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Preface

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2022

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Summary

Ancestral knowledge of the oldest known hunter-gatherer communities is preserved by a few remaining San elders living in the Kalahari Desert. While it is the subject of numerous research accounts, the richness of San material culture has rarely been documented in detail, and never through the eyes of the people themselves. Our book represents the first attempt to document that knowledge by presenting to San elders the world’s largest assemblage of their artefacts, collected a century ago, and now housed at Museum Africa in Johannesburg, South Africa. Explanations of the meanings and uses of these artefacts given by the elders provide a novel perspective that enriches scholarly knowledge on the past and present San way of life. By accompanying their narrative with high-quality photographs of the described items, archived black-and-white images, and contemporary examples of the use of these objects, we initiate the reader into all aspects of this ancient and vanishing culture.

This book is the result of a trip made in 2013 by four San elders from the Kalahari Desert region of northern Namibia, invited by us in our capacity as archaeologists, to examine a century-old collection of San artefacts, and describe in their own words the manufacture, use and meaning of traditional artefacts collected by Dr Louis Fourie between 1916 and 1928 in that region. A medical officer in the Protectorate of South West Africa, now Namibia, Louis Fourie worked in direct contact with groups of San, during which time he amassed the world’s largest collection of San artefacts. Extraordinarily for that time, he kept a notebook and a descriptive catalogue detailing the ethnolinguistic affiliation and social customs linked to the objects he collected, as well as processes involved in their manufacture and use; he also documented photographically the different stages of production of many types of artefacts, and often labelled who had made them. Meticulously catalogued by him, the Fourie Collection, comprising over 3 000 artefacts, is now housed at Museum Africa. Because of his endeavours, at a time when San had little contact with the outside world, he was able to acquire first-hand knowledge of their culture.

During their visit to Museum Africa the elders rediscovered objects last seen in their childhoods, and told stories inspired by their handling of the objects.

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San Elders Speak
Ancestral Knowledge of the Kalahari San
, pp. xix - xxi
Publisher: Wits University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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