Recording the Ju/’hoansi for Posterity

For 50 years, John Marshall documented one of Africa’s last remaining hunter- gatherer tribes in more than 700 hours of film footage

John Marshall began filming the Ju/'hoansi people in 1950. Later, he set up a foundation to help the tribe in its struggle for self-determination. (© Presidents and Fellows Harvard University, Peabody Museum, 2001.29.421)
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The African giraffe stumbles to a halt, bewildered by the poisoned spears studding its breast and flanks. Moments later, it falls stiffly backward. The giraffe's slender legs point skyward, then swing sideways as it collapses in the desert dust.

The scene flashes to a Ju/'hoansi hunter, tearing into a joint of glistening red meat with his knife.

"Sorry, I should have warned you about that part—a little sad, isn't it?" says film archivist Karma Foley, 34, as she presses a button to pause the flickering images on the video monitor at the Smithsonian's Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA). Established in 1981, the archives are dedicated to collecting and preserving anthropological films—including John Marshall's footage of the Ju/'hoansi (zhun-twa-see) people, whom he considered a second family.

Marshall, who died at age 72 in 2005, meticulously documented, on film and video, the lives of the hunter-gatherers in northeast Namibia between 1950 and 2000. He donated more than 700 hours of his footage to the HSFA. Recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) added the Marshall archive to its Memory of the World Register—joining Anne Frank's diary, the Magna Carta and other watershed items. The Marshall archive, according to Unesco, is "one of the seminal visual anthropology projects of the 20th century."

Foley knew Marshall at the end of his career and helped him edit and produce a six-hour retrospective series, A Kalahari Family, released in 2002. "He could be difficult to work with because he demanded perfection, but it was easy to deal with that because you knew his heart was in the right place," she says.

Marshall was born into a wealthy New England family. His father, Laurence, was the founding president of the radar defense company Raytheon, and when he retired, he wanted to do something useful. So when anthropologists at Harvard's Peabody Museum told him that no one knew if the tribal people of Africa's Kalahari Desert still engaged in hunter-gatherering, he decided to find out.

In 1950, Laurence and his 18-year-old son, John, made their first trip to the South African territory that is now Namibia. After questioning local people through interpreters, they deduced a likely spot to find the Ju/'hoansi—a tribe of about 1,200 people who roamed freely over hundreds of miles within a northern region of the Kalahari called Nyae Nyae. The Ju/'hoansi plucked anything edible from the earth, sucked water from roots and occasionally feasted on wild animals. It was not an easy life. "We were owners of thirst and owners of hunger," Toma Tsamkxao, a Ju/'hoansi man who befriended John, says in one of the films.

The Marshalls, along with John's mother, Lorna, and sister, Elizabeth, returned the following year to conduct a full ethnographic study. John, who had no filmmaking experience, learned quickly. His father "handed John a 16-mm film camera and said, ‘You need to record everything we see, otherwise no one will believe us,'" says Foley.

John Marshall returned to Nyae Nyae many times over the next decade, camera always in hand. In 1958, as his films began to gain international attention, Marshall was banned from the region by the South African government, which likely saw his support for indigenous peoples as a challenge to its apartheid regime, Foley says. By the time Marshall was able to return, 20 years later, Tsamkxao and the rest of his people were living on a reservation. Their traditional way of life, which had lasted for millennia, was over.

"Looking back, I'm struck by how naive we all were about the future," Marshall says in A Kalahari Family. "Neither Toma's family nor my family was prepared for the speed and magnitude of the change to come."

Designating Marshall's work as part of the Memory of the World project is fitting, Foley says. "At one time all people lived by hunting and gathering. It's a shared human experience going all the way back."

John Marshall's films are "high profile," sought after by scholars and filmmakers alike, says archivist Karma Foley. (Andrew Cutraro)
John Marshall began filming the Ju/'hoansi people in 1950. Later, he set up a foundation to help the tribe in its struggle for self-determination under apartheid-era laws. (© Presidents and Fellows Harvard University, Peabody Museum, 2001.29.421)
Marshall (right) with Ju/'hoansi friend Tsamkxao (1978), in what is now Namibia. (From "A Kalahari Family" / Human Studies Film Archives, SI)
A still frame from John Marshall’s 1974 documentary “The Meat Fight,” one of 23 films and videos he produced about the Ju/’hoansi people of southern Africa. (Courtesy of Documentary Educational Resources)
Young Ju/’hoansi women in a still frame from John Marshall’s 1972 documentary, “The Wasp Nest,” which focused on the interactions between the women as they gathered roots and berries for food. (Courtesy of Documentary Educational Resources)
A 1954 photograph of John Marshall in his early 20s, editing film footage at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Marshall began filming the Ju/’hoansi in 1950, when his father, Raytheon Corp. founder Laurence Marshall, took the family to southern Africa to study hunter-gatherer tribes. (Courtesy of Smithsonian HSFA)
John Marshall filming in Tsumkwe, Namibia, which was then still a territory of South Africa, in 1978. In the 1950s, Marshall’s films about the hunter-gatherer Ju/’hoansi tribe displeased the government, which banned him from the region for 20 years. He returned in 1978 to find the Ju/’hoansi largely settled on reservations. (Courtesy of Smithsonian HSFA)
Tsamkxao Toma, a leader and local political figure, is a prominent character in Marshall’s 50 years of documentary footage about the Ju/’hoansi. Toma’s father befriended Marshall on the young filmmaker’s first visit to the Kalahari in 1950. (Photograph by Claire Ritchie, courtesy of Smithsonian HSFA)
In the 1980s, many Ju/’hoansi established subsistence farms with small herds of cattle and gardens in their traditional villages. John Marshall’s visual archive documenting their struggles and triumphs is now part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. (Photograph by Claire Ritchie, courtesy of Smithsonian HSFA)
The Marshall family used a truck in 1951 to journey into the Nyae Nyae region of Africa’s Kalahari Desert in search of hunter-gatherer peoples for an ethnographic study. The family included parents Laurence and Lorna Marshall, daughter Elizabeth, and son John, whose encounter with the Ju/’hoansi people would prove life-changing. (Still frame from “A Kalahari Family,” courtesy of Smithsonian HSFA)
In 1989, filmmaker John Marshall shows a group of Ju/’hoansi some of the footage which he shot of them and their relatives some three decades earlier. In the 1950s footage, they still lived largely by hunting and gathering, but Marshall’s films turned out to capture the final years of that ancient way of life. (Still frame from “A Kalahari Family,” courtesy of Smithsonian HSFA)
In 1981, John Marshall started a development fund to assist Ju/’hoansi in establishing subsistence farms like this. The Marshall film archive documents the struggles and successes of Ju/’hoan farmers and the growth of their political organization, as well as Marshall’s advocacy work on their behalf. (Still frame from “A Kalahari Family,” courtesy of Smithsonian HSFA)
A garden and irrigation system destroyed by elephants in Nyae Nyae, in 1997. The Ju/’hoansi people continue to face many challenges, but John Marshall’s work among them had a lasting impact. (Still frame from “A Kalahari Family,” courtesy of Smithsonian HSFA)
About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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