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  • Sian Sullivan

Crossing continents with Future Pasts: a tale of three conferences

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

Sian Sullivan (L) and Welhemina Suro Ganuses (R) present 'Tasting the lost flute music of Sesfontein: histories, continuities, possibilities' at the conference on The Past, Present and Future of Namibian Heritage, University of Namibia 28-30 August 2018.

A core dimension of any research project is to share findings and reflections with the relevant research communities and associates. In meeting this aim, myself and Mike Hannis recently gave research papers at three international conferences. We also shared research through a number of public engagement events in Namibia, where the bulk of Future Pasts research is conducted.

The 12th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS12), Penang, Malaysia

The first of these conferences was the 12th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS12) which took place in Penang, Malaysia. The conference brought together some 200 academic researchers and representatives of indigenous communities from around the world, including around 30 Namibia scholars and community members.

Sian Sullivan chatting with Bob Hitchcock - anthropologist of Bushman identity politics and land claims in Namibia and Botswana - at CHAGS12

At CHAGS12 I accepted an invitation to be part of a panel on ‘Cultural maps and hunter-gatherers’ being in the world’, organised by Cologne University anthropologist Ute Dieckmann. The session focused on maps produced with indigenous communities to protect cultural diversity. It invited discussion about: a) the value of cultural maps; b) the extent to which such maps might reflect western rather than indigenous ideas of the world; and c) alternative tools to reflect hunter-gatherers’ ways of being in the world.

Around 30 people from or associated with Namibia met at CHAGS12 in Penang. (L-R) Sian Sullivan, Kileni Fernando, Ute Dieckmann and Tertu Fenando at the conference dinner.

My own paper was entitled ‘“Our hearts were happy here”: recollecting acts of dwelling and acts of clearance through mapping on-site oral histories in west Namibia’. It introduced a cultural mapping project conducted in west Namibia as part of Future Pasts to document childhood memories of former dwelling places, particularly in Sesfontein and Purros conservancies and in the Palmwag tourism concession.

This research draws into focus past practices of dwelling, mobility, livelihood and environmental perception amongst Khoe-speaking peoples (of especially ||Khao-a, !Narenin and ||Ubun !haoti or lineages). Prior to a combination of factors that cleared them from places they considered home, they lived as hunter-harvesters[1] and small stock pastoralists throughout the wider west Namibian landscape. Using a combination of research tools – from recorded oral histories and musics associated with remembered sites, to logging mapped coordinates and associated information on google maps – this research aims to (re)inscribe layers of cultural significance now occluded from maps of the area.

As the anthropologist Keith Basso writes in his 1996 book Wisdom Sits in Places, a challenge faced by such cultural mapping research is how to represent the layers of cultural significance entangled with landscapes in a way that bridges gaps between oral and written dimensions of this knowledge. In my presentation I shared two current and incomplete 'experiments' in representation in which I have attempted to bridge these gaps.

The first experiment is the use of googlemaps to generate maps of journeys undertaken with senior members of Sesfontein and environs that includes written and visual information from these journeys. These maps are accessible to anyone with access to a smart phone, and are being regularly updated with new information. The image below shows the localities visited on two journeys of several days each: the yellow placemarks are of places visited with the ||Ubun men Franz |Haen ||Hoëb and Noag Mûgagara Ganaseb; the purple placemarks show localities visited with Ruben Sauneib Sanib (||Khao-a Dama) and Sophia Obi |Awises (||Ubun). Clicking on a placemark in the online version takes the viewer to additional oral testimony narratives and images for the remembered places visited with these elders by the research team of myself, translator and collaborator Welhemina Suro Ganuses, and guide and tracker Filemon |Nuab.

Representation experiment #1 - using googlemaps for documenting cultural mapping journeys in west Namibia (with ||Ubun men Franz |Haen ||Hoëb and Noag Mûgagara Ganaseb (20-261115, in yellow) and Ruben Sauneib Sanib (||Khao-a Dama) and Sophia Obi |Awises (||Ubun) (25-271014 & 20-241114, in purple). The blue asterisks indicate the key former dwelling places of ||Oeb on the Hoanib River, and Kai-as in the centre of the Palmwag tourism concession.

My second experiment in representation is the creation of composite images that combine two types of images: 1. photographs of people taken in the course of oral history research recorded on-site at remembered places, and 2. aerial images of the positioning of these places in the dramatic and diverse landscapes of west Namibia. My intention with these images has been to convey both the potency of the spectacular landscapes of west Namibia with the familiarity of the landscape as a social space known and lived in by people.

The image below provides an example of this second experiment in representation. The images depicts the former living-place (||an-||guib) of Kai-as, a permanent spring now in the heart of the Palmwag Tourism Concession. Here Ruben Saunaeb Sanib (top left) and Sophia Obi |Awises (middle left) recalled how people from different areas used to gather at this place to play their healing dances called arus and praise songs called |gais. These were times when young men and women would meet each other. Times when different foods gathered in different areas were shared between the people. Dances through the night were supported by honey beer (!khari) made from the potent foods of sâui (Stipagrostis spp. grass seeds collected from harvester ants nests) and danib (honey). On a different journey Franz ||Hoëb (bottom left) pointed out the exact location of his father’s hut where Franz himself had once lived. The aerial photographs combined in the image below show the many animal tracks that converge on the permanent spring of Kai-as, including those of !nawab/s, the black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis). In the midst of these tracks are the traces of former dwellings, kraals, graves and the small gardens that were once fed by the clear waters of Kai-as. ​

Representation experiment #2 - Composite image of Kai-as made with the assistance of Mike Hannis by combining photos (taken by myself in November 2014 and 2015) with two 10 x 10 km aerial photographs from the Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek.

The French philosopher George Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space that ‘[i]t is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time’[2]. We have been able to map these places and their stories in the present because memories of them have lived on in the day-dreams of the people who once lived there. But of course, if people can no longer go to the places of their memories, there is a limit to how long these places can live on as day-dreams.

The contemporary moment is infused with erasure of the density of cultural meaning with which the landscapes of west Namibia have been known. This can be seen clearly, for example, in a cursory google search on the village of Sesfontein which pulls up a map from which all the cultural meaning documented above is erased, however much the scale of the map is magnified.

Erasure? A googlemap search on Sesfontein today pulls up a mapped landscape devoid of the density of locally known places and cultural meaning.

Southern Deserts 5 (SD5), Karratha, Western Australia

The second conference in our 'crossing continents' series saw both myself and Mike Hannis presenting research papers at the 5th Southern Deserts conference (SD5), for which I was also a member of the organising committee. This conference took place in the mining town of Karratha in Western Australia. The aim of the conference is to develop new narratives of environmental change and human-environmental relationship within the great deserts of the southern hemisphere, and brings together scholars from a range of disciplines conducting research in the deserts of South America, southern Africa and Australia. Disciplinary perspectives include archaeology, anthropology, rock art research, Quaternary science, climate studies, scientific dating, environmental science and geomorphology.

Southern Deserts 5, at the spectacular Red Earth Arts Precinct in the City of Karratha.

Extending our collaborative research, Mike Hannis presented a paper called ‘Mining the Namib: nature, capital and history on a desert coast’. The paper examined current and proposed extractive activity in and off the Namib, with particular attention paid to (dis)continuities with historic extractive practices in the area.

Mike Hannis presenting at SD5, in a panel with Namibian historical archaeologist Jill Kinahan, chaired by conference convenor Alistair Paterson.

