The Lions and the San

How could a people survive for thousands of years with so many predators in their midst?

Paul Tessier/ Stocksy
Paul Tessier/ Stocksy

In the science world, an interesting question has appeared about our ancestors formerly known as Bushmen, now known as San. For thousands of years, the San lived in parts of Africa with a large number of lions and other important predators, and unlike our earlier ancestors, the apes who lived in the trees, the San lived on the ground, where predators could find them.

How did they survive? What were their defense strategies? How were they able to sleep on the ground at night when lions, lion-sized hyenas, and leopards were prowling around them?

It may seem strange that most scholars of human evolution haven’t seemed interested in how our ancestors defended themselves from predators. Darwin, for example, was sure that humans evolved in the safe environment of a large, warm island with no predators, and that the biggest evolutionary force for human evolution was sexual selection. Raymond Dart and his follower Robert Ardrey believed that our human ancestors did not need a defense against predators because they themselves were apex predators—ruthless killers and cannibals. Taking a different point of view, Charles Brain and later Robert Sussman and Donna Hart suggested that our human ancestors were a humble species whose best defense was to climb a tree.

One scholar who did study such strategies was the late Adriaan Kortlandt, who suggested that our ancestors defended themselves from predators by using sticks, stones, and thorny bushes. There are also recent suggestions that our ancestors were using the so-called aposematic strategy of defense, which means they tried to scare away the predators by standing up, shouting and singing, clapping and stomping, and throwing sticks and stones. Other scholars are beginning to see the need for further study. Joseph Jordania, for example, an ethnomusicologist and evolutionary musicologist at the University of Melbourne—and one of the surprisingly few people who see that the multi-thousand–year survival of our ancestors has yet to be explained—is planning a conference for 2023 on this neglected but important subject.

Lions are by far the most dangerous of all African predators and are also well known for being maneaters, so it’s lions I will mostly talk about here. In the light of everything mentioned above, the experience of the San can provide a window to the coexistence of humans and lions.

The other large cats, the cheetahs and leopards, were not as dangerous as lions—cheetahs were too small to successfully hunt people, and leopards were easy to discourage. I knew an elderly San woman who drove a leopard away with a stick, preventing him from attacking her sleeping husband.

Compared with the larger predators, the San were fairly small. A man might be about five feet tall and weigh a little over 100 pounds, and although the San could run fast, “fast” for humans isn’t much more than 20 miles an hour. In contrast, a lion can weigh 500 pounds and run at 50 miles an hour, as I discovered when I was young and strong and living in South West Africa, what is today the country of Namibia.

I was almost killed by a lioness who saw me from afar and started running toward me. I ran faster than I’d ever run before and jumped into a truck just moments before she would have caught me. In only a few seconds, she’d run at least three times as far as I did, and 60 years later, I remember the experience as if it happened this morning.

Lions live on the meat of large hoofed mammals such as antelopes, all of whom run faster, some much faster, than the San. This should have tempted the lions to hunt the San, who could defend themselves only with spears or poison arrows. Defending yourself against a lion with anything less than a gun is pretty much doomed to failure, which brings us to the question that now interests the scientists. How did the San survive while seeming like easy prey to large, successful predators?

The answer is simple but hard to believe, and it has to do with culture. Humans have cultures—quite various ones, as all of us know—but most of us are unaware that animals have cultures, too. I’ve been with lions of two different cultures. The lioness who chased me lived in Etosha Park, and I later learned that the lions there were so dangerous to humans that while Namibia was fighting for independence, the lions prevented the freedom fighters from entering the country from the north.

In contrast were the lions in a huge area (considered “unexplored” until the 1960s) that included much of the Kalahari Desert with parts of Namibia and Botswana, an area that the San had inhabited for thousands of years and that white people hadn’t yet damaged. This area was the last part of unspoiled southern Africa, and the lions there did not harm people. To do so was against their culture.

