct Stone Age lifeways and belief systems more so than any other analytical tool used by archaeologists.

An Overview of the History of LSA Research

Early accounts of Bushman or San communities reveal a racist, pejorative, and discriminatory narrative.1 Commentators described hunter-gatherers as “a wretched specimen of humanity” (Elton 1872, 20–21), “degraded specimens of the human family” (Livingstone, cf. Voss 1987, 26), or “[t]he highest type of monkey suggests … the lowest type of man in Africa” (Ballantyne 1879, 113). In other instances, it was described how these people were hunted and murdered “with more keenness and fury than he would a wolf or any other wild beast” (Sparrman 1787, 194). That such vitriolic hatred and derogatory views are expressed in earlier settler views is abhorrent and yet persist as relics nonetheless (cf. Francis 2009; Delius and Schoeman 2010).

Not all accounts were discriminatory, and some sought to provide useful insights into Bushman lifeways and belief systems. The most notable example is the work of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd (1911) on /Xam prisoners from the Breakwater Prison in Cape Town during the 1880s (McGranaghan 2012, 14–15). Another often cited account is provided by Joseph Orpen, who, while stationed in southern Lesotho, transcribed rock art interpretations provided by his Bushman guide Quing of four murals at three different sites (Melikane, Pitsaneng, and Sehonghong; fig. 1) (Orpen 1874). However, many refused to accept that such a people were capable of producing elaborate and detailed rock art panels or possessing a rich cultural gamut (e.g., Breuil 1948; Wilcox 1969). Bushmen would only be elevated from this depreciatory perception (but not by all) once focused archaeological work was conducted.

Committed research on LSA assemblages began in the 1920s with the work of John Goodwin (1926) and, more importantly, his study with Clarence van Riet Lowe titled The Stone Age Cultures of South Africa (Goodwin and van Riet Lowe 1929). They sought to understand, explain, and define the stone tool assemblages left behind by Bushman ancestors by dividing the complex into definable and relatively dated industries—the Wilton, Smithfield, and Strandloper. Over the succeeding years, scholars provided revisions and updated definitions and chronologies for the technocomplex’s industries. Some notable contributions were made by Sampson (1974), Humphreys and Thackeray (1983), Deacon (1984a), Wadley (1996), Mitchell (1997, 2002), and Lombard et al. (2012). These attempts seem never to avoid some criticism (e.g., Deacon 1984a; Wadley 1993; Orton 2014), but they collectively strive toward a more refined structuration of LSA industries (fig. 2).

Figure 1. The approximate locations of sites and areas mentioned in the text. 1. Brandberg and Twyfelfontein; 2. Tsodilo Hills and Xai Xai; 3. central southern Africa; 4. Matobo Hills; 5. Balerno Main Shelter and Little Much Shelter; 6. Waterberg; 7. Kalahari Desert; 8. Jubilee Shelter and Cave James; 9. Border Cave and Siphiso Shelter; 10. Thukela Basin and KwaZulu–Natal; 11. Sehonghong, Likoaeng, Melikane, Pitsaneng, and Maloti–Drakensberg; 12. Rose Cottage Cave, Lithakong, Ha Makotoko, Ntloana Tsoana, and Caledonspoort Valley; 13. Northern Cape; and 14. Western Cape.

Source: Adapted from Forssman 2017, p. 54.

LSA studies have engaged a variety of topics exploring, among other areas, technological change, exchange and trade networks, subsistence habits, settlement patterns, and kinship systems (Mitchell 2002). However, by and large, these studies hinge on one salient perspective, that past hunter-gatherer lifeways can be examined using historical materialism (e.g., Pearce 2012). Our understanding of archaeological data is strongly linked to the lessons learned through ethnographic studies. As an accepted scientific analytical technique, it is a resource that would unwisely be ignored. From it, so much of what is known about past hunter-gatherers has been structured. In southern Africa, it has been the most dominant theoretical paradigm since its first use in rock art studies during the late 1970s and subsequent and regular deployment in the interpretation of excavated assemblages. It is so dominant in the way scholars’ understandings of the past have been built that if it were removed, it would be difficult to envisage how much would be known of LSA social systems. In this respect, it is perhaps one of the most critical approaches archaeologists use in examining the LSA.

