October 16, 2023

Earth’s Tongues: Rekindling the Language of Tracking to Spark Connection

Sea Change Project

“When we go tracking, we go inside of nature. Inside the wild. You are literally breathing with the creatures.”

We were all forged in the great crucible of the African continent. We are all African by nature, having spent 80 percent of our time as a species here, living in deep reciprocity with nature, each footfall an echo of all animals and insects, plants and oceans.

Around 120 000 years ago, the Cape’s craggy coastline was inhabited by early Homo sapiens, who lived in shelters on the shore and hunted and foraged for food. This oldest indigenous culture in the world lives on in an unbroken line through southern Africa’s various San cultures, whose relevance today is invaluable in how we relate to our natural heritage. As a documentary filmmaker, Craig Foster spent many years working with San people and was privileged to learn the art of land tracking. Now, he has taken this skill into the ocean, where he reads marks and grooves, holes and swirls in a nature braille that has long been forgotten.

Photo by Scott Ramsay

Foster describes the art of tracking as the oldest language in the world. “Imagine if you could learn a language that could let you feel your deepest ancestor. Imagine if you could learn a language that would let you fall in love with the place you live in, with the earth and the ocean. Imagine if that language could let you inside the minds of animals and let you see their secret worlds from afar. And imagine if that language could alter the pathways inside your mind, and create a mirror that you could step through into an enchanted realm. That language is tracking.”

Spurred by Foster’s love for tracking and a desire to share the knowledge he has gained over the years, Sea Change Project, in collaboration with the !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre, recently spent the day with a group of young San people, reanimating their ancestors’ tracking skills and communing with the land and ocean. Helmed by Michael Daiber, !Khwa ttu is a hive of activity, bustling not only with tourists and researchers, but also young San people participating in work experience programmes, learning about their heritage, and equipping themselves with life skills to help them succeed in the world.

Together with Sea Change Project facilitators Foster and Craig Marais, as well as !Khwa ttu training facilitator Roman Ndeja, Michael and 14 of these students immersed themselves in the beauty of Cape Point Nature Reserve – one of the very places where early humans lived, foraged, hunted and tracked, reading the land and ocean like a love letter.
Maria Stuurman & Oche Khaum
The group tracked baboons and otters on the shore, finding evidence of the primates eating limpets and the otters feasting on crabs. They came across the skeleton of a humpback whale, its intact teeth the size of bricks, and a beached bronze whaler that had fallen victim to orcas. They also learnt how the hollow stipes of kelp were used by long-ago ancestors as vessels for whale fat and as ingredients for dinner. Nibbling on a piece of kelp, Roman shook his head. “I never knew you could eat this! I thought only baboons ate kelp.”
Oche Khaum

The aim of the excursion was to connect people to nature in a deeper way and awaken the innate wild knowledge these young San people have. “One of the most effective ways to deal with the mental health epidemic we have in the modern world is to reconnect to the wild,” says Foster. “Tracking and nature observation sits at the core of this.”

After tracing the land and learning to read its language, the group donned masks and snorkels and braved the frigid waters of a tidal pool, sans wetsuits – just as their ancestors would have done. For some participants, this was their first peek below the surface. There were sea stars and anemones, and Mother Earth’s blue womb. There was also awe and excitement. “The most enjoyable thing in my life today was getting inside this water,” said Otshabile Otsetswe from Botswana, Xere community.

Oche Khaum
The group also visited the Buffelsfontein Visitor Centre, which is hosting an exhibition on the Origins of Early Southern Sapiens Behaviour, called Mother Africa Welcome Home. It showcases the life’s work of Professor Christopher Henshilwood and Dr Karen Van Niekerk and their large palaeoscience team, in collaboration with the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, SapienCE and the University of Bergen. The exhibition includes work from the Sea Change Project and is co-curated with archaeologist Petro Keene, and explores the deep connection with the humans who lived on the southern African coast between 120,000 and 50,000 years ago.
Sanna Kruiper and Oche Kaum

“The exhibition gives great context to what went before, where we are now as a species, and in many ways our deteriorating relationship with nature. There is a disconnection that results in so much of the depression and anxiety in our society today that seems to be reaching pandemic proportions,” says Marais.

While many humans are now city dwellers, their ties with nature severed, Foster says tracking can still be applied to the modern world. “Cities are often biodiversity death zones, and this needs to change. But many cities have surprising populations of animals and plants and tracking can be done. It’s also powerful to track humans. Our tracks and behaviours are left everywhere.”

Maria Stuurman
This conversation with Earth is more than merely identifying the source of paw prints or snail slime. It’s about connecting with the source of all things: nature. And when we connect to nature, we connect to our purpose and vision, as well as to others. “All our work is not to turn young people into tour guides,” says Michael. “It’s far more just trying to inspire them and to catch their interest in culture and heritage and conservation. And from there, they can go on to succeed.”
Katrina Gamseb
As winter’s chill set in, a fire was lit and, just as their ancestors would have done all those thousands of years before, the group burst into spontaneous rhythmic clapping, chanting and dancing – even involving the modern accoutrements of masks and snorkels.
Katrina Gamseb
“Tracking awakens our very core, our very being – the language of the soul – the language our ancestors used for thousands of years. We have to become aware, switch off the small mind with all its thoughts and stresses, and be in the present moment. Tracking does that. It awakens our connection to nature and everything around us,” says Marais. It was such a beautiful day of sharing and being inspired by the ocean — and swapping stories with the earth, with all our senses awakened.

To learn more about the art of tracking and the magical day spent at Cape Point, watch the video below.

Photos by Diogo Domingues
Picture of Sea Change Project

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