For two centuries, the Namib desert coastline has been presented as dramatic, inaccessible, dangerous and ‘unspoilt’. In contemporary Namibia this crafted mystique is nurtured as a valuable national asset, and both ‘extreme adventure’ and ‘nature discovery’ activities in this area are strongly marketed as parts of a rapidly expanding tourism economy. Yet over the same period, the coastal desert has hosted numerous overlapping episodes of intensive resource extraction. From whales and guano to diamonds and uranium, extractive industries have reshaped landscapes and impacted heavily on both human and non-human populations, while exporting the financial profits along with the material resources.

Facilitated by a major expansion of the port of Walvis Bay, current frontiers in this continuing process include marine phosphate mining and offshore oil drilling. Mike's paper focused in particular on parallels between historical guano extraction and current proposals to mine phosphate rock from the seabed off the Namib coast. Both processes of extraction export fertility from the so-called Skeleton Coast to boost agricultural production in the global north.

Phosphate extraction off the coast of Namibia, 1840s and today. Top image shows the 'mode of shipping guano' during the guano rush of the 1840s. Bottom image shows the (surely ironically named) Cristobal Colon dredger which will be hired to mine phosphate deposits from the sea bed.

My own paper for SD5 was entitled ‘Exploring multispecies interactions through seed gathering from harvester ant nests: contemporary and historical practices by Damara / ≠Nūkhoen in west Namibia’. It drew on ethnographic research with Damara / ≠Nūkhoen collaborators over the last twenty years to explore multifaceted aspects of seed collecting from harvester ants nests in west Namibia. The seeds of grasses (primarily Stipagrostis spp.) and Monsonia spp. gathered from the nests of diverse species of harvester ants, have long constituted a core source of sustenance for varied cultural groups in the arid and semi-arid areas of west Namibia.

Stipagrostis sp. grass whose seeds are called sâui (L) and Monsonia umbellata whose seeds are the food bosûi (R). (Photos: Sian Sullivan).

Gathered seeds are winnowed in a shallow oval bowl (called ≠gôub, by Damara / ≠Nūkhoen in Namibia), and then milled by grinding between small upper and large flat lower millstones.The seeds can be procured in large quantities, and have provided a nutrient-rich food that can be stored over multiple seasons, conferring continuity of sustenance in environments characterised by extreme variability in productivity. The practice is known from both contemporary observations and archaeological reconstructions to be shaped by rich symbolic and affective dimensions that act to amplify multispecies value in cultural registers, and ensure symbiotic resonance between plant, insect and human orders of existence.

L-R from top L: 1. Christophine Daumû Tauros (!Narenin) and Michael |Âmigu Ganaseb (Hoanidaman) harvest |hoe sâun (Stipagrostis hochstetterana var. secalina) at |Giribes plains, north-west of Sesfontein, in May 1995; 2. Daumû with ≠gôub; 3. Daumû and |Âmigu with Nathan ≠Ûina Taurob (L) – Daumû's father; 4. Cornelia ||Guruses (Dâure-Dama) at ||Gaisoas, !U≠gab, in 1995. 5. Wilhemina Dagu Seibes at Malansrust, Aba-Huab (originally from Otjimbingwe / Atsâs) with bosûi and ≠gôub in 1995; 6. sâun (L) and bosûi (R); 7. grinding stones in Sesfontein household, 1999; 8. Julia Tauros (Purros Dama) grinding sâun, Sesfontein 1999 (Photos: Sian Sullivan).

Presenting these papers in Australia enabled us to learn more about the parallels between our research and circumstances in Australia. The mining of ‘maritime deserts’ in both Namibia and Australia, for example, is instructive in terms of understanding the extractive dynamics animating the settler colonial economies of both these southern desert continental contexts. Australian aboriginal societies are one of the only other contexts globally where the rather unique multispecies food procurement practice of seed gathering from harvester ants nests takes place.[3] Field trips both during and following the conference permitted deeper learning and exchange regarding cultural, historical, archaeological and biophysical parallels and differences southern deserts.