Ethnography and the Later Stone Age in Southern Africa

A distinction should be drawn between ethnographic and anthropological accounts of Bushmen, and historical comments and anecdotes made by travelers, missionaries, or hunters from the 17th century onward (Pearce 2012). While some of the latter provides very interesting insights into Bushman lifeways (e.g., Orpen 1874), archaeologists’ primary interest has been the work of Bleek and Lloyd (1911) and the ethnographers, anthropologists, and archaeologists working in the Kalahari Desert. The work of Bleek and Lloyd (1911) was carried out in the late 1800s and it primarily focused on documenting the /Xam language. In so doing, they documented Bushman belief systems, lifeways, and spirituality (see Lewis-Williams 2000; Skotnes 2007). Best known of the Kalahari studies is perhaps the Harvard School of Ethnographers who lived among Bushmen in various parts of Botswana between the 1950s and 1970s. They recorded their rituals, settlement structures, mobility patterns, decision making, survival methods, and lifeways (e.g., Lee and DeVore 1976; Lee 1976; Yellen 1977; Solway and Lee 1990). The work of the Harvard School was not the only study to be conducted on Bushman communities in the Kalahari Desert, nor was it the first, with many similar studies conducted in the southern and eastern portions of the Kalahari and along the Boteti River (e.g., Thomas 1959; Marshall 1969, 1976; Silberbauer 1981; Wiessner 1982; Cashdan 1984; Guenther 1986, 1999). The various Kalahari studies are frequently used to understand excavated LSA sequences as well as Middle Stone Age occurrences by some (e.g., Robbins 1999; Villa et al. 2012; Nash et al. 2013), but it is the work of Bleek and Lloyd that provides an unrivaled resource in the interpretation of rock art.

Figure 2. Differences in the Robberg, Oakhurst, and Wilton stone tool industries from Deacon (1984a) and descriptions from Lombard et al. 2012, p. 131–135.

However, Bushman groups are distinctly different from one another in terms of their lifeways, languages, and social relations (Barnard 1992; Kelly 1995; Guenther 1996; Silberbauer 1996). And yet, despite this, they exhibit religious and spiritual similarities (Pearce 2012, 139). Beliefs, folklore, and myths recorded by Bleek and Lloyd on Southern San (e.g., /Xam) parallel closely those recorded by scholars among Northern San groups (e.g., !Kung) (Blundell 2004, 54); belief systems appear largely consistent across regions and between different communities. This information is highly useful to rock art studies but is often in the form of idiom and metaphor, leading scholars to use the information in a nonliteral sense (Pearce 2012). Conversely, archaeologists studying excavated sequences are able to rely on a literal use of ethnographic information. Comparisons are nonetheless drawn between cultural material and a non-direct analogy with modern Bushman groups, relating tangible signifiers with intangible cultural heritage. That Bushman groups differ culturally leads one to suspect that this was also the case in the past, but how Bushmen differed from their Stone Age ancestors is not certain or often traceable. As Barnard (2007, 96) summarizes, “religion is far more uniform throughout Bushman and even Khoisan southern Africa than are material aspects of culture and society.” Thus, the use of ethnography in studying parietal deposits and excavated sequences differs.

Parietal Deposits

Two pioneering texts helped disembark a new direction of research, drawing heavily on Bushman ethnography and historical materialism (see Lewis-Williams 2006 for a review of rock art research paradigms). The earlier text was by Patricia Vinnicombe (1976) titled People of the Eland: Rock Paintings of the Drakensberg Bushmen as a Reflection of Their Life and Thought, but it was David Lewis-Williams’s (1981) Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Paintings that was the most influential. The argument presented by Lewis-Williams (1981) drew heavily on the roughly 12,000 pages of text collected by Bleek and Lloyd on /Xam beliefs, myths, and folklore (see Lewis-Williams 2000). This led him to view the art as a series of metaphors and symbols that acted as signifiers for Bushman beliefs. His approach is referred to as the shamanistic approach, in part because so many of the interpretations involved the activities of Bushman ritual specialists, notably rain-making and healing. Findings made in the Kalahari supported Lewis-Williams’s interpretations (Lewis-Williams et al. 2000), such as the presence of a trance dance in !Kung communities (fig. 3; Lewis-Williams 1992). Following his work, studies outside of the Maloti-Drakensberg region began incorporating ethnography into rock art interpretations with resounding success, such as in, for example, South Africa’s Western Cape (Yates and Manhire 1991; Mguni 2016), the Waterberg and central southern African areas (Van Der Ryst, Lombard, and Biemond 2004; Eastwood and Eastwood 2006), Botswana’s Tsodilo Hills (Campbell, Robbins, and Murphy 1994; Segadika 2006), Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills and elsewhere (Garlake 1987, 1990; Huffman 1983; Mguni 2006), and Namibia’s Brandberg and Twyfelfontein areas (Lensen–Erz 1989; Nankela 2015). Ethnography, along with neuropsychological tools (Blundell 2004, 55), have come to provide almost all insights into understanding southern African LSA rock art (Pearce 2012).