The San and these lions were alike. Both were intelligent, both lived in groups, both lived near water, and both hunted the same large antelopes in the same way—they’d creep up on the victim to about the same distance, then a lion would charge or a San would shoot a poison arrow. Both attacks were fatal, but the San’s took longer to get a result because the poison worked so slowly—the hunters had to follow their victim, often for several days, until the victim died or couldn’t walk any more. The big difference between the lions and the San was that lion prides had chiefs or headmen but groups of San did not. The San thought that everyone was equal, and they didn’t need a special person telling them what to do.

Ju/’hoansi hunters near the Grashoek campsite, Namibia (Fernando Quevedo de Oliveira/ Alamy)

Starting in 1950, when I was 19, I had the good fortune to learn about the San and the lions in this vast, “unexplored” land. I was with my parents, Laurence and Lorna Marshall, and my brother, John, then 18, and because of what I learned, I keep quote marks around “unexplored.” The San who lived there knew everything there was to know about every life form big enough to see—every insect, reptile, bird, and mammal, every bush and tree. The area should have been called “The Thoroughly Studied Area” or “The Best-Known Area,” but since those who knew it best had dark skin, wore animal hides for clothing, couldn’t read or write, and didn’t speak Afrikaans or English, their knowledge didn’t seem like knowledge and didn’t count. Many years later, after multiple studies had been done, I heard a Harvard professor say that the San “know almost as much as we do” about their ecosystem. This stayed with me. Any San teenager knew more about that ecosystem than all the Harvard professors combined.

Most of the vast “unexplored” land had no surface water. During the dry season, the only water was in water holes, and most of these were hard to find—you could be standing near one and not know it was there. Some animals get what fluid they need from plants and morning dew, but lions and people need regular water, and during the dry season the area around every water hole was home to a group of San and also a pride of lions. The San would make a camp somewhere near the water hole, and the lions would find a resting place under a tree and out of sight of the people. The San and the lions hunted the same antelopes, but the San hunted every few weeks, always in the daytime, and the lions hunted every few days, always at night.

The group of San we knew the best called themselves Ju/’hoansi. Ju means “person”; “/” is a click made by your tongue behind your front teeth, as if you were saying tsk tsk ; /’hoan means “safe, harmless”; and si makes it plural. They had rightly named themselves Harmless People—they saw the benefits of peace and of people being equal.

Water may have influenced the peace the residents maintained. If the two groups harmed each other, one group might feel the need to drive the other away, which meant away from a water hole. If people were driven off, they could live with friends or relatives at other water holes, but if lions were driven off, they’d have to fight the lions at another water hole. Whichever group was driven off would have had to survive on morning dew while waiting for the rainy season. If the water situation made a difference, as I strongly believe it did, the lions had a better reason than the people for keeping the peace.

The Ju/’hoansi saw the world as filled with interesting life forms whose skills and motives they worked to understand. To show the extent of this, I point to the 18,000 species of beetles that live in southern Africa. The larvae of some of these beetles provide the poisons the San put on their arrows. The Ju/’hoansi call at least one of these beetles kua and also /oan (“poison”). The scientists call them Diamphidia, Polyclada, and Lebistina, and their larvae are found about a foot down in sandy ground under Commiphora trees. All the above-mentioned beetles produce poisons, but if the parasitic Lebistina larva infects one of the others, an even more potent poison results.

It’s said to be the deadliest in the world, found in just three out of 18,000 possible sources. If you eat it, you won’t die, because it must get in your blood. To discover the poison, you had to know the Commiphora trees, you had to know you were looking for beetle larvae, you had to find at least one of the 18,000 kinds of beetles, and you had to learn, probably via someone else’s blood, that the poison was fatal. How could anyone discover such a thing?

Most of us see this kind of work as that of a PhD scientist with years of study and experience, not that of a guy who has never been to school, who is wearing a pair of short pants made from an animal skin, and who is digging with his hands and a branch he broke off a tree. Why he’s digging there isn’t clear. Nothing much grows under that tree—it’s just one of dozens of kinds of trees in that ecosystem.

