Cultural Focus: Bushmen hunting porcupine

A-hunting we will go...

In northeastern Namibia, Bushmen are permitted to hunt as they have for centuries…with spears and poison-tipped arrows. One morning we followed them on an actual hunt, not knowing how long we’d be out, as all excursions depend, of course, on the game.

It was interesting to watch them, as they really do not talk much. Just a few soft clicks, nodded heads or an occasional pointed hand, and off they’d go. How they saw anything in that tall grass was beyond me. But we were careful to stay out of their way as they searched for tracks, side stepping and zigzagging with lightening speed. After a good hour, they spotted porcupine prints and tracked them to this termite mound in the Kalahari.

Porcupines are nocturnal, so naturally the Bushmen knew it would be sleeping. To coax it out of hiding (and dreaming) they dug two holes, tunneling through a length of two men. This took quite some time. They dug by hand, and by axe, taking turns, and taking time to enjoy a smoke here and there.  Eventually, both holes were dug.

Sao, the Bushmen on the far right had a great sense of humor. He took David by the arm and led him to the opening of one of the tunnels, giving him his spear to hold. The idea was that when the porcupine would emerge, scared out of his wits, that David should spear him and the hunt would end. Sao stood there grinning, pointing between the spear in David’s hand, the fresh opening in the earth, and David’s worried face. On the other side of the mound, two other bushmen crawled through the opposite tunnel.

Once in, the man furthest in the tunnel began to pound on the wall, scaring the daylights out of the animal, who woke with a fitful start and no doubt racing heart, flew out of the hole as fast as his chubby body could…David took one look at the size of that huge animal with the even more alarming pointy quills, simply threw down the spear and ran the opposite way. Sao roared in laughter. The others scampered after the animal, who I have to say was making pretty good time through the tall grass.

Chasing dinner…

Then finally, success!! Although the quills blend in with the grasses, you can see the porcupine was quite large. Around 30 lbs. Plenty to feed the entire village of 40 adults and children.

Once captured, they strung it up to a branch and hauled it closer to camp. How they knew where we were in that grassy wilderness was amazing. We’d walked for hours, following the tracks of the animal, and hadn’t left any markers, like little red flags to mark our way. No matter which direction we looked, the grassy terrain looked exactly the same. Without any discernible landmarks. And the sun was high, not directional. But they were bushmen after all, with remarkable skills at navigation, hunting, survival…

After dequilling the porcupine (they use the quills for crafts, clothes) they skinned it, divided the meat between the 4 hunters, and roasted the fatty layer.

Before heading back to camp they sat around the fire, knocked sand and ash off the fatty skin of the porcupine and chewed on the “best part” of the animal. Akin to bacon. It is the prized part of the porcupine, and one that is enjoyed only by the hunters that go to the trouble of capturing it. Bushmen are opportunists after all, and often eat what they find on the spot (we saw them devour an entire bee hive on our last visit–dipping their hands into the honey and ladling it from tree bark into their mouths).

Notice the quill in their hair–a sign of victory. After savoring the flesh, they took time for another smoke, quelled their thirst by squeezing bitter tasting liquid from a tuber they dug up from the ground, and strung up the meat on 4 separate branches so that each man could enter camp with treasure equally.

When they walked into camp a little later, we heard the villages meet them with enthusiastic cheers. Porcupine stew, anyone?

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