Watson, Lyall. Lightning Bird.
If you read archaeology reports and anthropology from, on, the late 1800s through the 1960s, one thing that strikes you is how strange some of the theories were. At least, to us they seem strange. One that cropped up again and again was that at some time in the distant past—perhaps before the Great Flood—a more sophisticated culture lived in North America or in places in Africa or in South America, and then disappeared or was wiped out by later primitive peoples. Or had a disaster and “degenerated” into far more primitive cultures. A different variation held that some cultures were incapable of progress. Later, archaeologists found things that were obviously made by people, and found large numbers of them, but could not suss out what they were for or what they did.
Lyall Watson’s book combines archaeology, anthropology, Jungian theory, and biography to tell the story of Adrian Boshier and his experiences in South Africa. Boshier decided he wanted to see the African bush, and ended up changing archaeology and our understanding of a lot about prehistoric South Africa in the process. Watson describes Boshier’s work, and his experiences as Boshier becomes initiated into the rituals and practices of native magic and power among the northern Sotho people, to the point where Boshier serves as a magical practitioner and helps a group rediscover their ancestral rituals and traditions. But Boshier was always pulled different directions, a tension exacerbated by his incurable epilepsy.
As he follows Boshier’s story, Watson explains the archaeology of the 1960s-70s in South Africa and elsewhere, and discusses theories of memory and culture. There’s a lot of Jung below the surface, and if you are familiar with some of Jung’s concepts, you will catch hints, although Watson does not use them directly. He’s more interested in Boshier and Boshier’s experiences, including how he kick-started archaeologists and anthropologists into taking native cultures far more seriously, and looking at stone tools and tool-kits in different ways.
One thing you do not see in the book is Apartheid. Boshier worked outside the system, and while Apartheid was in place, it is not mentioned because it was not germane to Watson’s story.
The book is a fascinating blend of anthropology, archaeology, biography, and adventure tale. Boshier had an affinity for snakes, one of the things that made people wonder if he had spirit power, and the snakes play a role in the story.
Watson takes everything at face value, and does not question or try to interpret away Boshier’s experiences. Watson accepts that there are powers we don’t understand yet, whatever they might be, and that those powers (or belief in them) give certain places and people a lot of clout. If you are familiar with Watson’s other work, you know that he tends to take a very long, deep look into human behavior and history, looking at how our responses and actions often have a deeper reason behind them. I kept wishing that Jordan Peterson and Watson and Boshier could have gotten together for a chat, but it was not to be. Boshier died young, and Watson succumbed to complications of a stroke at age 58.
If you are interested in the beginnings of experimental archaeology (making tools and trying to duplicate how people did things “back then”), in paleoanthropology, in African adventures, or in wondering about how people do things and why, and what spirits animate places and people, this is a book for you. It reads like fiction, but it isn’t.
FTC Notice: This book was loaned to me by a friend. I received no remuneration from the publisher for this review.