The San, also referred to as the Bushmen are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa. The San Bushmen of the Kalahari desert are the indigenous people of Southern Africa and have been here for tens of thousands of years.
Currently, there are about 100,000 San in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Angola.
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Where Did The Name San Bushmen Come From?
The name San doesn’t refer to one particular group but is commonly used to refer to various groups of hunter-gatherers who share common linguistic and historical connections.
The term Bushman came from the Dutch term, ‘bossieman’, which meant outlaw, or bandit.
During their long fight against their colonial masters, the San were referred to as Bushmen, but according to them, they interpreted this as a proud reference to their brave struggle for freedom from colonization and domination.
Thus ‘Bushmen’ was used to refer to the San, but has since been abandoned as it is considered demeaning, but still many accept the usage of the term.
Just like the Native Americans of North America, and the Aboriginal people of Australia, the San have an unfortunate history of discrimination, a decline in cultural identity, social rejection, and poverty.
Yet, they are revered by anthropologists for their knowledge of the indigenous flora and fauna of Southern Africa, and their survival and hunting skills.
The San people’s language is characterized by a distinct click sound heard in their pronunciations, and that is represented in writing by symbols such as / or !.
Isn’t that amazing, this ‘click’ sound? