When a 200,000-Year-Old Culture Encountered the Modern Economy

The Ju/’hoansi, of Namibia, lived the same way millennium after millennium. Then the military stipends started coming in.

The only brick-and-mortar bar in Tsumkwe, Namibia
Tsumkwe Rock Star, the only brick-and-mortar bar in the capital of the Ju/’hoansi, a group of hunter-gatherers who lived the same way for roughly 200,000 years (James Suzman)

Tsumkwe is the closest thing to a town in Namibia’s Nyae Nyae district, the epitome of remoteness in a country where almost everywhere is remote. Tsumkwe is also the capital of roughly 3,500 Ju/'hoansi, perhaps the best known of the few groups of people who continued to live as hunter-gatherers well into the 20th century.

If Tsumkwe has a center, then it is the Tsumkwe General Dealer, a small thatched shop and gas station that stands at the town’s only paved intersection. It is here that most Ju/'hoansi gravitate whenever money finds its way into their pockets, to purchase dry foods, alcohol, soft drinks, cookware, tools, blankets, and medicine.

Installed in the last couple of years, a solar-powered, cellular-connected ATM now occupies a central position in the General Dealer. When it actually works, it is the only means by which the 100 or so Ju/’hoansi  in Tsumkwe with salaries can translate their digital paychecks into cash without travelling 200 miles to the nearest larger town, Grootfontein. The machine still elicits occasional gasps from some of the older Ju/’hoansi. “If you feed this machine the right numbers,” one old Ju/’hoan man explained to me with a wink, “it magically shits money.”

There was more to the old man’s comment than pure whimsy. For when viewed through the prism of a hunter-gatherer’s perspective, the world of money and finance truly does lend itself to the kind of trickery and sleight of hand associated with magicians and tricksters; more than most residents of developed countries would likely admit, the economic contrivances that course through daily life are abstract, sometimes arbitrary, almost supernaturally inexplicable, and yet, despite all that, agreed upon as necessary and normal. The story of how paper money made its way to into Ju/’hoansi society—and then quickly retreated from it—reveals how the basic features of an economy are so often taken for granted by people more accustomed to assigning monetary value to objects and time.

The bar at Tsumkwe Rock Star (Morgan Botelle)

Fifty years ago, Ju/’hoansi in Nyae Nyae still hunted and gathered for a living, just as their ancestors had done since the first expansion of modern Homo sapiens across southern Africa around 200,000 years ago. Their isolated community came to global attention in 1966 when a young Canadian anthropologist, Richard Lee, conducted a series of simple economic input-output analyses to get a better idea of how hard hunter-gatherers like Ju/’hoansi had to work to get by. Up until then, anthropologists, historians, and economists assumed that hunter-gatherers endured lives of unremitting hardship, and that it was only with the advent of agriculture that humanity began to gradually liberate itself from the tyranny of nature. The Ju/’hoansi were considered to be a particularly good example of how humans’ long-suffering ancestors lived. Not only were they isolated from modernity, but they also lived in as hostile an environment as it is possible to find.

To his surprise, Lee established that the Ju/’hoansi not only managed to feed themselves better than many in the industrialized world, but that they did so on the basis of only around two hours foraging a day, and cheerfully spent the rest of their time on more leisurely pursuits such as napping, playing games, and making art. On the strength of Lee’s findings and the growing weight of evidence from similar societies elsewhere, anthropologists started calling hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society” and turned the established narrative of social evolution on its head.

Over time, a more sophisticated picture of the Ju/’hoansi’s affluence emerged—one I saw firsthand living in southern Africa for 25 years and one I describe in my recent book, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen. The Ju/’hoansi had an unyielding confidence in the providence of their environment and in their knowledge of how to exploit it. This meant that the Ju/’hoansi, like other hunter-gatherers, focused almost myopically on the short term—if the environment always supplied food and materials and the seasons were broadly predictable, what point was there in worrying about the future? This confidence also meant that the Ju/’hoansi did not store food for more than a few days and only expended energy on securing just enough to meet their immediate needs—in much the same way that many harried city dwellers live hand to mouth on convenience foods.

