Hunters or Gatherers… Who REALLY Teaches Bird Language?

Just back from the Kalahari. Spent some good time with some relatively traditional San folks. They are still eating a lot of their traditional foods. The men are amazing trackers. The women know a lot about the plants for food, medicine and more. What surprised me this year…


I have been visiting these people for the last three years. We have been tracking together. We have gathered and cooked food on the fire many times. This year there were four generations in one family line. That was impressive to be sure. The elder mother was an amazing resource on the plants of the place. Incredible traditional ecological knowledge. This year I worked on two questions with the group that shared the experience with me: 1) What are the cultural elements that are helping nature connection in the children? 2) What is the knowledge of bird language in this community?

In my book released today, May 8th, 2012, I mention that the skill of bird language is an ancient hunter-gatherer skill from all the ages and peoples of the world. It’s something our common ancestors all shared.  I must admit that I assumed that this was something the men had to know, and that it was a skill associated with tracking and hunting–which is true, yet…

Naturally, I went out with the men first. We tracked game. We looked at various methods for trapping big game. We looked at fire making techniques. We spoke about the rites of passage of the hunt for the youth. I asked them directly about bird language. They said, “we don’t know about that” and then immediately shared about 8 principles with us. They knew what birds said what about lions, leopards and snakes. They had a lot to say about this. I asked how they shared it with their children… Blank… No answer.


Then I went gathering with the women. That’s when it really hit me. These 19–yes NINETEEN–children were absolutely silent and composed. Five mothers. 19 children. Not all from these five family lines, but still… That is a LOT of children in one space. We were gathering plant foods and medicines as the sun was setting. The kids were barely visible and not audible at all. You had to look for them. They varied in age from babies on backs to pre-teens. They played together. They ran and chased, but quietly. They were ALWAYS attentive to whatever was happening. There were always 38 curious eyes aimed my way whenever I spoke to their moms / aunts.


Then I realized… These women and elders do not have spears or a response prepared for that inevitable encounter with a pride of wild lions. What is their best defense? Early detection. So much there. So much there! Think about it. What does that mean to a mother who is unprotected from predators interested in them and their children with no men around to defend them? They must listen to every sound at all times. They must stay in constant communication with one another. AND, they have to spread out to gather so that they are efficient. If you do the cultural math… Bird language–as in my own case–was and still is passed on by the women to the children from the youngest age.

Previous post:

Next post: