In Case You Wondered is a place where you can learn more wonderous things about the places, things and history found in the book. Just click on a button below to get to a specific topic. Enjoy!

About Butterflies


            They are among the most beautiful of all creatures, and they are found almost everywhere in the world – all 20,000 different kinds of them. The ancient Greeks admired these insects so much that they believed that a person’s soul left the body after death in the form of a butterfly.

            Butterflies have been around a lot longer than we have. Anthropologists believe that our oldest human relative is about 4 million years old. Butterflies much like those we see in our gardens today have been sipping nectar from blossoms for at least 20 million years, and early butterflies were flitting around about 100 million years ago.

            The largest butterfly is the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing of New Guinea with an 11-inch (28 centimeter) wingspread. One of the smallest is the Western Pygmy Blue of North America at 3/8 inch (1 centimeter) wingspread. If this little butterfly lit on the end of your pencil, he would barely cover up the eraser.

             Butterflies are harmless creatures. They help nature along by pollinating plants. And as Case discovered, they have the magical ability to help a child wonder. And that is a very powerful thing indeed.

            What is a group of butterflies called? A flutter.

            What is butterfly watching called? Butterflying.

             If you want to learn more about butterflies and how to become a butterfly watcher, check out the book Handbook for Butterfly Watchers written by Michael Pyle.


Sources: World Book Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, Handbook for Butterfly Watchers, Michael Pyle; National Geographic;

About Butterfly Bodies


            Butterflies can see, hear, taste, smell and feel in some ways much as we do. In other ways, they can do even better.

            Those two big, black eyes on a butterfly are not just two eyes but thousands of lenses packed together. They are called compound eyes. Each lens sees a small part of the butterfly’s surroundings, and its brain puts them all together to reveal the whole picture.

            Butterflies see colors that we cannot see. We have three “color receptors” in our eyes that allow us to see all of the colors of the rainbow. Dogs have only two receptors. They can see only the colors blue and green. But butterflies have five color receptors in their compound eyes. They can see colors that we have no names for. When they see a rainbow, they see colors than we can’t imagine. Even more wonderful than that, a sea creature called a Mantis Shrimp has 16 color receptors in its eyes. Scientists believe that it can see more colors than any other animal alive. (Mantis Shrimp are also so strong that they can break the glass side of an aquarium by crashing into it.)

            Those long antennae on a butterfly’s head that we call “feelers” are not mostly for feeling. They are for smelling. The knobs at the end of each antenna are the most sensitive to smell. The antennae may also help the butterfly hear and feel. Butterflies feel mostly with small, sensitive hairs all over their bodies.

            Butterflies don’t have ears like we do. Some scientists believe that they mostly “hear” with their wings and antennae. Their wings sense sound vibrations sort of like our ears do.

           A butterfly has a long, hollow proboscis – kind of like a soda straw – that it uses to suck nectar from blossoms. It can roll its proboscis up in a neat coil under its chin when it’s not drinking. But the proboscis is not a tongue that tastes food like our tongues do. Butterflies taste with their feet. Their two front “brush feet” are the best tasters, and that’s about all that they do. The butterfly brushes them against leaves to find out whether they are good to eat. Everyone knows insects have six legs, but most butterflies seem to stand on only four legs. The other two are too busy tasting to use for walking.

            Butterflies don’t have noses or lungs for breathing. They breathe through tiny holes in the sides of their bodies called “spiracles” that deliver oxygen to their bodies.

            Perhaps the most wondrous thing about butterflies is how they grow from an egg to an adult butterfly. You could say they are really two different animals as they grow. Female butterflies lay their eggs on special kinds of plants. Butterfly eggs can be as beautiful as sculpture. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors depending on what kind of butterfly lays them. When the egg hatches, a caterpillar crawls out and spends most of its time eating leaves and growing. As it gets fatter, it sheds its skin several times so it can grow even bigger. Finally, when the caterpillar is ready, it hangs itself from a leaf or stem and sheds its skin for the last time. What remains is a hanging chrysalis. Then the most wondrous thing happens. Over several weeks or even months, the animal inside the chrysalis that was the caterpillar changes into an adult butterfly. When the time is right, the chrysalis splits open, the butterfly gently crawls out, dries its wings in the air, and flies away. This big miracle has a big name – metamorphosis.


Sources: World Book Encyclopedia, National Public Radio Radiolab; Handbook for Butterfly Watchers, Michael Pyle;;

The Tonle Sap River and Tonle Sap Lake


            There is a reason that the Khmer kings built their great city of Angkor near the shores of the Tonle Sap Lake 1,000 years ago. The “Great Lake” has always been the heartbeat of Cambodia.

            Almost all rivers flow in one direction only. But the Tonle Sap River changes direction twice each year. Here’s how it works: The Tonle Sap River flows between the Great Lake and the much larger Mekong River. The Mekong is a few feet lower than the Tonle Sap, and during the dry season the water drains out of the lake through the Tonle Sap River into the Mekong. During the dry season, about November to April, the lake is small and only about three feet (one meter) deep.

            But when the rainy season starts in May, the level of the Mekong rises until water begins to flow backwards up the Tonle Sap River into the Great Lake. This was happening when Case and Flinder met the Giant Mekong Catfish. During the wet season, the lake grows to more than five times its previous size and up to 25 feet (8 meters) deep. When the rains stop around October, and the Mekong River level again drops lower than the level of the lake, the Tonle Sap River changes direction again, and the great lake begins to drain. When it does, it brings millions of newly-hatched fish down the rivers to feed the people.

            Each year, about a million Cambodians come to the banks of the Tonle Sap where it flows into the Mekong for a three-day water festival to honor the river and all of the riches it brings them. They race colorful rowboats as their Angkorian ancestors did, and throw water on each other in the hot sun, just for fun.

            As for why some people live in floating villages and some in villages on stilts, if you ask them, they’ll tell you “That’s the way we’ve always lived!”


Sources:; Wikipedia

The Mekong Giant Catfish


            Cambodians call the Mekong Giant Catfish “the king of fish.” They are the biggest fresh water fish known in the world. They can grow to 10 feet (three meters) in length and weigh up to 650 pounds (295 kilograms). Despite their size, they are harmless. They have no teeth and live off of the plants and algae in the river. They live for about as long as a Cambodian person – 60 years – if they aren’t caught by fishermen.

            But there are not many Mekong Giant Catfish left. Scientists say they are on a path to extinction. A hundred years ago, fishermen caught thousands of giant catfish in the river. Today, they catch less than 10 of them each year. The great fish once roamed rivers from China to Vietnam. Today, they are found mostly in the Tonle Sap Lake, Tonle Sap River and in the Mekong River in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

            The fish are threatened by too much fishing, new dams being built on the Mekong River, and by more people living along the river spoiling the environment. Scientists expect that there will be even fewer giant catfish in coming years.

It is now illegal in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to kill giant catfish, but not all fishermen follow the law. Some scientists pay fishermen to put giant catfish back into the river. They want to learn more about how the giant catfish lives and breeds so that they can help it survive.


Source: Current Status, Threats and preliminary conservation measures for the Mekong Giant Catfish, Pangasianodon Gigas (2012)



            The capital of the ancient Kingdom of Angkor in present-day Cambodia was a glorious and powerful city of 1 million people when Europe’s greatest cities were still small towns. Near the Tonle Sap Lake, Angkor’s creators built about 100 temples, some with high walls protected by moats filled with water and crocodiles, and a system of man-made lakes and canals. The city covered more than 154 square miles (400 square kilometers). That’s not very big by today’s standards. Greater New York City covers more than 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers), and more than 30 million people live in Tokyo, Japan.

            The great city of Angkor lasted for 600 years – more than twice as long as the United States so far – until it was conquered by a Thai army in 1431. Then it was largely deserted, and the jungle took it back. But it was never truly lost. The local Cambodian people always knew where it was and continued to worship at its temples.