But unlike those urbanites, the Ju/’hoansi shared their food with one another according to a set of social prescriptions that ensured pretty much everyone, including the young, old, or disabled, got a share. As a result the Ju/’hoansi were also thoroughly egalitarian, mercilessly ribbing anyone that developed delusions of grandeur and seeing no point in accumulating wealth or formalizing systems of exchange. They also enjoyed giving friends ritualistic gifts called hxaro, but in these cases it was the implied affection in the act of giving that was important—the gift itself was more often than not soon re-gifted to someone else.

All this changed very suddenly, when larger political and economic forces that rattled southern Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s brought an end to the Ju/’hoansi’s isolation, and with it their freedom to live as hunter-gatherers. First, the South African government established an administrative presence in Tsumkwe (Namibia was a South African colony until 1990). Then, as part of an apartheid master plan, the government declared a large portion of Nyae Nyae a game reserve, prohibited hunting there, and denied Ju/’hoansi access to two of the only three natural springs they historically depended on. These changes made it impossible for all Ju/’hoansi to live off the land, and they became increasingly dependent on handouts from government officials in Tsumkwe.

Then came the military. In 1979, South African tanks rumbled into Nyae Nyae, after a slow-burning uprising against South African rule in Namibia had transformed into a Cold War proxy conflict involving Cuba, Angola, and Russia. South Africa established a network of military bases across northern Namibia, including three in and around Nyae Nyae, where they began aggressively recruiting Ju/’hoansi. Unable to hunt and gather freely and fearful of recriminations from the army, nearly every able-bodied Ju/'hoan man between the ages of 18 and 35 joined up. And because the army had recently decided to pay recruits of all races the same salaries, the new recruits instantly found themselves to be among the best-paid people in the country.

Every Ju/’hoan involved pocketed the equivalent of $600 to $700 every month (worth between roughly $2,150 and $2,500 today, adjusting for inflation). And all of this income was disposable: No Ju/’hoansi in Nyae Nyae had overheads like rent or utility bills, and the military provided the soldiers with food for their families. Unsurprisingly, within a few months a horde of small-scale traders flocked to Tsumkwe to take advantage of the Ju/’hoansi’s newfound wealth.

A barkeep taking an order at Tsumkwe Rock Star (James Suzman)

With a mindset shaped by hunting and gathering, the paychecks did not last long. A significant proportion of the money was spent on alcohol—itself a new, dangerously beguiling, and highly destructive force in a community with no history of alcohol consumption. Many recruits have described how in the early days of the military occupation they remembered little after leaving the paymaster general’s truck with their salaries until they awoke 24 hours later, penniless and hungover.

Over time, as military cash became part of Ju/’hoan lives, their attitudes to money inevitably began to change. When money was scarce, nobody cared much for it, but the more money that flowed in, the more valuable it became. The sudden influx of cash raised a number of questions that would perplex any hunter-gatherers. Should money be shared like meat or food or private property? And if so, how much and with whom? Was it an appropriate gift, and was a gift of money a loan?

In much the same way that there is no clear consensus about the answers to these questions in highly industrialized economies, the Ju/'hoansi didn't reach any clear conclusions either. In an echo of the left-right divide that shapes political affiliation in many larger economies, most Ju/'hoansi in Nyae Nyae with little or no income came to consider it an obvious obligation that those with money should share it widely and evenly, while most of those that earned military money increasingly took the view that it was a reward for their work and that they deserved the bulk of it.

Before the Ju/’hoansi were dragged into an economy based on monetary value, gift-giving was their primary form of exchange, and it didn’t happen between just anyone. Gifts were given to reaffirm bonds between individuals and were always expected to be reciprocated, but never immediately, because doing so would have made it a trade. In presenting one another with gifts, Ju/’hoansi were unconcerned with the equivalence of the objects being exchanged: There was no agreed-upon way of measuring the respective values of, for example, an ostrich-eggshell necklace and a leather blanket. In the world of the Ju/’hoansi, the minute something became a gift, it became equal in value to all other gifts.

So, in the absence of established cultural norms for dealing with or redistributing money, the influx of military salaries generated many problems. Social expectations that previously were so successful at maintaining a delicate egalitarian balance were clearly not up to the job of coping with the huge disparities in wealth that emerged. In what was once a roughly equal society, suddenly young men in military tunics were the ones with the most resources. Accusations of selfishness and greed flew everywhere, and in this poisonous atmosphere the alcohol many purchased—ironically enough, to help them to forget these same problems—ignited sometimes-vicious brawls that generated far more work for the Tsumkwe military infirmary than the actual warfare.

