Bringing Down a Giraffe
In 1950 John Marshall, an anthropologist and filmmaker, received funding to study one of the small migratory bands of Bushmen in Namibia. Known as the !Kung or San people, the Bushmen are one of the last true hunting and gathering peoples left on the planet. They are, in part, what we all were 2,000 generations ago, and what in part we remain today.
Marshall’s film, “The Hunters,” was, among its other triumphs, the first use of color film in ethnographic cinematography and one of the first intimate portraits of the Bushmen. The story tells of a five-day hunt by four men. Their band, small and mobile, persists but is often on the margin of starvation. When major hunts are unsuccessful, people die, first the old, then the young.
As we join the film, the four hunters depart in high hopes. Over several days, in fits and starts, they track various animals without much luck. They sneak up on a kudu, get close, and inadvertently spook the animal just as they are about to loose their arrows. They find two porcupines and eat them. Finally, they see a small herd of giraffes and after many complications, manage to lodge a single arrow tipped with poison into one of them.
For the next few days we follow them as they track the giraffe over the sere and ragged terrain of the Kalahari, nearly losing it in the surrounding hills and dry scrub. Finally, they find the animal in a stand of trees, weakened and abandoned by the rest of the herd. With arrows and spears they battle the still dangerous giraffe, bring it down, butcher it, and begin the journey home.
This is the shell of a rich narrative that Marshall covers with his camera in exquisite detail. Inside, there is another story we can impute if you are a reflective practitioner and not just focused on your next gig. This one is about four men working together, sometimes in subdued conflict, to accomplish their objective. Look closely and unflinchingly and you see their individual qualities, their fears and idiosyncrasies, and something even older and more timeless played out on the hard landscape.
The story within is about four functions in the body politic, each different, each needed, each a set of talents and skills necessary to success. All of the men hunt but one among them is especially strong and competitive, able to pick up scents and follow trails when the others are baffled. In these moments, the others cede leadership to his knowledge and prowess.
Another is a craftsman and technician, the one who fashions intricate and lethal arrows, the one who repairs spears, belts, sandals, and bows. At certain moments, others cede leadership to him.
The third is a shaman, a holy man who performs ceremonies and who reminds the others of rituals that must be done if harmony in the world is to be maintained. He says that the death of a large animal like a giraffe leaves a hole in the universe.
The last is the band’s headman. He is a generalist but also the man who insists on cooperation when the others are squabbling, the one with the furrowed brow who bears the weight of potential failure on his shoulders, the one who pished them to work together until the goal is accomplished.
Marshall’s film is a taut portrait of our ancient and mysterious beginnings but shows us something universal about our humanity. It takes us straight to the four chambered heart of a small group: four ways of leading, four alternative approaches to solving problems, four disciplines, and four negotiation impulses.
One imperative assumes there is never enough to go around and we are duty bound to secure a fair share. Another gives primacy to working together and achieving what cannot be done individually. A third insists on doing what is right and linking every day actions to higher purposes and principles. The fourth honors our reasoning abilities to fix things and achieve practical solutions to pressing problems.
All of them together are a lens: a kind of prism that refracts our best intentions into the world. In an essay celebrating Jon Marshall’s study of the four bushman hunters, William Irwin Thompson (At the Edge of History, 1971).writes about the tension between the core values that each of these men seem to represent -– the competitor, the cooperative, the pragmatist, and the moralist. All of them are needed.
In the modest strains between these men, he sees the seeds of future tensions that will cascade up through human history as scientific, military, religious, and governmental institutions that jockey with each other for political power. He is also reminded of “a rule of four” that seems to permeate everything from the philosophic foundations of the Indian caste system to the writings of Marx and Jung. You even see it in J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Think about it. As the Hobbit Frodo Baggins sets off to destroy the dark powers of the ring, he is guarded on his flanks by a small but potent army of four. There is Legolas, a warrior prince from the elven kingdom of Mirkwood. Next to him is Gimli, a leader of the Middle-earth dwarves, famed as metal smiths, tool-makers, and craftsman. There is Aragorn, a human, destined to become the future King of Gondor. And there is Gandalf the wizard, a man whose mystical powers put him in touch with forces natural and supernatural. Toilken called this strange gathering “the fellowship of the ring.”
Marshall might have described the four Bushmen in those same terms.
Why bother with all this? Because each of the four impulses gives rise to tensions in negotiation: the need to compete and claim, the impulse to cooperate and find common ground, the drive for pragmatic and technically competent solutions, and the push for a moral basis in solution-making. Together, if we personally are able to work all aspects of this quadrangle, we become what I have described elsewhere as “Protean” negotiators and mediators.