NEW XADE, BOTSWANA — The short, gentle, almost Asiatic-looking Basarwa are thought to be the first inhabitants of southern Africa - and its only residents until about 2,000 years ago.
They left a stunning treasure of paintings and engravings in caves and rocks across the region. Their art was part of trance rituals that involved singing and dancing, often in emulation of powerful animals. The paintings often are of trance dances, hallucinations, and images of animals such as eland, giraffe and wild cats.
Bushmen, as they are popularly known, traditionally organized themselves into small bands of 25 to 60 people. The men made poison for their arrows out of the larvae of a special beetle, while the women took care of the gathering: nuts, berries, seeds, roots, locusts, lizards, and honey.
Because water is so scarce, in the old days it was carried in dried gourds or ostrich eggs, which are sometimes engraved with geometric designs or mystical scenes of animals.
For entertainment, there was story telling and dancing to instruments fashioned from hunters' bows, animal skins, and tin cans.
The Basarwa's way of life came under threat with the arrival of Bantu-speaking farmers and then white Europeans in the 17th century. Since then, it has been on a steady decline.
Controversy broke out last year over a large settlement at the Kagga Kamma Game Park northwest of Cape Town, South Africa, where Basarwa inhabitants paraded in traditional clothing for mainly white tourists, selling bows and arrows and ostrich-egg necklaces.
Disgusted critics said the Bushmen were being dehumanized and exhibited like zoo animals. However, advocates of the project said it earned the Basarwa vital income to survive. The defenders maintained that Kagga Kamma nurtured an appreciation of the Basarwa's fading culture and offered a more dignified alternative to being exploited as farm workers.