Figure 3. A trance dance scene in a rock art panel from Halstone, Maloti-Drakensberg. The dancing sticks, bent over postures, and elongated limbs are thought typical signifiers of dance scenes and shamans.

Source: Image courtesy of Sam Challis.

The correlation between parietal deposits and ethnography demonstrates spatial and temporal relationships between different Bushman groups. This has been challenged. Some argue that too much emphasis is placed on shamanism or that it is an inappropriate term (cf. Lewis-Williams 1992). Others have indicated that the use of ethnography may not be accurate (e.g., Solomon 1997) or that interaction with agropastoralists during the last two thousand years altered Bushman lifeways, making it less analogous with murals predating contact (Jolly 1996, 2002). While structural Marxism, structuration theory (largely concerned with change), and interactionist approaches have disputed the dominant approach, none has succeeded in decoupling the shamanism approach from the understanding of rock art (Blundell 2004). Moreover, all approaches rely heavily on ethnography to interpret the art or examine change, but it is rather the way ethnography is used and the theoretical goals that differ. How so, then, does the use of ethnography and the criticism toward its application differ when it comes to excavated sequences?

Excavated Sequences

Laurence Barham (1992, 45) noted that in the field of rock art, Lewis-Williams (1982) was able to identify “a means of operationalizing [historical materialism’s] tenets from the ethnographic data” by combining materialist theory with historical information. However, Barham (1992) asked whether it is possible to apply the same historical materialism when direct historical comparisons do not exist. Doing so requires making assumptions regarding underlying social structures, and this, Barham (1992) further warned, may lead to self-affirming hypotheses if the archaeological data are selectively chosen to confirm ethnographic observations. Although some time has passed since these discussions first took place, notwithstanding that they are ongoing, it is useful to revisit them. Doing so demonstrates the connective pathways between different LSA subfields created by ethnographic channels. While there are a number of studies that have used ethnographic models to understand archaeological sequences (e.g., Sampson 1988, 2010; Mazel 1989; Bousman 1991, 1993, 2005; Walker 1995; van Doornum 2005; van der Ryst 2006; d’Errico et al. 2012; Brunton, Badenhorst, and Schoeman 2013), only two are discussed here in detail—aggregation and dispersal camps and hxaro gift exchange. Each demonstrates different uses of ethnographic information in the understanding of archaeological sequences.

Aggregation and Dispersal Camps

Kalahari ethnographers noted that much of Bushman life is dominated by gender relations. This influences many spheres of their lives, including band and camp configuration (Wadley 1989). Broadly, campsites can be placed into two categories: aggregation and dispersal. The latter was a private phase of the occupation cycle during which camp structure tended to be informal (Silberbauer 1981). During this phase, households separated from larger bands and formed smaller units generally composed of spouses and their family groups. Members of the band worked closely together and conserved energy by limiting tasks, travel, subsistence work, and gift production (Lee 1979; Silberbauer 1981). Social rules governing gender roles and the division of labor were also relaxed and men assisted women with what would normally be a female task, such as collecting food or firewood (Marshall 1969; Lee 1979).

At other times, Bushman bands aggregated in larger collectives in what was considered the public phase of the settlement cycle. Kin households gathered at campsites or in larger areas (Silberbauer 1981), and friends and relations visited one another, produced and exchanged gifts, brokered marriages, feasted, and intensified ritual practices, such as the trance dance (Lee 1979; Tanaka 1980; Silberbauer 1981; Cashdan 1983). Aggregating was central to Bushman life, even though it only lasted a few weeks, and was a means through which community members accessed social, religious, and economic resources (Wadley 1989, 43).