            Case and Flinder explored Angkor Wat, which many consider the most wondrous of all Angkor temples. It was built in the 1100s by King Suryavarman II, who is buried there.

            One of the earliest explorers to visit Angkor was a Chinese diplomat named Zhou Daguan who described a royal parade in the year 1296: “When the king goes out, troops are at the head of the escort; then come flags, banners and music. Palace women, numbering from three to five hundred, wearing flowered cloth, with flowers in their hair, hold candles in their hands, and form a troupe. Even in broad daylight, the candles are lighted. Then come other palace women, carrying lances and shields, the king's private guards, and carts drawn by goats and horses, all in gold, come next. Ministers and princes are mounted on elephants, and in front of them one can see, from afar, their innumerable red umbrellas. After them come the wives and concubines of the king, in palanquins, carriages, on horseback and on elephants. They have more than one hundred parasols, flecked with gold. Behind them comes the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand. The elephant's tusks are encased in gold.”


Sources: UNESCO; World Book Encyclopedia; Encyclopedia Britannica; “Zhou Daguan, A Record of Cambodia, the Land and Its People”

Shwedagon Pagoda


            When English writer Rudyard Kipling first saw the Shwedagon Pagoda in 1889, he wrote, “. . . a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun . . .” Case and Flinder must have felt much the same when they saw it for the first time.

            The word Shwedagon means “golden hills” in the ancient Pali language. A pagoda is a building where people pray. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred place for Burmese Buddhists because it is said that several hairs of the Buddha himself are hidden deep inside of it. It is at least 2,500 years old

            The pagoda is solid; there are no rooms inside. It sits on the highest hill in Yangon, the biggest city in Burma, and rises 325 feet (99 meters) into the sky. That’s as high as an American Football field turned up on its end. But the most amazing thing about the Shwedagon Pagoda is that it is covered entirely in gold – real, pure gold. A 15th century queen and her family once gave the monks their weight in gold, which was used to coat the outside of the pagoda. Now all kinds of people, rich and poor, give gold to keep it beautiful.

            There is a treasure in gold and gems on the top of the pagoda. Worshipers who wished to have good luck in their lives gave their rings, bracelets and necklaces to the monks, who tied them all together at the very top of the golden pagoda. There are 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies and other precious stones up there. And at the very tip top sits a sparkling diamond as big as a walnut.

            People who come to Shwedagon Pagoda to pray or meditate take their shoes off out of respect before entering. After they have passed by the golden lion-dragons that guard each entrance, they walk up tall stairs to reach the temple floor. There, they find many small statues at the foot of the pagoda. They choose the one that represents the day they were born. For example, if they were born on a Tuesday, they pray at the statue of a lion. If they were Thursday-born, they pray at the statue of a rat.

            When a Burmese Buddhist has a birthday, they get to pour cups of water over their statue. With each cup of water, they make one wish for every year of their lives. Then they can ring a very big bell by hitting it with a very big stick. They believe this sends good luck out into the world along with the loud sound.

            If you want to read more stories about life in old Asia, check out “Jungle Books,” by Rudyard Kipling.


Sources: World Book Encyclopedia,



            Bagan was the capital city of the first Burmese empire almost 1,000 years ago. It existed during the time of Angkor in Cambodia, but it lasted only about 250 years and was smaller. But Bagan had more temples – from 3,000 to 10,000 of them in all shapes and sizes, according to historians. About 2,500 temples are still standing on 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) of red plain by the Irrawaddy River, waiting to be explored. The inside walls of many of them are covered with colorful paintings that tell stories from the past. Some of the paintings are still visible, even after 10 centuries.

            The Pali name for Bagan means “tramplers of enemies.” Anawratha, the first great king of Bagan, was the first in Asia to use many elephants in warfare. His armies conquered many other kingdoms and united them into one larger kingdom in Bagan beginning in 1044.