These troubles persisted in Tsumkwe for the duration of the decade the military was in charge. But then in 1990, Namibia achieved its independence, the Ju/’hoan soldiers were demobilized, and the South African Defense Force and its bags of cash left as suddenly as they had arrived. And with military salaries no longer being distributed, all but a handful of the itinerant traders packed up and headed off in search of opportunities elsewhere.

The departure, almost overnight, of the military was a mass retrenchment that might have induced anxiety in other parts of the world, but the people of Nyae Nyae greeted it with relief. By then, most Ju/’hoansi referred to Tsumkwe as a “place of death” and many vowed that their experiences of the preceding decade would never be repeated. With the help of a newly formed charity that drilled wells and installed water pumps across Nyae Nyae, many Ju/’hoansi returned to their traditional territories. And while new nature-conservation regulations and the fact that they had lost so much land under apartheid meant it was no longer possible for all of the growing Ju/’hoan population to survive by hunting and gathering alone, they were now able to accumulate enough to participate selectively in the expanding cash economy.

Now, more than 25 years after Namibian independence, less money flows into Ju/'hoan hands in Nyae Nyae than did during the period of military occupation. Around two-thirds of extended families there receive some form of cash income, mainly in the form of a monthly state pension for those over the age of 60. The pensions are only worth around $70 per month, so they do not cause nearly as much chaos as the military salaries did; nonetheless, few in Nyae Nyae can imagine life without money.

Yet even if the Ju/’hoansi are used to money, it remains a force full of contradictions. Why, they wonder, is some work more valuable than other work, and why is it that someone typing away at a computer should make vastly more money than someone digging a hole in the sun? And where does money derive its value in the first place? In this sense the Ju/’hoansi are not so different from most people in industrialized economies who may consider themselves competent users of money or even competent in the art of making money: Only a handful of such people can produce cogent answers to questions about where money comes from, what determines its value, or what economic growth actually is. Even fewer feel confident to explain the minutiae of monetary policy, the catalysts of market volatility, or how derivative financial instruments create value. And within the small community who consider themselves qualified to answer these questions, most disagree with each other on what the answers actually are. If they did—if economics were a hard science—then developing policies with predictable outcomes would be a much simpler enterprise.

I only ever met one Ju/’hoan to propose a theory of sorts about money, an old shaman named /’Engn!au. He expressed it in the form of a story about his favorite mythological character, a sometimes-human sometimes-jackal trickster who survived by his wits. Teasing any kind of underlying message out of most Ju/’hoan folktales is nearly impossible, but this one did not require tremendous reinterpretation to make sense of. For beyond referencing the magic of the ATM, it could be read as anything from an allegory of Bernie Madoff’s pyramid schemes to a parable about quantitative easing.

His story went like this: Jackal had been riding his donkey and grew tired, so he decided to stop and cook some meat. Once his food was getting hot, he saw some farmers coming toward him and quickly put out the fire. When the farmers arrived, he said, "Look! This is a magic pot. It doesn't need a fire to cook food. You must just hit it three times.” He did just that, and then showed the farmers the meat that was still sizzling. "I will sell you this magic pot for $1,000," said Jackal. They took him up on the offer.

Later, the farmers grew hungry and tested their new pot. But after hitting it three times, they found their meat was still raw. They tried again—still raw. Realizing they’d been tricked, they went back to Jackal, who was scared to see his customers returning. Quickly, he took the money they had given him for the pot and hid it in his donkey's rear end.

The farmers demanded their money back. "I can't," replied Jackal. "This pot is yours now. Anyway, I have already spent the money.” But just as he said this, the donkey farted and all the money tumbled from its backside. For a second Jackal was terrified, but then he smiled. "Look at this donkey," he said to the farmers. "It’s magic because if you feed it grass, it will shit money.” He offered it to the farmers for $1,000. "This is a magic donkey!" agreed the farmers. So they parted with another thousand dollars, and Jackal happily went on his way.