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Hunter-Gatherers

Early inhabitants of deserts, and all other environments, used resources in a way that is now described as hunting and gathering. In deserts it would have meant having the essential knowledge and being well-attuned to variable rainfall and the resultant growth patterns and behaviour of plants and animals, as well as to replenishment of ephemeral water sources. Certainly as far back as when Homo erectus occupied dry areas, it is thought that they used deserts on an intermittent basis when productivity was high (Shackley 1980). Interpretation of evidence from the central Namib Desert suggests that resource use was not simply a system of seasonal mobility, implying an almost random form of density-independent use of ephemeral resources (Kinahan 2005). Instead, an equilibrial or density-dependent system making use of key resource locations with reliable water during the dry season, within a wider area of ephemeral resources, would provide a better explanation.

A key resource essential for most groups of huntergatherers living in deserts is the presence of at least one tree-borne fruit that serves as a staple and is capable of long storage (Pailes 1999). This would be combined with grains, beans, roots and fruits, supplemented by small amounts of animal protein. In North America, acorns, pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans fulfil this tree-fruit niche. In southern Africa, the mongongo nut and !nara seeds provide an equivalent. These resources could be harvested and consumed on site, but served an increasingly crucial role as baskets or pottery for transport and storage became available. They would have provided sustenance for traders and even served as trade goods as such relationships developed.

On the coastal deserts, particularly important on the west coast of the southern deserts (for example, Smith and Hesse 2005), use of marine resources would have constituted a large part of the diet, at least seasonally (for example, Kinahan 2000; and see Box 2.1). Prolonged occupation of coastal areas entirely surrounded by dunes but with fresh water seepage indicates the importance of marine resources for early hunter-gatherers (Shackley 1983). This rich diet may have relieved the necessity for a tree-borne fruit as a staple although in areas such as the Namibian coast, the !nara fruit, growing in the coastal dunes and ephemeral water courses, would have provided the necessary component (Henschel and others 2004).

Although hunter-gatherers occupied deserts for millennia, evidence for their livelihoods comes from archaeological (Figure 2.1) and recent observations from their remaining cultural descendents. The Topnaar of the Namib Desert today know uses for 81 plant species, although it is thought that some knowledge has been lost (van den Eynden and others 1992; Figure 2.2). The San, or bushmen, of the Kalahari have a repertoire of over 100 species of food plants and 55 animal species, a list also probably more extensive in the past (Biesele 1994).

Hunting and gathering may have been the only way of life known to people when they first occupied deserts, even intermittently. With the slow evolution of use of domestic crops and animals, the livelihoods of hunter-gatherers took on aspects of herding and agriculture in varying proportions. The remainder of this chapter refers to "mixed livelihoods" of people in deserts, although one way of making a living may predominate for a period of time, or in a particular area, or for certain parts of the population.

In the rapidly developing world of the 21st century, hunter-gatherers necessarily undertake mixed strategies of resource use while trying not to lose their rich resource base. The San (Barswara) of the Central Kalahari are currently being relocated by the Botswana government out of what are perceived to be potential diamond mining areas. The San are an important element of most tourism experiences in southern Africa, and they have options for future development - although probably none represent their own preferred directions. In Namibia, a majority of the San are farm workers, mainly working for cattle-rich Herero peoples in the Kalahari sandveld (Gordon 2000), although they are also the nucleus of a very successful Community Conservancy focused on natural resource management and tourism (NACSO 2004). The future of the original huntergatherers of Australia, still very much focused on their traditional art and culture while adapting to modern ways, presents a similarly rich and complex transition (Bindon 1994, Kimber 2005). All modern day hunter-gatherers represent a repository of knowledge concerning life in desert landscapes, ready for interpretation and use that should not be ignored.

 
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