            The people who lived in and around the city, about 400,000 of them, lived their lives much the same way as the Burmese who live there now. They mostly ate rice which they grew with simple tools like hoes and plows pulled by buffalo. Like modern Burmese people, many in Bagan chewed a red nut called betel nut for pleasure. They drank tea and ate pickled tea leaves. And children in Bagan 1,000 years ago loved to eat jaggery, or Burmese chocolate, as much as they do today.

            Historians say that the kingdom of Bagan was a calm and peaceful place, where ordinary and rich people were all treated fairly. It was a city of learning, and many of its citizens could read and write.

            Like most powerful empires and countries, Bagan eventually became old and tired, and when the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan threatened to invade from the north, the city had already reached the end of its glory. Some historians say the Mongols conquered and sacked the city, others say they never reached Bagan.


Sources: “A History of Burma,” Maung Htin Aung, 1967; A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times: Michael Aung Thwin and Maitrii Aung Thwin  2012; UNESCO;

The Pagan Period: Burma's Classic Age - 11th To 14th Centuries, Dr. Richard M. Cooler

Manuha’s Temple


            Until recently, the people of Burma lived without many freedoms under the harsh rule of military dictators. Maybe that’s why they so love to visit Manuha’s Temple in Bagan.

            Manuha’s full name was Siritribhavanadityapavaradhammaraja Manuha. It’s a wonder that even his mother could pronounce that. He was known as the Lord of 32 White Elephants. As Case and Flinder learned from the monk at the Shwedagon Pagoda, King Manuha was brought to Bagan as a prisoner by King Anawratha after a great battle about 1,000 years ago. Ancient historians wrote that Anawratha did not treat Manuha badly, but he was still a prisoner and was not allowed to leave Bagan. Anawratha even allowed Manuha to build a temple in the city in 1067.

            It is a beautiful temple from the outside, and very mysterious on the inside. There are three giant Buddhas sitting down inside great rooms in the front of the building. Another giant Buddha is lying down in a long room the back of the temple. Buddhas like this are in most Bagan temples. What is unusual about Manuha’s temple is that all of the Buddhas seem squeezed so tightly into their rooms. If they were alive, they could hardly move in such small spaces, and they certainly could never escape. They were like prisoners, like Manuha. The modern Burmese people understood how Manuha felt, because they often felt like prisoners in their own country.

            Historians wrote that when he finished his temple, Manuha prayed that in this and future lives, “May I never be conquered by another.”


Sources: The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, Translated by Pe Maung Tin and G.H. Luce, 1028;

The Pitaka Taik


            When Anawratha, the King of Bagan, captured 30 copies of the sacred Buddhist scriptures, called Pitakas, he needed a special place to keep them. So he built the Pitaka Taik in 1058. Taik means building in the Pali language, so Pitaka Taik means a building that keeps the Pitakas. We would call it a library. Case and Flinder knew it as the Lost Library of Bagan.

            A thousand years ago, the library was a busy place, filled with students and monks studying the sacred scriptures. Today is it visited only by curious travelers who have to be careful not to step in bat droppings on the floor. Just as Case and Flinder discovered, the inner chamber is a dark and mysterious place with only one doorway leading to it. You can still see the holes in the stone that held the hinges on the heavy wooden doors and imagine the wonders that once lay behind them.

            There were many “books” in each set of Pitakas. One set filled a large chest, which in Anawratha’s time was probably decorated with gold and jewels because they were so treasured. No wonder it took an elephant to carry each one.

            The books in this library did not look like books that we know today. Paper did not exist yet. Each “book” of the Pitaka was written by scratching words onto small “pages” made of palm tree leaves about the size of a school ruler. These palm leaf pages had two holes punched in them, and were connected in a stack with string running through the holes. So the pages were strung together kind of like beads on a string. To read them, monks lifted the leaves from the stack one at a time.

            People throughout history have found all sorts of ways to write down stories. The first “books” were probably paintings on rocks at least 40,000 years ago. Later, people carved stories into clay tablets or stone. Others wrote on different kinds of leaves, like papyrus or palm leaf. The Chinese invented paper almost 2,000 years ago. Now we write on computers! I wonder what will come next.


