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It was still dark when Karl and I left camp. On the way to where we thought the giraffes might be, we passed through a feeding group of Thomson's gazelles. Illuminated starkly by our headlights, they looked like precious tchotchkes: delicate little legs, prancing style, nervously tic-tocking tails.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later, we surprised three giraffes lying down in the grass and looking dazed, as if they had just woken up after a long and satisfying night's sleep. They were emerging from the darkness, bathed faintly in the light-speckling dawn, and all we saw at first was what appeared to be three swaying trees with heads on top. They became alert as we drove closer. They were in a small meadow, edged, protected perhaps, on two sides by a bit of dark and thickety bush, and I imagined the spot as a comfortable bedroom for giraffes.
Karl took some photographs, but instead of waiting patiently for the sun to rise and cast some interesting morning light on the sleeping beauties, he kept driving around, looking for a better angle, taking one or two quick shots with the engine off, then starting the car, moving to a new position. As he worked, he commented on his photography, the animals, the light. "Yeah, it's the nice type of light which says they're just getting up," he said. But the moment was quickly gone. Soon the light had turned slightly harder, and the three lying-down giraffes were laboriously standing up. Then, slowly, they sauntered away. The sun rose and turned into a seething red ball at the horizon, and so the day began.
This happened in southwestern Kenya, in the Masai Mara: a rare place where the modern catastrophe has not yet fully dawned, where, in the fading darkness, it is momentarily possible to believe you have reached the fragile beginning of time.
In the Mara, we saw giraffes singly, doubly. We saw them in groups of three or four or a dozen or more. One time we emerged from a hiding place in the thickets and discovered a group of eighteen. They were Masai giraffes, of course, patterned with brown and splotchy spots. One looked as if she had been made entirely of cream and then one day had been struck forcibly by a mad flock of brown-sugared birds.
One was lying down, the rest standing, all with their ears flickering and their tufted tails desultorily flicking back and forth. They stared. We stared. They stared and chewed their cuds. We stared and took pictures. They stared and then looked at each other. We stared, took pictures, and then Karl started up the car to move closer and get a better position. Several minutes later, I saw a subtle emergence of giraffe consensus. One turned, another turned, a third turned. Soon a half dozen had turned, and then they were all ambling undulously along, stately and elegant. Karl (working on his lenses, muttering to himself): "Try to do a very wide angle once, take them all in."
Later, in northern Kenya's Samburu National Reserve, we came upon a group of six reticulated giraffes (whose markings look like brown plates caught in nets of pale hemp) browsing in a nice pocket of trees and bushes. Four of them looked young, one of them very young. They were spread out at first and chewing at the trees and bushes, but eventually they moved out of the pocket and began slowly, patiently ambling in the same uphill direction. They seemed so finely built, so delicate, and they gradually arranged themselves, as they walked, into single file, the four youngsters in the middle, the big adult male at the rear, the adult female at the head.
Then, for no good reason, they stopped and gathered to think about things, or so it seemed. They stood still. They looked in several directions. We saw, then, two more giraffes at some distance behind and moving uphill in their direction. The stragglers looked like adolescents or, possibly, full adults. But everything happened very slowly, and Karl and I remained in the car and then settled into another experience of time, where we were immersed in the sweet smell of dry grass and cooled by a dry wind blowing through the windows, heated by a slanting late afternoon sun, fitfully distracted by the buzzing of a fly. I thought: blond savanna, brown bushes: fitting colors for a giraffe. Meanwhile, the tall female outside our vehicle stared at us for a very long time, then began eating a small cache of green leaves edging a brown, thorny bush, while the two stragglers behind her slowly, slowly began to catch up. Now there were eight in the group, pausing, looking, pausing, browsing, pausing.
A big male had a half dozen red-billed oxpeckers lined up on his back, picking away at a feast of ticks. Karl: "That's quite a lineup. Must be something tasty."
We followed them all slowly, the car grinding away in its lowest gear and struggling heroically over a rough surface of bumps and holes, following the giraffes as they slowly continued uphill, pausing opportunistically at each greenish-brown thornbush. They took bites, too, from the occasional high acacia tree, each filled with a hundred weaverbird nests that dangled like Chinese lanterns. I gazed away momentarily, looking out across a spectacular vista of sun-yellowed plains dropping down to a green-lined river. Then I returned to the giraffes and was suddenly amazed at how narrow their necks are, ribbony even, yet very flexible and immensely strong.
In the Namibian desert, at a place called Twyfelfontein, we found giraffes in their most ancient and ethereal form: wispy, rising representations carved into rock by Bushman artists who lived a few or several thousand years ago.
Twyfelfontein. A recent name, Afrikaans in origin, it describes the wistful hope a white farmer formed for this spare spot in the sparse desert. The name translates into English as Doubtful Spring.
The Bushmen camped in a small plateau or terrace just above the doubtful spring, and their camp was a gathering place, a passing refuge in the hard life of hunting and gathering. They were protected by a high cliff and mountain behind them, while before them lay the flat and splendid valley consisting mainly of rust-red stone and sand, which is spotted, after the rains, by the green of small thorn trees and scrub. The valley is surrounded by flattened, red-rocked mountains. The red rocks are Etjo sandstone, consisting of alluvial conglomerates and eolian sandstone-stone, that is, formed from sand that has been sifted by the wind and is thus fine grained and capable of breaking into smooth, even blocks.
