Monday, July 11, 2011

Lasse Berg: Skymning över Kalahari

This book is not translated, but you never know: it might be. Or at the very least someone may write a very similar book in English, and then one can, you know, draw parallells, should one so wish. The title means "dusk over the Kalahari". Lasse Berg is a Swedish journalist who has reported from many war zones over the years, and says that until quite recently he believed in the old idea that humans were intrinsically dark creatures, prone to aggression and violence when thwarted. "The veneer of civilization" you know. Survival of the fittest and throw the weak ones overboard, that sort of thing. Then he started reading about recent research into our earliest development, and changed his mind.

Maybe we're not aggressive, maybe we're more like the laid-back bonobo ape that solves conflicts through sex than the more belligerent common chimpanzee? A simplification that may not, according to the Wikipedia articles, be the whole truth on the bonobo. Berg also spends time with the bushmen of the Kalahari, the people who are most likely closest to the earliest humans, the ones who eventually left Africa. The reasoning is that the bushmen are the ones that never left. He describes an essentially lazy (in a postitive sense), generous and non-violent culture, where you talk your way out of problems and assume that all resources are shared. He writes about how, looking up at the African night sky, he feels a strong connection to our pre-historic roots. This is what we were made for. We spent millenia in Africa, slowly evolving. We lived in small groups of 30-35 individuals, we worked together gathering food, then ate it together, sharing all - and then told each other stories and danced (Berg's explanation of how important dancing is to humans is extraordinarily thought-provoking. It throws new light on the famous cave paintings and offers an explanation to why I always cry like a baby when I large groups of people dancing or singing together). Our bodies and brains weren't made for sedentary lives and a diet consisting of dairy and grain - this is, comparatively speaking, a recent anomaly, he claims. The differences between our species' males and females is not at all as great as with for example gorillas or chimpanzees, which shows that we're more equal, by nature. Males have nothing to gain by being alpha - instead several men and women live together, mind the kids, and chatter and bonk their way through conflicts.

I couldn't help thinking about the story of the Garden of Eden. It's so similar that it's almost as if that story has been handed down through the ages from our exile from Africa. Think about it - the first humans live a free and largely equal life off the bounty of nature. All they need can be picked or fished or hunted, and there is a wide range of foods. Then something happens, and they move away from Africa to a new land, where the climate is a little harsher. They become more dependent on being settled - indeed, finally do settle completely and cultivate the land. Now they have to work hard for the majority of the day to get food, they form larger societies and discover hierarchies, governments - oppression in a whole new sense. Women become more and more subordinate. Chattel, as Veblen would have it. All scaringly similar to the Biblical story, I feel, although childbirth was probably never a walk in the park.

Anyway, all that folds if his theories don't hold up. I think they do, to a large extent, but it becomes difficult to sort through what is actually more or less proven, through scientific methodical research, and what is merely Berg being optimistic and feeling things. This was the book club book time before last (yes, I'm that far behind), and the club generally felt that it wasn't scientific enough, with just too many sweeping generalisations. Sort of "he ain't wrong, but is he right?". But we had a great discussion, which was fun. The book was my suggestion too, so I felt a little proud - one of the choices from the shortlist I drew up.

So - is it good? Well, definitely worth reading and, like I said, thought-provoking. Also - heartening! It feels good to think that we're not all doomed. Even though we can never completely return to Eden we can at least try to mimic some of Eden's qualities in our modern life. I'm going to read his sequel, I found it that interesting.


E said...

Want me to bring the sequel home for you?

bani said...

Absolutely! :)

Wincing Wisecrack on the Web said...

It's really a strange feeling, since I personally know Lasse Berg. He was in India in 77-78 or later. His group filmed India, from Gangotri to Kanyakumari, and my cousin, the late Chand Joshi was their friend and guide during that tour. Funny reminisces. I just recall how assiduously my mother cooked crabs in honour of their visit to Kolkata.

bani said...

Really? That's so interesting! Have you read any of his books?