For me personally, this journey brought into focus contexts that have haunted me since studying 'the social construction of landscapes' with archaeologist Barbara Bender in the early 1990s when I began to learn of the maps of songs through which Aboriginal Australians know their country. Layers of cultural meaning and historical displacement became more real through visiting potent places in Western Australia. The generous guidance and enthusiasm of archaeologists Alistair Paterson, Ken Mulvaney, Jo McDonald, Peter Veth and Peter Kendrick and their colleagues in the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and elsewhere, made this a truly memorable experience - thank you all!

L-R from top left: 1. the former Dampier Peninsula, renamed Burrup Peninsula and now increasingly known by its Yaburara Aboriginal name of Murujuga, is an industrial hub from where iron ore mined inland is exported and natural gas mined off-shore is refined. In popular culture it has achieved a certain notoriety for the film Red Dog, hence this sculpture at the entrance of the town of Dampier; 2. the liquid natural gas refinery at Withnell Bay seems alien to the landscape, and looms behind the many petraglyphs pecked into the red boulders on south-east edge of the peninsula; 3. concentric circles often indicate the presence of a waterhole nearby, such as 4. this one with the LNG refinery in the background; 5. archaeologist Ken Mulvaney (R) shares with conference participants his knowledge of the rock art built through a lifetime’s research in Murujuga; 6. in the past, shellfish formed a key component of the diet for Aboriginal peoples inhabiting Murujuga, as indicated in the midden of white shells covering the ground in the foreground of this image; 7. near Withnell Bay a complex panel of many superimposed motifs includes a human figure holding a boomerang (top left) and kangaroo tracks below circles (top left) and a turtle (center). The introduction of marine animals in the rock art, such as turtles, fish, stingrays and dugongs, coincides with the inundation of the landscape occurring with sea level rise around 10k years ago. Just amazing to see this long-term environmental change recorded in the changing rock art motifs! 8. another complex panel with includes a large snake (top right) and geometric line-and-dot patterns.

In Newman at last dinner of the post-conference fieldtrip, with participants from Australia, Japan, Latvia, Argentina and the UK (L-R - Jo McDonald, Peter Veth, Paul Hesse, -, Juris Burlakovs, Isabel Vilanova, Monica Berón, Ingrid Ward, Peter Kendrick, Mike Hannis and Sian Sullivan).

The next Southern Deserts conference will take place in Southern Africa - perhaps even in west Namibia...? Follow the conference on facebook here.

The Past, Present and Future of Namibian Heritage, Windhoek, Namibia

Our third conference focused on the The Past, Present and Future of Namibian Heritage and was organised by the University of Namibia, the University of Basel and the Museums Association of Namibia in Windhoek. The conference aimed at encouraging intellectual debate on reconfiguring public history and heritage research in Namibia, designing policies to involve communities, preserving material culture, and safeguarding the intangible dimensions of heritage practices. With a clear focus on the Namibian heritage and history landscape, the conference invited scholars, curators and activists, community project leaders, policy makers and students from Namibia, as well as from the wider Southern African region and beyond, to participate in these discussions.

Conference participants at the University of Namibia (UNAM) in August 2018.

With my longstanding Namibian research collaborator Welhemina Suro Ganuses, we presented some in progress work that engages with Damara / ≠Nūkhoen and Nama musics from her home village of Sesfontein / !Nani|aus in north-west Namibia.

Introducing Welhemina Suro Ganuses and Mr Hans ≠Eichab (who kindly assisted with translation to enable Suro to speak in her own language) for our presentation on 'Tasting the lost flute music of Sesfontein'.

Our talk was called 'Tasting the lost flute music of Sesfontein: histories, continuities, possibilities'. It was about a form of polyphonic music (i.e. music in which texture is built from two or more independent melodic lines being played simultaneously) played by ensembles of male flautists accompanied by song-stories sung primarily by women. This musical form has been recorded historically for Khoe peoples in southern Africa for more than 500 years. Fragmented and disrupted through the dramatic changes wrought by the expanding frontier of the Cape Colony, and later in Namibia through colonial and apartheid administrations, it appears likely that the last place this flute music was played was Sesfontein / !Nani|aus in north-west Namibia.

