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Traditional skills of the Bushmen - Part 1: Bushman weapons
By Koos Moorcroft and Raphael Gunduza
This is the first in a series of articles highlighting the natural skills of the Bushmen as effective and successful bowhunters, as well as outstanding trackers with a remarkable understanding of nature.
The series will discuss:
•Preparing the hunter
•Travelling and survival in the bush.
•Planned tour to a Bushmen settlement where traditional and cultural skills are still practised.
Following the formation of the South African Special Forces (better known as “Recces”) during the early 1970s, it was decided to establish a training base in the border area where Special Force soldiers could execute bush exercises and acclimatise for the bush conditions while preparing for operations. A training and operational base was subsequently established in the Caprivi, West of the Quando river. At the time, Bushmen resided in the surrounding areas, from East Kunene to the Quando Cubango region.
Owing to their outstanding bush knowledge and keen sense of direction, the Portuguese Army utilised Bushmen as trackers in South East Angola. A small number were also employed as trackers and guides by the Recces. Eventually, a battalion of Bushmen, known as 31 Batallion, was formed under the command of Cmdt Delville Linford.
In 1975 two members of 31 Bn, Sgt Tango Naka and Sgt Phillip Calumbete became the first non-white soldiers to be trained at 1 Parachute Battalion in Bloemfontein on the use of a military parachute. Their bushcraft skills, tracking capability, sense of direction and knowledge of nature made them invaluable to the Recce teams and the two participated in numerous airborne reconnaissance missions.
Raphael Gunduza, ex-Special Force bushcraft, tracking and survival instructor at Recce training and operations base Fort Doppies, worked and lived with the Bushmen of Fort Doppies for many years, while Sergeant Major Koos Moorcroft, also an ex-Special Force instructor, trained the first two Bushmen soldiers on the use of a military parachute.
With this as background we start the series on the traditional skills of the Bushmen with a discussion on their traditional weaponry.
< The bushman's arsenal
Owing to their stature, Bushmen were unable to draw a heavy long bow to kill a large animal and had to rely on smaller and lighter bows with the arrowhead covered in poison to neutralise game during a hunt.
The wood for the bow was selected from a hard but springloaded bush, known as the Sickle bush (Dichrostachys Cinerea).
The bow string was rolled with strips of sinew from the back muscles of a gemsbok. The Bushman would roll the string on the surface of his thigh while kneeling until a length of 90cm was achieved. Still wet, the bow string was then tied the to bow with a series of knots and loops. The bow had a pull of about 9kg.
The Bushman arrow consisted of a main shaft, metal or bone arrowhead, link and joint/collar. The formidable killing power of the bow was found in the poison used on the arrowhead.
A:Arrowhead (notice the siewn soaked in poison), B: Collar, C: link, D: Main shaft.
The stem of the main shaft was made of a 40cm length of perennial grass. A link shaft connected the arrowhead to the main shaft and prevented an animal from rubbing off the arrowhead in its body against a bush or tree. The poisoned arrowhead remained in the hide of the hunted animal, while the arrowshaft, link and joint (also made of grass) would drop off so that it could be used again later.
The arrowhead was made of animal bone or stiff wire, usually fencing wire, 10cm long and heated and straightened with the top beaten into a small, flat triangular blade. The total weight of the arrow was about 15g. It was capable of knocking down only the smallest antelope and smaller game.
The poison was made of a grub from the Poison grub commiphora (Commiphora africana) tree and mixed with other plants such as the Harige Kanniedood (Euphoria Species) in a small, pointed wooden cup which the Bushman carried with his hunting kit. The poison was applied to the arrow by immersing thin animal sinew in the liquid and securing the sinew around the arrowhead shaft. The Bushmen took care to ensure that there were no cuts on their fingers when they worked with the poison, as it would be taken up in the bloodstream and was strong enough to seriously harm or even kill a human.
The quiver was made from the bark of a tree and capped to contain spare arrows and spares for repairing arrows and other hunting equipment. Rolling sticks and wood for making the base of a fire were also carried in the quiver.
This stick was used to extract a springhare from its hole. It was made from the Grewia species, commonly known as Climbing raisinwood.
Bushmen spears are much smaller than Zulu spears. Made of local wood and iron-tipped, they were used to kill small animals, reptiles and rodents, and to finish off game hunted with bow and arrow.
Made of a hard wood such as Leadwood (Combretum imberbe), this tool was used to dig for bulbs and roots, and to entice springhares and rodents out of their burrows. When necessary, it was also used as a club to kill small animals.
The axe was used with a knife as a secondary weapon. It was made from iron that had been heated, formed and shaped, and to which a hard wooden handle was attached. These weapons were used for digging and to cut and shape other primary weapons.
Rolling sticks and base
The sticks were made from the Grewia species, while the base for the fire rolling sticks was made from Commiphra. The sticks were carried in the quiver to make fire during the hunt for warmth and cooking purposes.
Container for hunting tools
The carrying container was made from the whole hide of a small antelope, such as a steenbok or duiker, and was carried over the shoulder.
Reference material: The Kung! San – Richard Borshay Lee