Sources: University of Southern Mississippi Libraries;

Exploring the Past


            Wonderers don’t just explore strange places in the world. Some of them explore the past. There are still great discoveries waiting to be made there, too. The history of Bagan may be one of them.

            Most historians agree that the story of Bagan, the great capital of the first Burmese empire, began when King Anawratha decided that what his kingdom needed was a copy of the sacred scriptures of the Buddha called the Pitaka. Anawratha politely asked a neighboring king to the south, who had 30 copies of the pitaka, to give him one.

            That king, King Manuha of the Mon people, refused rather rudely to give it to him. So Anawratha marched with his army and elephants to Manuha’s capital and defeated him after a three-month siege. Ancient historians wrote that Anawratha put the Pitakas on top of  Manuha’s 32 sacred white elephants and brought them all home to Bagan. He also brought Manuha and his most talented scholars, craftsmen and artists to help build thousands of new temples in Bagan. And for good measure, he brought Manuha’s best cooks, hairdressers and perfume makers. The white elephants and all entered Bagan in a great victory parade.

            Manuha was a prisoner, but Anawratha treated him well. He even ordered that the chains that bound him be made of gold. Manuha wasn’t allowed to leave Bagan, but he had a lot of freedom there. He even was allowed to build his own temple, which still stands today. With the sacred writings to guide Bagan’s Buddhist monks, and with all those talented architects and builders to create new temples, Bagan began its rise to greatness.

            This is the story that Case and Flinder learned from the monk at Shwedagon Pagoda. The monk learned it from ancient Burmese writings called The Glass Palace Chronicle. But not everyone agrees that it is true. Some modern historians say it’s all a myth – that it never happened. They say that there were no kingdoms south of Bagan in those days, so it couldn’t have happened.

            So if you visit Bagan one day, you can stand in front of Manuha’s temple and wonder, did Anawratha really capture Manuha and the 30 Pitakas? Or is there another story about the beginning of Bagan? Maybe the answer is hidden inside Manuha’s temple like the old king’s directions to the secret library.


Sources: “A History of Burma,” Maung Htin Aung, 1967; A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times: Michael Aung Thwin and Maitrii Aung Thwin  2012; The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, Translated by Pe Maung Tin and G.H. Luce, 1028

Victoria Falls


            As Scottish explorer David Livingstone’s canoe first approached Victoria Falls, he saw a sight never before seen by European eyes, a scene so wondrous, he wrote, that it “must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

            He described the sight in 1855. “We came in sight, for the first time, of the columns of vapor appropriately called 'smoke,' rising at a distance of five or six miles, . . . the tops of the columns at this distance appeared to mingle with the clouds.”

            The people who lived near the falls called them “Mosi oa Tunya” – the smoke that thunders. The Zambezi River, flowing about one mile (1.6 kilometers) wide between Zimbabwe and Zambia, falls suddenly 355 feet (108 meters) over a cliff into a wide crevice. Livingston wrote that the river “seemed to lose itself in the earth.” He called the falls “the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa.”

            David Livingstone was one of the most famous explorers of his time. He spent most of his life journeying to places in Africa where no European had ever been. He worked hard to become an explorer. He was one of seven children in a poor family. His father taught him to read and write. While working hard in a cotton factory from age 10, he studied Greek and Latin, theology and medicine. As a boy, he wandered the Scottish countryside looking for interesting animals, plants and rocks.

When he was 27, Livingstone set out to explore Africa at a time when Europeans captured Africans to sell as slaves. He wanted to find routes into the center of the unexplored continent that would allow Europeans to trade there. Livingstone hoped that if Europeans could make money in other ways, then perhaps they would stop selling slaves.

            It was not easy exploring Africa in those days. Once while walking through the forest, Livingstone was attacked by a lion. He was often ill with tropical diseases and died during his final expedition after 30 years of exploring Africa. His African companions removed his heart and buried it under a tree in African soil, then carried his body more than 1,000 miles back to the seacoast for burial in England. They also brought a note to his English countrymen that read, "You can have his body, but his heart belongs in Africa!"        


Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica; World Book Encyclopedia;;

The Okavango Delta


            An explorer wandering the northern edge of the Kalahari Desert would not expect to discover a great swamp there. But the Okavango Delta is there, just the same. The delta is one of the world’s last great wild places, brimming with all sorts of life.

            The water that creates the Okavango Delta begins as rain in the green hills of Angola, the country to the north. It travels 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) down the Okavango River to Botswana. But instead of continuing on to the sea as one would expect a river to do, it flows into a vast lowland shaped like a fan – right in the middle of the desert. The result is “the Jewel of the Kalahari,” about 6,200 square miles (16,000 square kilometers) of swamp, streams, thick forest and thousands of islands bursting with wildlife. That’s about the size of the state of New Jersey (Kuwait).

            The Okavango Delta is home to more than 530 kinds of birds (including the Go-Away bird), 155 kinds of reptiles (like crocodiles), 160 kinds of mammals (like giraffes, lions and monkeys), 35 amphibian species (like frogs), and thousands of plants and insects. The delta is also home to the largest-remaining elephant population on Earth. Here you can also see buffalo, zebra, hippo, rhino, leopard and cheetah.

            Similar to the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, the Okavango Delta shrinks and grows in “pulses” depending on when it rains. About the time that the delta dries up in May, the floodwaters begin their journey from the Angolan hills. The land is so flat that it takes a month for the waters to reach the Kalahari, and they pour into the delta for four months. So it is that the delta swells to three times its size during the driest season of the year.

            All of the water in the Okavango Delta eventually returns to the atmosphere by evaporation or is “exhaled” by plants. Not a drop ever reaches the sea.


Sources: National Geographic Society; Botswana Tourism Organization

The Kalahari Desert


            The Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa is not like most deserts. It is a vast, hot, dry place, but it is not covered with sand dunes like the deserts most people think of.

            The Kalahari is different because it supports life – a lot of life – from grasses and thorn bushes growing up out of the red sand to antelope and the lions that hunt them. But it is not called “The Great Thirstland” for nothing. There is no water at all on the surface, no lakes or streams. Among humans, only the San people knew how to find enough hidden water and food to survive in the Kalahari, and survival was never certain even for them.

            For three brief months, life becomes easier when the rainy season turns the desert green. Trees flower and the ground gets a carpet of white, red and violet blossoms. Then, just as quickly, the heat returns. In the hot season, temperatures can reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). It is flat and sandy in some places, covered with red sand dunes and dry lakebeds in others. Sometimes the flat horizon is broken by red stone hills or a giant baobab tree.

            The Kalahari is about the size of Alaska and Texas combined (France and Germany combined). That’s big, but it is much smaller than the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa. About 10 Kalaharis could fit into the great Sahara, the biggest desert in the world. The Kalahari is mostly in Botswana, but parts of it are in Namibia and South Africa.

            Water is not the only precious resource in the Kalahari. The largest diamond mines in the world are found in or near the desert. Botswana sells billions of dollars worth of diamonds in a single year.

            Until about 50 years ago, only the San people, who lived off the land and had no need for money nor diamonds, roamed the Kalahari Desert. They are gone from the land now, and many tourists visit there.


Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica; World Book Encyclopedia; the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia; August 7, 2012

Baobab Trees


            The Kalahari Desert is such a dry place that not much grows there except low bushes and thorn trees. That’s why the baobab trees growing there are so wondrous. They rise up out of the sand tall and wide, so much bigger than anything else in the desert that they seem like great monuments against the sky.

            Baobabs can live in the desert where other trees can’t because they have learned how to survive there. They can store hundreds of gallons of water in the soft wood of their trunks to get them through the months of no rain. And they’re hard to kill. If their bark is burned in a fire, it grows back. If an elephant knocks them over, which elephants will do, they grow a new trunk.