Nama-Damara flute music performance in Sesfontein 1999. In the centre the three visible male flautists are (L-R) Isaac ||Hawaxab, Fanuel ||Hawaxab and Manasse |Nuab. The women singers-dancers circling them are (R-L) Julia Ganuses (Suro's mother), Evangeline |Nuas (sister of Manasse |Nuab), unknown, Albertina Tjitena (wearing purple headscarf). Photo: Emmanuelle Olivier archive, used with permission; identification of flautists and dancers, S. Sullivan and W.S. Ganuses, May 2018.

It is also likely that the last time the flute music was recorded in Sesfontein was in 1999 by French ethnomusicologist Emmanuelle Olivier and Namibian ethnomusicologist Minette Mans in 1999, facilitated and translated by Frederick ||Hawaxas. Around half an hour of recordings of Nama-Dama flautists and accompanying vocal performances are present in Olivier’s Namibia collection, now being archived in the British Library World and Traditional Music Collection (in Emmanuelle Olivier Collection, C.1709)

Initial engagement with this audio material suggests continuity with several dimensions of the Khoe / Nama flute music known from around 40 reviewed historical and ethnographic observations. These records stretch back to Vasco da Gama’s 1497 encounter with a large Khoe flute orchestra near Mossel Bay, South Africa. Of this encounter, and betraying the social mores of the Portuguese explorers, Vasco da Gama's diarist wrote:

On Saturday about 200 negroes [the context indicates Khoe pastoralists], large and small, arrived, and brought about 12 head of cattle, oxen and cows, and four or five sheep. When we saw them we went ashore at once. They at once began to play on four or five flutes, and some of them played high and others played low, harmonizing very well for negroes in whom music is not to be expected; and they danced like negroes. The Commander-in-Chief ordered trumpets to be played and we in the boat danced, and so did the Commander-in-Chief when he rejoined us. When this fiesta was finished we went ashore where we had been before, and there we traded a black ox for three bracelets. We dined off this on Sunday, and it was very fat; and the flesh of it was as savoury as meat of Portugal.[4]

Some present continuities with this past description include the playing of single-note and named flutes tuned carefully to specific pitches, the form and structure of the ensemble music, and the type of events and themes commemorated by a flute-music performance.

Starting in 2017, we have been sharing the Olivier recordings and accompanying images with inhabitants of Sesfontein. This process demonstrates that although the flute music is no longer played, people remain today who remember the songs, the flautists, the contexts in which the music was played, and the meanings of the music and accompanying performances.

I first played these recordings to Suro and her aunt Emma Ganuses in March 2017. They remembered the songs, and in fact started singing them as they heard them for the first time in around 20 years. The short audio track below is of the moment of first listening to Olivier’s 1999 recording. It focuses in on one of four songs recorded by Olivier - the song Keli, which refers to the shawl a girl would start to wear in the past as part of societal recognition that she has become a woman. Suro had herself experienced the playing of Keli by the Sesfontein Nama-Dama community when she was led by a scarf from the 'dark house' in which she had been secluded to honour her first menstruation. The recording shared below includes the magical moment in which Suro and Emma recognised the song Keli, and then their recall of the melody, words and clapped rhythm of the song.

Our title 'Tasting the lost flute music of Sesfontein' reflects the observation by Suro that when the songs start to flow easily the women would get the ‘taste’ (||hoaxa) of the music, which would enable them to improvise more easily with their harmonies:

Suro – When they are singing, now they get the taste [||hoaxa]. That’s why they are singing up and down like that.

Sian – they get the taste?

Suro – yes, of the song. That’s why they are singing up and down. Some women are singing up. One is up and one is down, like that.