At aggregation camps, there is a greater accumulation and diversity of cultural material as a result of the range of activities, production and exchange of gifts, and increased population. The opposite is so for dispersal camps. Such binary patterns are identifiable in the archaeological record between sites that were part of the same settlement cycle, as Lyn Wadley (1986) demonstrated in her doctoral thesis. At both Jubilee Shelter and Cave James in South Africa’s Magaliesberg, a long archaeological sequence was recovered, but from 4000 ybp, both were intensively occupied (Wadley 1996). Despite the sites’ proximity and similar environmental contexts, each assemblage was composed differently (Table 1). Based on ethnographic features and the presence of specific artifact types from the two sites, Wadley (1987, 1989, 1992, 1996) argued that the differences were a result of each being part of different phases within the same settlement cycle, namely, aggregation and dispersal.

Table 1. Jubilee Shelter and Cave James Artifact Assemblages (cf. Forssman 2014, p. 13)

Jubilee Shelter

Cave James

Stone tools

Retouched formal tools

Informal assemblage

Raw material

Emphasis on exported, fine-grained rock from 20 to 30 km away

Predominant use of locally available quartz and quartzite


Large ostrich eggshell and bone bead assemblage


Bone tools

Bone points and manufacturing debris present



Combination of large hunted meat packages and small snared or trapped species

Small meat packages

Ritual items

Middle Stone Age tools, quartz crystals, rubbed pebbles, magnetite chunks, and a striated soapstone chunk smeared with red ochre


Her work led others to examine site types using the same model. In Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills, Nick Walker (1995) argued that the diversity and density of archaeological remains at some sites signified their use as aggregation camps. Other smaller settlements, which he called satellite sites, were more similar to dispersal camps. He further argued that this pattern was adopted between 6000 and 5000 ybp. Similarly, south of the Matobo Hills in northern South Africa, Bronwen van Doornum (2008) suggested that hunter-gatherers moved between aggregation and dispersal sites, which in the last two thousand years was partly based on their desire to interact with agropastoralists. Her findings at Balerno Main Shelter led her to believe that it was an aggregation camp used in periods of less interaction due to its relative isolation, whereas Little Muck Shelter, excavated by Simon Hall (Hall and Smith 2000), was a dispersal camp probably used because it was near to local farming communities. In the Caledonspoort Valley, Mitchell (2000, 166) considered Rose Cottage Cave to be an aggregation site and Ha Makotoko and Ntloana Tsoana dispersal camps, but he noted that this would only be so if they were part of the same occupation cycle.

However, this model was not favored by all and scholars cautioned against its discriminate use to explain archaeological sequences. Barham (1992) challenged social archaeology and the use of ethnography to explain sequences by using it to interpret sites he excavated in Swaziland. At Siphiso Shelter, ostrich eggshell beads occur in varying frequencies; bone points are infrequent and occur with evidence of eyed-bone bead production; bladelets, mostly unmodified, are common; unmodified quartz crystals occur; and hematite, from possibly 100 km away, was found—all attributes expected at an aggregation site. And yet, the shelter is small (34 m2), with no outdoor living space, and the faunal assemblages are limited and dominated by small meat packages (Barham 1989). As such, the site does not fit the criteria laid out by Wadley (1987) neatly, but Barham (1992) nonetheless suggested it was used during the aggregation phase.

Wadley (1992) disagreed and argued that Siphiso Shelter fulfilled the requirements of a dispersal camp. But Walker (1995) questioned this, using his findings in the Matobo Hills. Here, the artifact-dense rock shelters possessed such high cultural material frequencies that using one as a type specimen would indicate that even Jubilee Shelter was a dispersal camp. However, Bushman groups even within similar environmental zones appear culturally disparate (Guenther 1996), and this is evident in the archaeological record (Wadley 2000). It would thus be unwise to expect regional cultural signatures to be exact. Some believe that in doing so, archaeologists risk homogenizing the archaeological sequence and forcing a fit predicated by ethnographic expectations (Mitchell 2002, 218). As among modern Bushmen (see Barnard 1992), it is likely that past hunter-gatherers varied culturally and socially from one another, possibly even those living in similar or nearby environments (e.g., Guenther 1996). Their cultural assemblages might be more or less similar to ethnographic findings, but even if less, this does not mean that an ontological relationship does not exist. Still, if tangible artifacts approximately parallel Bushman material culture, the perpetuation of intangible hermeneutics should not be assumed but shown.