The spring and the remnants of that camp are surrounded by a chaos of great broken sandstone boulders, arranged like a mythical giant's fallen house of cards, with the smooth surfaces covered by art. As many as 2,500 separate etchings on some 200 sandstone tablets depict a swirling congregation of antelopes, elephants, leopards, lions, ostriches, rhinos, warthogs, zebras-and giraffes-as well as some humans, the occasional animal and human hand or foot print, and a number of purely abstract forms and designs. The representations are convincing and accurate and yet boldly stylized. There are rhinos, for example, with impossibly long upturned horns, tapered and fragile. There is a lion with a preternaturally long tail that curls back and then up and finally terminates in a leonine paw print. A giraffe stands on finely tapered footless legs that look like wisps of smoke rising from a fire. Another giraffe, elsewhere in the stone, stands proudly with a five-pointed head, five projections (two ears and two horns on top, a smaller horn pointing back) that strangely evoke the five digits of an outstretched human hand.
Before writing came art, and so it is art that draws us back to the beginning of memory. Africa is covered with such memory, which has been painted on or carved and chipped into rock. The art embraces the artists themselves and their people, and it embraces the animals people lived with, the animals they saw and dreamed about and hunted when hunger so required.
The art can be found far to the north, from the western edges of the Nile River all the way west across the Sahara, from there down to the eastern middle of Africa, and down again to the south. The northern art reminds us that the Sahara Desert was once, before a shift in climate that happened four to six thousand years ago, wetter and richer and far more hospitable to large mammals and large-mammal hunters than it is today. Giraffes are depicted there, often, in the context of hunting and trapping. But the southern carvings and paintings, all done by Bushman artists and revealed in thousands of different sites across Africa's great southern foot, evoke, I think, a more ancient life that took place under the sun and stars within a coherent and whispering cosmos.
The Bushmen were despised by the first white settlers in Africa, who saw them as wild men with clouded minds and filthy ways, a people inherently incapable of grasping the higher logic of Christian and colonial authority, with (in the words of one early missionary) "a soul debased, it is true, and completely bound down and clogged by his animal nature." They were "savages," to repeat the calumny used by Sir John Barrow in his memoir of explorations in southern Africa done more than two hundred years ago. Barrow, though, was expressing a common prejudice, and he probably did so ironically, while describing his early discovery of the glorious art surrounding a Bushman camp, art so forceful and spirited, so accurate and yet expressive, that, he wrote with a critic's understated certitude, "worse drawings ... have passed through the [European] engraver's hands."
Barrow recognized the skill and intelligence involved in such art, and he responded to it in aesthetic terms. This art is not the fading remnant of a feeble attempt at decoration or of casual vandalism, the graffiti of bored teenagers. It is the studied production of an active mind. Barrow saw beauty, and he recognized training and skill. That is an appropriate response, yet it is inappropriate to imagine that the Bushman artists intended these works to be, in the European way, aesthetic productions that might be bought or sold or traded, thereby distinguishing the artist as an individual. Nor is there any clear suggestion in this art of the simplistic tit-for-tat of sympathetic magic: the effort to capture or freeze game animals symbolically with the fervent belief that an artist's triumph can become the hunter's.
Yes, individual artists must have been particularly skilled, and surely this art would have generated aesthetic pleasure as well as a sense of wonder or magic. But its primary purpose may have been collective rather than individual, and it must have worked in the same way that stained-glass windows did for illiterate medieval Christians: as a cultural expression, a shimmering communal statement in which the ways and logic of a people within their cosmos were confidently remembered, rehearsed, and realized.
Our guide at Twyfelfontein, a slender and composed young Damara woman who introduced herself as Thekla Tsaraes, explained that the carved rock art was done by Bushman shamans who had gone into a trance. During the trance, she said, they used their art, those ethereal representations of animals, as a route of entry into the spirit world. The giraffes, for instance, were usually shown without their hooves, with their legs drawn away into long, thin lines expressing the shaman's experience of rising in the air when he enters a trance. Sometimes a giraffe etching would be twisted, in the way a shaman feels his own body changing, transforming as he enters the spirit world.
When she spoke of the Bushmen, Tsaraes said "Boesman," and her English was sometimes hard to follow. "So the Boesman people," she said, "have used their footprints to enter the solid rock without being seen." When I pressed her about the giraffe images, she declared, "Sometimes even the giraffe is regarded as a holy animal. They believe it's close to the clouds and is bringing down the rain." And when I asked her how we could know such things about people who lived so long ago, she responded that anthropologists had studied their culture.
