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In the Land of the Bushmen
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Southern Africa

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By Peter Godwin Photographs by Chris Johns

Southern Africa’s hunter-gatherers seek a foothold.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

We set up camp in a clearing in the bush close to the village, and that night I lie awake listening to the hawking of phlegm-filled chests, the hacking of tubercular coughs, and the wavering wails of the babies, which compete with the yelps of patrolling jackals to fill the dome of stars above us. It is winter in the Kalahari and bone-achingly cold when the cocks begin to crow a few minutes before four. As I emerge from my tent, “dawn’s heart,” as Bushmen traditionally call Jupiter, is burning brightly on the horizon. The water in my billycan is frozen solid.

When we enter the village, the families are huddled around their tiny fires; some of the children are shirtless, and the adults have, at most, a single threadbare blanket clasped around each pair of bony shoulders and each toast a rack of prominent ribs. They are breakfasting meagerly on berries and weak tea.

N!amce, a Den/ui leader, sits on a log making arrows. He rolls the yellow reed shaft in the ashes, then squints down its barrel and straightens it. He smears bitumen from an old car battery onto the end of the shaft, heats it again, and binds twine made of kudu sinew around it. He cuts a notch at the back end for the bow string to slot into, and on the other end he inserts a spike of giraffe bone, which connects to another little cylinder of reed into which the arrowhead, a length of gauge wire whose end has been hammered into a triangle, is forced. He gingerly coats the four inches of the wire shaft behind the arrow tip with poison stored in a steenbok horn.


After the intense concentration of handling the poison, N!amce takes a smoke break. He stuffs the end of his metal pipe with a filter of fibrous bark, scoops up a handful of hyrax droppings and loads them into the pipe. He sucks up the acrid smoke, exhales contentedly, and passes the pipe to N­aisa, an elderly woman whose forehead is fringed with beads from which a metal triangle hangs down, swinging below her nose. She also sports a paper-clip earring. When the pipe reaches me, I pass it on.

Armed with quivers of poisoned arrows, a party of men sets off on a hunt. The men walk fast, glancing down from time to time but barely breaking stride to observe the ground for tracks. My Bushman translator, who tells me to call him /Ai!ae/Aice, explains how they read the ground—“the same way you people read a book; the bush is our book.” They can determine the age and sex of animals by reading the signs they leave behind. One young hunter drops to his heels and examines the droppings of a hartebeest; the more roughage, the less efficient its digestion and the older the animal. A male springbok, explains /Ai!ae/Aice, will often bring up the rear of the herd, and a male gemsbok will butt tree trunks with its horns to scent its territory.

Bushmen can measure the age of tracks by the time it takes termites to rebuild a nest that’s been trampled on, or a blade of grass to spring back to its usual position, or a spider to repair its cobweb. When Bushmen hit an animal with an arrow, they don’t immediately sprint after it; they go to where it was standing and memorize its particular spoor. Only then will they begin to patiently track it until it falls.

It is this skill at tracking, more than any other single talent, that over the years has made Bushmen sought after by armies and hunters and farmers to pursue guerrillas, game, and poachers.

Sights and Sounds
Photographer Chris Johns describes southern Africa’s first people and their struggle to survive in their own land.

Photographer Chris Johns discusses his adventures among the Bushmen.

Online Extra
Listen to the unique clicking sounds of Bushman communication.

Is there room for a traditional culture in modern society? And how should culture be defined? Tell us what you think.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the
Research Division.

By the end of the 18th century, only 150 years after the arrival of the Dutch at the Cape of Good Hope, thousands of Bushmen (San) had been shot and killed, and many more were forced to work for their colonial captors. The new British government vowed to stop the fighting. They hoped to “civilize” the Bushmen by encouraging them to adopt a more agricultural lifestyle but were unsuccessful. By the 1870s the last Bushmen of the Cape were hunted to extinction. Other Bushman groups were able to survive the European encroachment despite continued threats. The last license to hunt Bushmen was reportedly issued in Namibia by the South African government in 1936.

Khoisan hunter-gatherers and pastoralists in southern Africa
Explore the history of the Bushmen and their pastoralist cousins, the Khoi, in southern Africa.

Amanda Miller-Ockhuizen’s Home Page
The Ohio State University linguist shares information on Khoisan languages, provides recorded samples of Bushman language, and links you to other linguistic sites.


Barnard, Alan. Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa: A Comparative Ethnography of the Khoisan Peoples. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Gordon, Robert J. The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass. Westview Press, 1992.

Katz, Richard. Boiling Energy: Community Healing among the Kalahari Kung. Harvard University Press, 1982.

Skotnes, Pippa. Miscast: Negotiating the Presence of the Bushmen. University of Cape Town Press, 1996.

Smith, Andy, and others. The Bushmen of Southern Africa: A Foraging Society in Transition. Ohio University Press, 2000.


Hodgson, Bryan. “Namibia: Nearly a Nation?” National Geographic (June 1982) 755-797.

The Kalahari Desert People. National Geographic Videos, 1975.

Bushmen of the Kalahari. National Geographic Videos, 1973.

Friendly, Alfred. “Africa’s Bushman Art Treasures,” National Geographic (June 1963) 848-865.

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. “Bushmen of the Kalahari,” National Geographic (June 1963) 866-888.


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