Hxaro Gift Exchange

Using ethnography to establish intangible cultural heritage may combine elements of both rock art and aggregation and dispersal patterns. On the one hand, correlations are drawn using artifacts from excavated sequences which occur in certain patterns and with various associations. On the other hand, symbology and value systems are inferred from cultural material, as is the case with understanding rock art.

Among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen, Polly Wiessner (1982, 1983, 1994) recorded hxaro, a form of reciprocal gift exchange. Adults would have several hxaro partners related through kinship or long-distance networks, often extending over 100 km. These relationships established alliance networks that could include access to water or subsistence resources. Gifts that were given included non-consumable items, such as clothing, jewelry, weapons, tools, wooden implements, dogs, animal skins, red ochre, or cooking utensils (Barnard 1992; fig. 4), but also consumables such as honey and tobacco (Schapera 1930; Mitchell 2003, 37 and 39). Once in contact with agropastoralists some 2000ybp, many new hxaro items are thought to have entered the exchange system (Mitchell 2003). Moreover, most of these gifts were produced and handed over at aggregations camps (e.g., Lee 1979; Tanaka 1980; Silberbauer 1981; Wiessner 1982) or possibly produced in anticipation of forthcoming exchange (e.g., Bleek 1928; Yellen 1977). As such, archaeologically scholars could expect to see not only gifts in cultural sequences, but also direct (manufacturing debris) and non-direct (via macro- and microanalyses) evidence of their manufacture.

Figure 4. Various LSA artifacts, some of which are and others may be associated with exchange, trade, or hxaro (B, D, and E): (A) stone scrapers; (B) stone-backed bladelets; (C) glass beads; (D) ostrich eggshell beads; (E) worked bone; (F) metal ornaments and bangle pieces; (G) earthenware ceramics.

Source: Adapted from Forssman 2017, p. 51.

Hxaro gifts are known to be exchanged at aggregation camps, which in part motivated Wadley (1987) to interpret Jubilee Shelter as an aggregation site. The relatively high abundance of backed bladelets (hunting tools), worked bone, and complete ostrich eggshell beads with manufacturing debris are known to have been exchanged as hxaro gifts between modern Bushman groups. Hxaro items are also often transported over long distances, which led Barham (1992) to suggest the hematite specimens found at Siphiso Shelter were in fact a gift. Shifts in stone tool “style” might also relate to hxaro. Mazel (1989) discussed variable scraper morphometrics in the Thukela Basin as markers of distinct social groups. He argued that exchange between social groups was traceable because of differences in tool standardization. Wadley (1987) also noted a diversification of backed tool morphologies and suggested that the appearance of tanged arrowheads (fig. 5) might relate to hxaro (but see Close and Sampson 1999).

Figure 5. An example of a broken bifacially tanged and bilaterally barbed arrowhead (see Mitchell 1999 for definitions) from eastern Lesotho.

Source: Photograph by Tim Forssman.

Mitchell (2003), taking a more cautious approach, noted that hxaro is synonymous with ostrich eggshell beads, one of the primary hxaro gift items. He suggested that this is the only convincing artifact from which hxaro can be inferred; stone, for example, was not used for tools among ethnographically recorded Bushman groups. Based on this, he proposed that the appearance of hxaro may be placed in the terminal Pleistocene or early Holocene when marine and ostrich eggshell beads proliferated, sometimes also indicating long-distance exchanges (e.g., marine shell found inland). Others argued that hxaro may have been in place as far back as the Howiesons Poort (c. 70,000 ybp) (Deacon 1992) or immediately before the early LSA (c. 40,000–20,000 ybp), such as at Border Cave, on the South African border with Swaziland (Villa et al. 2012).

However, hxaro is not a social practice common to all Bushman groups (Barnard 1992). In South Africa’s Northern Cape, the /Xam practiced both reciprocal and delayed gift exchange, but to a far lesser extent than among the Ju/’hoansi. The !Xo, G/wi, and G//ana of Botswana, instead, practiced no form of reciprocal gift giving at all (Tanaka 1976; Silberbauer 1981; Barnard 1992, 67). Other exchange practices existed that are not the same as hxaro. Between the Nharo and ≠Au//eisi, a barter-based exchange network existed (Bleek 1928, 37) and exchange between Bushmen and agropastoralists has also been recorded in parts of Botswana (Wilmsen 1982, 1986; Gordon 1984). If other forms of trade were also a feature of past hunter-gatherer society, gift items found in the archaeological record may not indicate hxaro but instead a different set of exchange practices.

