Know-how transfer from Namibia to Europe: How the tracking skills of San-hunters advance western science
September 2013, Volume 11-4

In summer 2013 a research project was initiated in which the indigenous knowledge of San hunters from Namibia was called up to elucidate an old riddle in European prehistory. Some caves in southern France, which contain rock art from the Ice Age, also preserved the footprints of people of 17,000 years ago. These footprints received quite some attention from western researchers but were never interpreted (i.e. ―read‖) by real trackers. Therefore three trackers of the Ju/’hoansi community from Tsumkwe in northern Namibia, namely /Ui Kxunta, /Ui Ga!o and Tsamkxao Ciqae, were invited by Tilman Lenssen-Erz (University Cologne, Germany) and Andreas Pastoors (Neanderthal Museum, Germany) to visit some of the very few caves with prehistoric footprints. The basic idea of the project
was: western science can count and measure these tracks very well, but only the San can read them –
and understanding can only come from reading, not from measuring. The three San hunters practice tracking on a daily base and for a living at home. Mostly they offer their skills to tourists, in particular to trophy hunters. The San are able to follow the track of one particular animal for long distances. They can also track humans to the extent that skilled trackers can identify any individual in their village by the footprint.

In mid 2013 project participants spent some time together in Namibia in order to get acquainted and to learn from one another. The San hunters demonstrated their skills on some tracking trips in the Kalahari where the Gautscha and Nyae Nyae pan were visited (both very well known in anthropology due to the groundbreaking research of Lorna Marshall in the 1950s). A visit to the baobab trees near
Tsumkwe served the purpose to tangibly get into contact with something living but so very old that it transcends the individual imagination and experience of time – a time that in the traditions of the San people is conceived of as “the times when animals were people”. Additionally, in order to become acquainted with a cave environment, which was a first time for the San, a visit was made to a deep dripstone cave on the farm Ghaub in northern Namibia. The next stop was the World Heritage Site of
Twyfelfontein, which shows a lot of animal tracks in its prehistoric hunter-gatherer rock art, thus providing a rich reperto ire of signs to be interpreted by the trackers. After a visit to the “White Lady” rock paintingat the Brandberg/Daureb and a press conference in Windhoek the whole group traveled to Europe.

In Germany a visit to the zoo in Cologne was arranged in order to give the three San hunters the possibility to observe bears which do not exist in Africa and whose tracks they would encounter in the caves more often than human tracks. Then the group drove to the Pyrenees in southern France where the caves to be visited are located. Here they joined the anthropologist Megan Biesle (doing research among the Ju/’hoansi San for over 40 years), Jean Clottes, the grand old man of cave art, and Comte Robert Bégouën, the charismatic owner of the famed Volp caves Trois Frères, Tuc d’Audoubert and Enlène.

The visits to the European Ice Age caves were worth every minute and have yielded stunning new insights. Four caves were visited and from a fifth a replica of human tracks was inspected (seeing the originals would have required some challenging scuba diving). The trackers presented a highly professional attitude and made the strenuous cave visits extremely prolific.

In the cave of Niaux a hitherto poorly understood patch of ground with some 24 footprints was now identified as being the result of a girl of ca.12 years having stood there – instead of several people
having performed a ritual dance, as some archaeologists would have liked to believe. In Pech Merle,
where archaeologists had identified one or possibly two people, now five persons were differentiated who walked over the spot where the tracks were preserved. In the cave of Fontanet 17 individuals were identified (distributed over three locations). The only presumed spoor of the Ice Ages of a shoe was also examined closely: this latter imprint actually has clear marks of toes so that there remains no proof that people of that time should have used shoes. Finally in the cave of Tuc d’Audoubert there is an area, which was so far unexplained as it contains a puzzling array of dozens of footprints (of heels only) on the side of a small pit, which archaeologists again liked to interpret as the tracks of a ritual dance. The three San trackers could resolve this riddle and identified a man and a boy walking twice to and fro to a pit to extract some clay. They were even able to show that man and boy knelt down in some places, which was now a new discovery by the San (interestingly with naked knees, thus wearing no long trousers).

All the discussions and arguments the three trackers exchanged during their inspections of tracks were audio-recorded. As they were led in Ju/’hoansi they will be transcribed by the Ju/’hoan Transcription Group in Tsumkwe.

As a general result of the project one can summarize that the history of the Ice Age has certainly not to be written anew, but now for the first time there are plausible stories about those places where footprints are preserved. It was among the enlightening experiences for the westerly trained scientists that the San exhibited a thoroughly empirical attitude towards their ‘data’, not speculating about things but clinging to meaningful facts. In this sense there is a profound methodological accordance between the western and the San experts. Accordingly they gave very clear indications of sex and age of those tracks they could interpret clearly. From now on every scientist working with foot prints of the Ice Ages will have to refer to these expert statements on the human tracks since never before has there been an equally competent inspection of these tracks.

During the whole time of the project in Namibia and Europe there was a TV crew who accompanied the group. As a result a 90-minutes documentation will be shown in the French-German TV channel Arte in 2014. The project leaders will endeavor to produce an additional English version of the film, which shall be shown in the participants’ villages around Tsumkwe and some other locations in

The project was a cooperative endeavor of the African Archaeology at University of Cologne, the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann/Germany, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and the Kalahari Peoples Fund (KPF), in consultation with Nyae Nayae Development Foundation of Namibia (NNDFN), Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), the National Museum of Namibia and the Archaeology Dept of the University of Namibia. The ―Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft‖ (DFG) provided funding.

The homepage of the project will continuously be updated.

Authors: Tilman Lenssen-Erz and Rolf D. Baldus