Our paper incorporated audio and images to share some of what we are learning through returning the music and images to the context in which they were made, as well as exploring connections between the recent Sesfontein flute music and Khoe / Nama flute music in time and space more broadly. We are now considering possibilities and constraints regarding the restitution and recovery of the Sesfontein flute music into the future.

Public Lectures and Postscript

Whilst in Namibia we also shared three of the above research papers with students and staff at Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, and finished off our conference journey with a public lecture at the Swakopmund Museum - but that's a story for a different post.

It is arguably paradoxical for a research project exploring sustainabilities to also support international carbon-emissions-intensive travel. These contradictions and privileges are not lost on us. At the same time, sharing internationally and being open to scrutiny and exchange is part and parcel of helping research to be internationally robust and relevant. It is in this spirit that we budgeted for international conference participation in our original research application, and decided to accept invitations to be part of these particular conferences as we come to the close of the current funding cycle of the Future Pasts project.


[1] I have started to use the term ‘hunter-harvesters’ instead of the more common ‘hunter-gatherers’ or ‘hunter-foragers’ to emphasise that this was a way of living that involved active care and management of species from which food and other items were procured, as well as the mobilisation of technical knowledge in the accessing, harvesting and preparation of these items. Such knowledge, access and management practices were consciously intended to ensure productive harvests into the future, as well as to enable the storage of suitable food items, rather than deployed in a reactive mode based on a more-or-less opportunistic encountering of items of utility whilst wandering ‘in the field’. As such, I depart from an ‘immediate returns’ conception of a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence (as articulated by Woodburn, J. 1982 Egalitarian societies. Man 17: 431-451, and discussed for Namibian Khoe-speaking Hai||om by Widlok, T. 1999 Living on Mangetti: "Bushman" Autonomy and Namibian Independence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press). I instead favour understanding of 'hunter-harvester' praxis as a mode of sustenance emphasising care for both ancestral pasts and future socioecological abundance, whilst simultaneously resisting the accumulative tendencies and inequalities fostered by delayed returns economic practices (for further discussion of these points see Sullivan, S. 2001 Difference, identity and access to official discourses: Hai||om, ‘Bushmen’, and a recent Namibian ethnography. Anthropos 96: 179-192, and Sullivan, S. 2006[2001] On dance and difference: bodies, movement and experience in Khoesān trance-dancing, pp. 234-241 in Haviland, W.A., Gordon R., and Vivanco, L. (eds.) Talking About People: Readings in Contemporary Cultural Anthropology, 4th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill).

[2] Bachelard, G. 1994[1964] The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 6.

[3] See, for example, Latz, P. 1995 Bushfires and Bushtucker. IAD Press; O’Connell, J.F., Latz, P.K. and Barnett, P. 1983 Traditional and modern plant use among the Alyawara of Central Australia. Economic Botany 37(1): 80-109; Tindale, N.B. 1977 Adaptive significance of the Panara or grass seed culture of Australia, in Wright, R.V.S. (ed.) Stone Tools as Cultural Markers. Australia Inst. of Aboriginal Studies; Veth, P. and Walsh, F. 1988 The concept of ‘staple’ plant foods in the Western Desert region of Western Australia. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2: 19-25.

[4] ‘The Diary’ in Axelson. E. 1998 Vasco da Gama: The Diary of His Travels Through African Waters 1497-1499. Somerset West: Stephen Phillips, p. 28. Also quoted with some variations in Kirby, P.R. 1933 The reed-flute ensembles of South Africa: a study in South African native music. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 63: 313-388, p. 314, and references therein; and in Arom, S. 2004[1991] African Polyphony & Polyrhythm: Musical Structure and Methodology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 46-47, after Morelet, A. 1864 Journal du Voyage de Vasco de Gama en 1497, trans. from Portuguese by Morelet, A. Lyon: Imprimerie de Louis Perrin, p. 9.

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