Given that not all groups practiced hxaro, scholars may be forcing archaeological findings into a social system. Damagingly, the inherent assumption is that in the past hxaro was present in a similar manner as it existed among some historic Bushman groups. By adopting such terms, scholars adopt the extant hermeneutic systems associated with cultural items (Mitchell 2003). For example, in historically recorded Bushman societies, the social value of a gift such as ostrich eggshell beads may not have been the same as it was several millennia ago. However, by adopting hxaro as an explanatory method for the occurrence of certain finds, scholars also encumber them with social meaning. The perpetuation into the archaeological record of this meaning and the items’ associations cannot be empirically shown.

Another matter is demonstrating the transfer of items between people. Hxaro gifts, such as bone points or weapon composites, are thought to have been passed on from one person to another (Mitchell 2003). However, often this is not easily shown and is rather inferred from available data. In addition to exchanging items, hxaro gifts also usually traveled great distances (Deacon 1984a). Showing the relocation of tools or items where the raw material provenance cannot be established does not assist in this regard, but where this can be shown, long-distance artifact movements are demonstrable. At Tsodilo Hills, raw materials used to make stone tools were transported from 200 km away based on available material sources (Nash et al. 2013). In the Lesotho highlands at Sehonghong (Mitchell 1996; fig. 6) and Lithakong Shelter (Kaplan and Mitchell 2012), ostrich eggshell and non-indigenous species identified in the faunal assemblages indicate exchange with neighboring areas, possibly South Africa’s Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, or Eastern Cape. Confusing the matter somewhat are perishable hxaro items, which may not preserve archaeologically.

Figure 6. A view across Sehonghong Shelter, where Quing interpreted rock art for Orpen (1874).

Source: Photograph by Tim Forssman.

If scholars are not cautious, reading hxaro using archaeological data may be generating a bias and limiting the ability to interpret these findings (Sadr 2002b). In addition, hxaro is not alone in this criticism. Any use of ethnography, especially when drawn from groups in ecologically different environments or who do not all exhibit the same social features, has certain inherent problems.

Connecting Living Descendants with Stone Age Ancestors

Without ethnography, interpretations of LSA data would be made significantly less reliable. The uses of alternate approaches (e.g., Lewis-Williams 2006, 366), such as landscape archaeology to understand rock art (Smith and Blundell 2004), have been postulated and tested with mixed results. However, it has also been argued that in using ethnography to interpret archaeological data sets or establish models, scholars risk perpetuating cultural homeostasis because the ethnographic record is a late-19th - to mid-20th-century occurrence (Sadr 2002b; also see Stahl 1994). For this reason, some feel that the use of ethnography in archaeological investigations lacks the ability to examine change effectively (cf. Stahl 1993, 1994; Blundell 2004; also see Green and Perlman 1985) in addition to being so-called ahistorical. Stahl (1994) pleaded that archaeologists should move beyond examining traditional culture and investigate the dynamics of cultural change. Jerardino (2001, 865) more directly asked that archaeology be made “the ethnography of the past and not just a wavering reflection of the recent ethnographic present.” What should archaeologists do given these competing reviews and mixed critiques of the relationship between ethnography and archaeology?

Possibly required is a more discerning approach to the use of ethnography as well as its condemnations (Pearce 2012, 142). The ethnographic record is not a cultural dictionary to hunter-gatherer research, past or present (Forssman 2014). Considerable differences between groups (Barnard 1992) and variability in anthropological coverage does not afford archaeologists with an unbroken ethnographic record across the southern African region (Barham 1992). It was this assumed link between Bushmen and their hunter-gatherer ancestors that ignited the Kalahari Debate (Kent 1992), which ultimately sought, as Wylie (1985, 101) put it, to “establish the principles of connection—the considerations of relevance—that inform the selection and evaluation of analogies.” Intense discussions and arguments arose over what Bushman ethnography actually represents and its relationship with past people. Traditionalists based their argument primarily on Kalahari ethnographies and believed that Bushmen represented an isolated culture analogous with Holocene hunting and gatherer populations (e.g., Lee, 1976, 1979; Tanaka 1976, 1980; Silberbauer 1981; Lee and Guenther 1991; Solway and Lee 1990; Kent 1992). However, revisionists argued that Bushmen were the underclass of southern Africa’s social framework through subordination and servitude (e.g., Wilmsen 1989; Wilmsen and Denbow 1990; Gordon 1992).

