Leaf huts as temporary shelters for shade

Members of the Khoi San (Bushmen) tribe named Ju/’hoansi are also called !Kung. Both, /’ and ! denote click sounds. It is a society of about 30,000 people spread over Namibia, Botswana, and southern Angola, with a central area at the Botswanan-Namibian border area around Tsumkwe. During foraging or hunting expeditions, they use leaf huts as temporary shelters providing shade.

Why are temporary leaf huts necessary?

During wild food gathering and hunting in September and Oktober, when the weather is very hot and leaves have only evolved very sparingly, they are building temporary grass- or leave shelters for protection against the scorching sun and spend the time from around 11 am to 4 pm under this protection. These shelters have the same design as already been used for ages. The Curator of the Austrian Natural History Museum in Vienna took and published photos of such shelters on his expedition to !Kung Bushmen in 1927 (pictures below on the left side) and K. Weule published a drawing of such shelters in 1911 (picture below on the right side).

Building these shelters is technically not difficult, but very strenuous due to the environmental circumstances. Location of the intended site should never be where cattle, donkeys, goats, or antelopes regularly rest in greater numbers, as there will be a concentration of ticks, notable sand tampans, which have to be avoided. And – on a side note – it is anyway not a good idea to approach domestic animals resting under shade in the African bush, as many of them will defend their place and are not infected by peaceful behavior yet.

Building the leaf huts

After a suitable spot is found with enough well-leaved, non-spiny poles and enough grass or green leaves around, the place is cleared of plant material until only sand and small matters remain.

Next, opposite to each other and about three meters apart, two holes will be dug into the sand, each about 40 cm deep. They serve to hold the two entrance poles, which are the main poles of the whole contraption. Thereafter labor is being divided. Two people will dig holes in a semi-circle behind the entrance poles: each about 50 cm apart. And two other members of the band will cut suitable poles and bring them to the site. Covering is done either with dry grass from bottom to top, or the leaves on the poles are left in place and interwoven with other twigs of neighboring poles. Between the ground and earnest leave- or grass covering, a space of about 50 cm is left open to allow air to flow across the floor.

Author and bushman in a leaf hut shelter

Working time for the whole construction took in our case about half an hour, but after a 6 km walk over rough, pathless, thorny country and working under midday sun, energy was fast vanishing. Shade however was dense in the shelter, and airflow was cooling the body somewhat from the 38 degC surrounding temperature in the shade.

Lessons learned from building Ju/’hoansi leaf huts:

  • In September/October it is necessary to build an artificial shade in the wild of Namibia’s northern savannah biomes, due to the relentless heat
  • From 11 am to 4 pm, it is highly advised to stay within this shelter, otherwise, heatstroke can easily occur
  • Ju/’hoansi people developed long ago a fast to be erected and efficient temporary shelter design, which is still in use in modern days

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