A pact with lions


A pact with lions

Four centuries ago, lions wreaked havoc among the first black farmers of the Free State, but never bothered the Bushmen. MAX DU PREEZ tells the extraordinary story of these old hunters' relationship with the predators.


A long time ago, when our subcontinent was sparsely populated and nature was undisturbed, lions were man's worst enemy. Humans were easy prey for these big African cats.

We think we are very clever with our so-called Western knowledge and science in the 21st century. But this remarkable story is proof that the loss of knowledge during our species' journey to “modernity" has been immeasurable.

We can send people to the moon and soon maybe to Mars, we can make people live longer and connect humanity by means of the internet, but we no longer understand nature and the environment around us like our early ancestors did. And now we are well on our way to rendering our planet uninhabitable.

Throughout the centuries, the Bushmen or San, the hunters and gatherers who are closest to Africa's original people, have been described as primitive. We may need to spend more time pondering this, as well as what we consider to be our modern “civilisation".

We actually know very little about the life, culture and spirituality of the old Bushmen, even though they left us tens of thousands of rock paintings. By the time “we" became interested in them, there were only a handful of traditional people left, and even they had lost much of the knowledge of their ancestors.

We know that the Bushmen of centuries ago had a nomadic way of life and organised themselves in small groups. We know they had almost no possessions and were therefore largely classless and without rigid hierarchies. We know they had an astonishing knowledge of nature; of plants, animals, weather patterns and the climate.

(This reminds me of the words of the famous cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins: “We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don't have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free.”)

“We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don't have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free.”
Marshall Sahlins

Some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, another community originated in the vicinity of today's western Nigeria and eastern Cameroon. They gradually switched from hunting and gathering to keeping livestock and planting grain. They began living together in larger communities and became less nomadic. Their common family of languages ​​was later called Bantu.

Two thousand years or so later, these people were skilled ironworkers and gold smelters and spread throughout the subcontinent, some of them as far as the southern tip.

From the early 13th century, groups of these Bantu-speaking pastoralists crossed the border of what is now South Africa. I have to mention this part of history here, because some of these people play a role in my story: the Leghoya, an almost mythical group of people about whom anthropologists and historians have differing opinions.

In 1993, after a big wildfire, I discovered a small settlement of corbelled houses built of stone on my former farm outside Rosendal in the eastern Free State. Some of the Basotho elders in the area told me they were the work of the Leghoya, a tribe that has long since ceased to exist and whose descendants now call themselves Basotho.

I spent many months researching the Leghoya, but for the purposes of these stories I will rely on oral history and the work of 19th century historians George William Stow, D Fred Ellenberger and Eugène Casalis.

The Leghoya are believed to have been the first Bantu speakers to settle in the current area of ​​Winburg, Senekal, Steynsrus, Paul Roux, Bethlehem, Kroonstad and Vrede, probably in the early 1600s, when they obviously came into contact with the Bushmen. 

It was lion country. It is on record that one of the wives of King Moshoeshoe of the Basotho was caught and devoured by a lion outside her hut on top of his mountain fortress, Thaba Bosiu, in the 1840s. The Leghoya's corbel huts were constructed with the purpose of providing a safe haven for man and beast against hungry lions.

Unlike most other black cattle farmers, the Leghoya lived in peace with the Bushmen. According to Stow's The Native Races of South Africa: A History of the Intrusion of the Hottentots and Bantu into the Hunting Grounds of the Bushmen, the Aborigines of the Country, they even convinced some of the Bushmen to keep livestock.

The Leghoya were amazed that their Bushman neighbours were never attacked by lions and did not fear them. Their only explanation was that the Bushmen had supernatural powers. Well, they might have had a point.

The Bushmen were excellent naturalists. They studied the behavioural patterns of the animals in their environment over the millennia. They knew how territorial lions were and had an intimate knowledge of their social structures.

The moment a group of Bushmen moved into a new area, they identified all the lion families and began studying them. It wouldn't be long before they knew who the alpha males and their challengers were, as well as who the leading females were — they got to know each lion.

They especially tried to understand the males' personalities: the aggressive ones, the playful ones, and the ones who were easily irritated. They kept a close eye on the pride all the time, waiting for the moment when the alpha male was old and weak enough to be challenged by a young one.

The Bushmen knew when that day would come and were ready to strike. As soon as a new alpha male takes control, he usually mates with the females in the group first and sometimes kills the cubs that are not from his seed. However, a man needs to rest sometime amid all this killing and lust, and the big moment arrived when the male lay down and closed his eyes.

It was then that the best hunters snuck closer to the sleeping lion and started screaming and shouting in a terrifying way, as well as beating the poor thing with sticks mercilessly. The lion got the fright of his life and would run like the wind.

But somewhere during this interaction something made the male lion understand that he and his pride must never hunt the people who attacked him but did not kill him. You don't mess with us and we don't mess with you, was the understanding.

Somewhere during this interaction something made the male lion understand that he and his pride must never hunt the people who attacked him but did not kill him. 

We will never understand how this pact between man and lion worked. Could it have been some kind of psychic connection? All we do know and what I have confirmed from various sources is what happened and that it worked, as fantastic as it sounds.

I heard the story about the pact with lions from an American anthropologist whose wife is a Leghoya descendant when I started my research on the Leghoya. She heard it from her grandparents. My professor friend from New York tells me he heard the same story about natives in North America making a similar pact with mountain lions in the years before the first European settlers arrived there in the late 15th century.

Between 1820 and 1830, most of the Leghoya were wiped out during the Lifaqane and survivors joined Moshoeshoe on Thaba Bosiu. There are still Leghoya descendants in Lesotho today who call themselves the “brothers of the Bushmen".

In 2002, I met two very old men in the Quthing district of Lesotho who were descended from the Leghoya. They were vague about where the Leghoya originated, but also believed  they were the first black farmers in the Free State and that they were the ones who built the corbel huts.

I asked them why so many of the Leghoya were eaten by lions, compared to hardly a single Bushman. They nodded: Yes, they knew the story very well. “It's because the Bushmen entered into agreements with the lions that we could never understand," one of them told me. His version of this “agreement" confirmed that the new alpha males were spooked.

Stow did not write about a pact between man and animal but documented the fact that the Bushmen had a different relationship with lions than the Leghoya.

It is true," he wrote in the 1870s, “that the Bushmen, through all the unknown times, could move around relatively unchallenged because of their superior knowledge, while the new arrivals were always attacked by these relentless predators."

Elsewhere, Stow writes that an old chief of Kroonstad, Kachana, told him about the relationship between the Leghoya and the Bushmen and the Leghoya's problems with lions. “The same authority further stated that it was a fact that the great numbers of lions in those days unhesitatingly singled out the new arrivals and lay in wait, thus killing and devouring many of them; while the old inhabitants, the Bushmen, walked among them without any worries and slept in the middle of vast plains without any protection or the least worry."

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and company.

♦ VWB ♦

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