It is true. We know a good deal about the cultures of surviving Bushman groups from the work of twentieth-century anthropologists. None of those survivors made the art, however, and the primary source of knowledge about the art-making Bushmen comes from the nineteenth-century labors of Wilhelm Bleek, a German linguist living in South Africa. Bleek was interested in studying the several languages of Africa's First People, and when, in 1870, he learned that some /Xam Bushmen were imprisoned in Cape Town for various petty crimes, he convinced the colonial governor to release a number of them to his care. One of them, a man named //Kabbo who was, in Bleek's assessment, "a gentle old soul, lost in a dream-life of his own," proved to be his most prolific informant, although the other /Xam also contributed. They lived in Bleek's house, taught him their language, and in the process described their lives and vanishing culture.
The /Xam lived in extended family groups of perhaps a half dozen to two dozen people, who would temporarily settle near a spring or water hole. They built their small huts far enough from the water to avoid frightening the animals, who also congregated around water, and they relied on a second spring or water hole for the change of seasons and the inevitable drying-up of the first. Getting to the second might require two or a few days' trek across arid lands, with the migrating group carrying water inside ostrich eggshells.
They were hunters and gatherers, with the women gathering vegetable foods and the men hunting for meat using small bows and light, poison-tipped arrows. The /Xam poisons were lethal but very slow acting, which meant that the hunter had to track his wounded quarry for hours or even days. Tracking, then, was an essential skill for these hunters and is expressed in the animal-track motif of so much of their art.
But the /Xam worked to control their fickle and often hostile environment through shamanism, which is even more of an essential theme for the art. All-night dances brought some of the men, carrying sticks and wearing rattles made of dried seed pods or pebble-filled springbok ears, into a trance state. The dancers, trembling, sweating, bleeding from their noses, became charged with a potent energy that seemed to boil out from within. Through succumbing to this energy they experienced their own death, leaving their physical bodies in order to manipulate the occult forces of the world beyond. They became shamans, in other words, and they used their newly acquired powers to work on three interconnected problems having to do with health, game, and rain. Shamans who acquired the power of healing might pull the illness out of a stricken person and into themselves, then sneeze it out along with a bloody discharge, which was then wiped onto the ill person with the theory that its smell protected against evil. Game shamans-the rock art sometimes shows them wearing caps made from the scalp of an antelope, the ears sewn to stand upright-worked to control the movements of antelope herds and confuse the trickster diety, /Kaggen, who liked to protect the special animals. And finally, the rain shamans tried to outsmart and catch certain mythical rain animals, whose blood or milk, when spilled, would be transformed into water that fell as rain.
That, in any event, is what I learned at Twyfelfontein and later from considering a handful of books on the subject. I also spoke about such things with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of the anthropological classic The Harmless People (1958) and, more recently, The Old Way: A Story of the First People (2006), both of which draw on her experiences as a girl visiting and living among four language groups of the still surviving Kalahari Desert Bushmen. She knew nothing about the rock art, Thomas told me, since the Kalahari Bushmen did not do that kind of art. Their art was in their music-and, for the men, in their hunting and the mythlike stories they told about hunting. Also, she added, none of the Bushman groups she knew had shamans, at least not in the sense of someone being an elite, professionalized healer.
It was true that certain men, sorcerers by reputation, were said to possess the power to fly through the air and enter the body of a lion. But any man could become a healer, and the powers for healing would emerge during their all-night dances. As with the /Xam, the Kalahari women sat in a circle and clapped, sharply and rhythmically, while the men danced in a circle around that circle, wearing rattles on their legs. At some time during this dance, often around dawn, a number of the men would acquire the power to draw away sickness. "Several men might fall into trance," Thomas said. "Then they'd come over and put one hand on your back and one on your front, and they'd suck away the something bad that was in you. They'd suck it into themselves, and then they'd scream it into the air. And what they sucked out they called 'star sickness.' They did this for real illnesses too, but a star-sickness healing would be for things that cause jealousy, ill-will: bad things that can make a group disintegrate."
The Kalahari Bushmen's notoriously fickle gods occupied the horizon, especially during those shifting, magical moments just before sunrise and sunset, and the spirits of the dead served those gods. The spirits were anyone who had died, and they were all around. They lived in this world, invisible yet leaving fine trails in the air, like spiderwebs floating about fifteen feet off the ground. People talked to them, sometimes cursed at them, and you knew where the spirits were because you could see where people focused their eyes and projected their voices.
Did animals become spirits? I asked. Thomas said she never heard that they did, but it was true that men who had gone into a trance would swear at the spirits of the dead and also at the lions-but the lions were really there, in this world. They weren't spirits. They were just animals who shared a water hole with the people.
Still, giraffes and certain antelopes ("the large ones, the ones that are a hunter's special prize") shared with people something called n!ow. This was a very mysterious thing that had to do with the weather. A man could urinate into a fire, and his n!ow would interact with the fire, causing a change in the weather. When a woman gave birth and her amniotic fluid hit the ground, there would be a change in the weather. Similar things happened when a hunter spilled the blood and thus the n!ow of a giraffe or a large antelope onto the ground. This remarkable substance or energy or force possessed by humans and giraffes and the five next-biggest game animals (elands, wildebeests, kudus, gemsboks, and hartebeests), this n!ow, could change the weather. "It's so remote from anything we have anything to do with that it's hard to understand," Thomas concluded, "but the important thing to me is that people had it, and the big antelopes they hunted had it, and the giraffes. Period. No one else had it. It was an important characteristic."