But the guy in short pants didn’t like to just look at an insect without knowing anything about it. He’d noticed beetles climbing around on those trees and also burying themselves in the sand under the trees, and although these beetles are small—about an inch long, maybe—he wanted to learn more about them.

Perhaps this summarizes the tie between the San and their world. We might be stupefied by how they came to understand their surroundings, how they discovered these things, all on their own without equipment or so-called “higher” education. Although the San are our ancestors, we don’t have their abilities, which evidently weren’t inherited but instead were learned.

When white people began arriving in southern Africa, the San were seen as essentially worthless but nevertheless employable. No job was deemed too dirty for them, and no wage was too low to pay. As I’ve said, all the San in that area camped by water holes, so when a white guy took some land containing a water hole (he paid nothing for the land—the San had no documents to prove their ownership), the San who lived there were forced to leave or work for the white owner. Many San did the latter, only to be treated badly, paid next to nothing, and given only enough food—I think a type of dry cereal—for one meal a day.

If the white people had been treated this way, they would have been outraged and would have started some kind of battle. The San did not. If they had shot their poison arrows, every arrow would have killed a victim, but harmless people don’t do things like that.

The lions also were harmless. Not to antelopes, of course, but to people. For instance, once in the “unexplored” land, we’d been traveling in our truck all day and were very tired, so when night came, instead of making a camp for ourselves, we just put our bedding on the ground and fell asleep. In the morning, we found lion tracks around us. The lions had been standing beside us, looking down at our faces, wondering what we were doing on their land. We didn’t look at all like the San, but the lions must have seen we were human, because after they’d examined us, they all walked away. We were thankful, of course, but it’s good we kept sleeping.

My brother and I had an interesting lion experience when taking a long walk over the veldt. We were about two miles from our camp when we walked around some bushes and saw a big lion in front of us, not 10 feet away. The San had said that if this happened, we should not run; we should seem uninterested and walk away at an oblique angle. But we didn’t remember this, so we kept staring. Soon the lion seemed uninterested. Then he walked away at an oblique angle.

Almost a lifetime later, I still remember him, needless to say. He was full-grown but still young, his mane was light-colored, not dark like that of an older lion, and he was alone, which could mean he’d been kicked out of his pride by its male owner, who didn’t want to share the pride with another full-grown male.

Later we had a strange experience with a very large lioness. One night when we and the Ju/’hoansi were sitting around our campfires, this lioness walked out of the woods. She was by far the biggest lioness I had ever seen, and she had come to tell us something, so she began to walk up and down beside our campsites, roaring so loudly that we couldn’t hear ourselves think, and no wonder—a lion’s roar can be heard five miles away and this lioness was almost beside us. At least 20 of us were sitting by our campfires, but there was nothing we could do except not move.

I glanced at my watch for some reason and when at last she stopped roaring and stood still, I looked at it again. Perhaps my brain had been influenced by sheer terror, but she seemed to have roared for at least 30 minutes. She looked down at us humans too terrified to move. She seemed satisfied. I think she didn’t know that we didn’t speak lion. She turned as if her mission was accomplished and walked off among the trees. We didn’t move or blink or even breathe conspicuously until she disappeared.

My favorite lion memories are of three lionesses who sometimes came to visit us at night. We’d see them about 20 feet away, standing among the trees, quietly watching what we were doing. One or another of the Ju/’hoan men would take a burning stick from his campfire and shake it at them, telling them politely but firmly to leave. They’d look at him, then at the rest of us, then at one another, and then they’d walk away.

They came to visit us quite often, and I think my family might have interested them. Our hair and skins were strange colors, and we wore weird cotton clothes. Obviously we weren’t Ju/’hoansi, but that being so, what were we?