            They are one of the largest living things on Earth, but they are not the biggest tree. The redwoods and sequoias in California are bigger. No one knows how old baobabs can grow because they don’t have tree rings like other trees that tell their age. Botanists agree that the biggest baobabs are at least 1,000 years old, and some people think they may be twice that old. Unlike other trees that die by turning brown and rotting slowly, a baobab’s death is dramatic. When a baobab dies, it rots quickly from the inside and collapses suddenly in a heap. Some African peoples so love the tree that they give it a funeral when it dies.

            When baobabs get big, they usually become hollow. When you measure more than 30 feet (9 meters) across, there’s lots of room in there. Baobabs have been used for homes, bus shelters, storage sheds, bars and even tombs and prisons. When people aren’t using them, bees, bats and snakes usually are. In one giant baobab in South Africa, you can step inside the cool hollow on a hot day and enjoy a cool drink at the bar.

If you want to read about some even stranger baobabs, check out “The Little Prince.” It’s one of Case and Flinder’s favorite books.


Sources: Thomas Pakenham, “The Remarkable Baobab” (2004); Andrew Hankey,

Adansonia Digitata (2004)

The San (Bushman) People


            Scientists believe that when the first people on Earth began to spread out from East Africa across the world 50,000-100,000 years ago, some stayed behind in Africa. Genetic studies show that the San people, or Bushmen, are probably the descendants of those first people.

            Even though they may have been here longer than any other peoples, their way of life changed little over the centuries until very recently. Case and Flinder’s friend, Toma, and his family lived the lives of traditional San people who roamed the Kalahari Desert in search of food and water. Everyone worked in a traditional San family. The women and children searched the desert for food like plants, berries, bulbs, insects, wild melons or roots which they would dig out of the earth with a stick. The men were great hunters with bows and arrows and could hit a running antelope with a poison-tipped arrow from far away. They knew every rock, every tree, every place in the desert where they could find water hidden beneath the sand. Traditional San did not have houses, but built simple shelters of sticks and grass just for a few nights at a time. Children grew up fast. Girls could marry when they were 8 or 9 years old.

            The San had few possessions, and everything that they had they made from things they found in the desert. They made bows and arrows from branches, bow strings from cactus fiber, arrow heads from bone, and their deadly poison from a special grub worm. Jewelry was made from beads carved from ostrich shells. The San have the longest tradition of art in the world. They were painting images on rocks more than 30,000 years ago.

            The San are a small people, standing about 5 feet tall. The have skin the color of apricots, wrinkled from a life under the sun. They speak softly in words that are pronounced with clicking sounds. The men are known as very good runners. Traditional men and women wore very few clothes and always went barefoot. And they loved to eat honey.

            Some San were said to communicate with a bird called a honey diviner. These small birds have a call that sounds like “quick quick quick, honey, quick.” When a San person heard that call, he followed the bird to a bees nest. And to thank the bird, he would always give it a share of the honey.

            The San people once lived all across Southern Africa. They were proud of the natural way they lived. But because they survived much like animals do in the wild, the black Africans and later the white Europeans who moved into their homelands thought of them as animals. They were hunted and forced to work as slaves. Eventually the San were either killed or forced off of their beautiful ancestral lands into the harsh Kalahari Desert. Although they defended themselves with bows and arrows, it was not in their nature to fight. Members of one clan called themselves “zhu twa si” – the harmless people.

            The thousands-year-old way of life of the San could only last as long as they were left completely alone in the desert. When they began to meet modern Africans, both black and white, their lives were changed forever. As the outsiders claimed their lands for farming or ranching or diamond mining, some San people moved to towns to work. The Botswana government forced many more of them off of their ancestral land. The last San people probably stopped living in the ways of their ancestors in the 1960s. Today, perhaps 30,000-50,000 San live in towns, but without their traditional lands and ways, they live in poverty, and their lives are very difficult.

            An American anthropologist who lived among a clan of traditional San wrote in 1989, “Their own way of life, the old way, a way of life which preceded the human species, no longer exists, but is gone from the face of the Earth.”


Sources: “The Harmless People,” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, 1989; “The Lost World of the Kalahari,” Laurens van der Post, 1958;; K. Kris Hirst,;