The revisionist argument, in part, was based on the accounts made by early travelers, missionaries, or other commentators who encountered Bushmen. The comments of Siegfried Passarge (1905, 1907), for example, were drawn heavily on by Edwin Wilmsen (1989). Passarge believed that the Bushmen had been presented as a caricature (cf. Fritsch 1906) when, in fact, they were the result of many decades of political upheaval (Passarge 1905). Wilmsen and Denbow (1990) considered these as prima facie comments because they were recorded long before the Kalahari ethnographies (echoed in Wilmsen 1983, 1989; cf. Shott 1992). Drawing on Passarge’s (1905) comments as well as many other sources (cf. Sadr 1997), they conclude that “‘Bushman’ and ‘San’ are invented categories” (Wilmsen and Denbow 1990, 490).

Wilmsen (1989) argued that from at least ad 500, Bushmen were part of an extensive mercantile trade network. Much of his argument stemmed from his work at Xai Xai, east of Tsodilo Hills, a Bushman camp in northwestern Botswana. Excavations revealed what appeared to be a cattle tooth and ceramics, which Wilmsen (1989) and Wilmsen and Denbow (1990) argued indicated encapsulation. In addition, they believed the finds indicated that Bushmen were involved in mercantile trade for centuries before the ethnographers began their studies. As part of this system, Bushmen facilitated trade across large areas and between different communities (cf. Guenther 1996). The client–patron relationship that emerged resulted in Bushmen becoming the underclass in the agropastoralist economy (Denbow 1984; Wilmsen and Denbow 1990). Their role as traveling merchants drove their need to become mobile and influenced their settlement structure. It was this socioeconomic structure that formed Bushman social organization (Wilmsen, 1989) and forced them to become the hunting and gathering community investigated by ethnographers (Schrire 1980). The claim made by revisionists is ultimately that those using ethnography have failed to acknowledge historical factors that resulted in the creation of the “Bushman.”

Susan Kent (1992) did not agree with the revisionists’ claim that social interaction was the primary driving force behind social change. She believed that despite these relations, Bushmen should still be considered hunter-gatherers because interaction does not necessarily lead to assimilation, servitude, or subjugation (e.g., Zvelebil 1986; Patterson 1990), as Wilmsen and colleagues believed (cf. Solway and Lee 1990; Lee and Guenther 1991; Kent 1992; Sadr 1997). Instead, interactions could lead to a mosaic of responses from hunter-gatherers, including avoidance and coexistence (Kent 2002a).

Kent’s (1992, 2002a) views were accompanied by fairly strong archaeological data. Evidence of interaction, or even servitude, is inferred from cultural material that was acquired from herder or agropastoralist people. And yet, while this is often found in LSA sites (e.g., Hall 2000; Hall and Smith 2000; Sadr 2005; van Doornum 2008; Forssman 2017), it is usually in low frequencies. Results such as these led Sadr (1997, 107) to ask, “Do handfuls of potsherds and a few pieces of metal prove Bushmen encapsulation in the extensive EIA [Early Iron Age] social and economic network of the time?.” If so, he continued, Bushmen gained very little from their relationship with agropastoralists. Both he and Kent (2002b) believed that had subordination occurred, it would be far more explicit in the archaeological record. Put plainly, there is very little archaeological evidence supporting claims that Bushmen were encapsulated (Mitchell 2002, 292).

It is also worth noting an important criticism levied toward ethnography, beyond the Kalahari Debate: that it creates a “pan-San” approach to the archaeological record (see Jolly 1986, 1996; Mitchell 2004). The liberal use of ethnography, or so-called ethnographic snap, which Wadley (1989) cautioned against at the onset, has resulted in the judicial application of mostly Ju/’hoansi cultural features to southern African excavated sequences regardless of environmental contexts (Mitchell 1997) or first judging the analogs comparable with the archaeological remains (see Stahl 1993). Scholars have appealed to archaeologists to “de-!Kung” archaeology (see Parkington 1984; Mitchell 2004; Humphreys 2005, 2007) and more readily examine interregional differences (e.g., Parkington 1980; Wadley 2000 for an archaeological discussion) as opposed to picking and choosing which Bushman social features to amalgamate in order to suit archaeological data (Forssman 2014). If unable to move beyond this, Sadr (2002a) warned, nothing will be learned of the past that is not already known.