To ourselves we seemed careful and normal. To the Ju/’hoansi we at least seemed careful, and to the lions we seemed like all other humans, a species they did not eat. My brother made a study of causes of death among the San, involving about a hundred people over about a hundred years. He found one person killed by a lion—a paraplegic girl who dragged herself along the ground with her hands.

Scholars who study the human-animal conflict have noticed that both lions and tigers are more likely to attack a person if that person is not standing up. It’s been said that this may be “mistaken identity,” but I’m not sure that makes sense.  Dogs know what species we are no matter what we’re doing. Cats do, too. So do horses and cows. So do sheep and pigs, also squirrels and rabbits and wolves. All animals, any animals, are smarter than most of us think. Why would a sitting person seem more catchable than a standing person? Could it be because the sitting person needs to stand up before he can start running? Why does he sit there if he isn’t saying, “Take me?”

As for the San, those we knew lived up to being harmless people. To maintain goodwill among themselves, important decisions were made by the group, and everyone’s voice was heard. Each person owned very little, so most objects were shared, and together each group owned the huge stretch of land where it lived.

We don’t like to see uninvited strangers on our land, and the Ju/’hoansi didn’t either, but one day three San men who were not Ju/’hoansi came onto their land while following an antelope they’d shot with a poison arrow.

One of the Ju/’hoansi we knew must have seen the strangers, and a group quickly gathered to decide what to do. The Ju/’hoansi knew that the intruders were hunting and couldn’t control where their victim would go, and after their victim died from the arrow poison, they’d go back to their encampment with her body. The group of Ju/’hoansi decided to do nothing, and the trespassers did what was expected of them—they found their victim and went home. I’m sure this sounds like nothing much, and perhaps it isn’t much, but it was the one and only time in more than two years that the Ju/’hoansi we were with had to deal with possible wrongdoing. This kind of behavior may explain why San culture persisted for so long.

But the world keeps changing. It has changed for the San. The “unexplored” area has been thoroughly visited and now seems much like the rest of Namibia, with permanent living quarters, cloth clothing, computers, cellphones, and even a few automobiles.

In some places, the San are forbidden from hunting, seemingly in an effort to protect certain animals from going extinct, and this seems ironic because while the San were living as they had lived for thousands of years, none of the animals they hunted went extinct. When the San men went out hunting, three or four of them would go every 15 days or so and spend several days tracking a victim that could later feed 20 or 30 people. This kind of behavior does not make a species go extinct.

Because the San now have email, I’m in touch with a splendid person named Leon Tsamkgao, and he’s the grandson of a man we knew well. I think of how we met his people. When we arrived in Africa in 1950, we found an interpreter and with him spent weeks searching the “unexplored” land. One day in the woods, a young man walked up to meet us—the young man who would become Leon’s grandfather. With him, our study began, and today, about 70 years later, the study continues. After all those years, we’ve begun to realize that if we want to learn about our evolutionary history, we might pay some attention to the vast traditional knowledge and wisdom of the San, accumulated during their long, peaceful coexistence with African lions.

Leon Tsamkgao knows the lions. “Lions only become dangerous,” he says, “when they have babies or when a lion gets wounded. They don’t eat humans. The Ju/’hoansi do not have any bad history about lions and other predators.”

In contrast, he points out, “the lions at Etosha are different from the wild ones that the Ju/’hoansi know. The Etosha lions are very aggressive because they are living among humans, which is what makes them like that. People come [to Etosha] because they want to see lions, and in the culture of the Ju/’hoansi there’s no way a person just decides to go see lions. The Ju/’hoansi do not have any bad history about lions and other predators.”

That’s Leon’s view. My view is that the Ju/’hoansi do not have any bad history about anything. They survived by maintaining a peaceful relationship with lions. The San became the ancestors of the rest of us, but not all of them felt the need to change. Those people kept their marvelous culture, or the important parts of it, anyway, and evidently, like some of the lions, they have it to this day.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is the author of many books on animals and nature, including The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture and The Hidden Life of Dogs. Her most recent book is Growing Old: Notes on Aging With Something Like Grace.


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