Looking Ahead

Addressing this and other criticisms, Peter Mitchell (2005a, 163–164; 2005b, 67–68) proposed three crucial suggestions that he expects to help improve scholars’ use of ethnography (quoted from Mitchell 2005b, 67–68; references provided as examples):


Develop a closely argued archaeology of ethnographically known San societies (e.g., Deacon 1996; Robbins et al. 1996; Walker 1995);


Expand the sample of Bushman societies that scholars use to include, for example, those who did not practice seasonal aggregation and dispersal or hxaro (e.g., Mitchell 2003);


Reach beyond the Kalahari to other parts of the world, where more “complex” hunter-gatherers may be at least as relevant as the Ju/’hoansi (e.g., Mazel 1989; Hall 1990; Walker 1995; van Doornum 2005; Mitchell et al. 2008).

Following Mitchell (2005b), additional suggestions are proposed here that may further provide nuance to the use of ethnography and promote its critical application in LSA studies:


Attempt to falsify ethnography archaeologically: Karl Popper (1965) criticized science for its positivism, stating “it is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory—if we look for confirmation.” In this sense, should archaeological evidence that contradicts ethnographic features not be found, the analogy between Bushmen and their hunter-gatherer ancestors strengthens;


Decolonize LSA archaeology: earlier ethnographies and accounts were collected in colonial contexts with very different perceptions of Bushmen than what are held in the 21st century. While relying on these sources moves the discipline beyond a Western interpretation of LSA archaeology, to date, extant descent groups have barely contributed to LSA knowledge production (e.g., Ndlovu 2009), ignoring, to some extent, rock art. Engaging with stakeholder communities on research matters may lead to a diversified understanding of the LSA;


Promote hunter-gatherer and Bushman culture beyond academia: perceptions that Bushmen represent a simple and undeveloped society persist even in the early 21st century (cf. Francis 2009). Through LSA studies and ethnography, archaeologists can challenge these notions and demonstrate their rich culture and deeply historical lifeways. Work will also further entrench Bushmen in southern African prehistory and demonstrate hunter-gatherer agency in sociopolitical systems that shaped the southern African cultural landscape.

Unlike in many parts of the world where ethnography does not exist (see Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988), southern African ethnography has helped guide interpretations of archaeological data and design research programs. Significantly less would be known of hunter-gatherer prehistory in the absence of ethnography; scholars’ use of ethnography has infiltrated most facets of the technocomplex and connects them all together. And yet, it is not problem-free. Applying ethnography collected from limited groups living in arid and desert conditions to findings made across southern Africa, using !Kung social features to explain archaeological occurrences spanning many millennia, or ignoring social interactions, have all been criticized. As the dust settles, however, the merits of ethnography have stood resolute, albeit that archaeologists’ use of ethnography has been more nuanced and refined. Such debates are not stale, as Pearce (2012, 135) suggested, and are important in renegotiating the articulation between ethnographies and material culture indicators. Long may they continue, for through them the discipline has gained a far richer understanding of the past and how it relates to modern groups. Lest it be forgotten, archaeologists study people, and with ethnography there is an unrivaled passage between living descendants and their Stone Age ancestors (Wadley 1989, 43). It also provides one of the only firsthand accounts of Bushman lifeways and knowledge systems, including recorded perceptions of Bushman people, which cannot be replicated. It is to scholars a nonrenewable resource that interlocks many different facets of LSA research.


The author wishes to thank Peter Mitchell, Jeremy Hollmann, Sam Challis, and Matt Lotter for sharing their views and knowledge on this topic. Sam Challis also provided fig. 3. Much of this work and the ideas presented herein were formulated during Palaeontological Scientific Trust and National Research Foundation-funded research programs. Gratitude is owed to two anonymous reviewers who provided valuable comments that notably improved this contribution. All views remain the author’s.

Further Reading

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  • 1. Historically, the terms “Bushman” and “San” were used pejoratively. Yet, many groups ask to be referred to by these names (see Low 2013, p. 356) and this is done so here, respectfully, rejecting all discriminatory connotations. The terms are used when referring to modern or known groups whereas hunter-gatherer is preferred when referencing pre–European contact LSA producers.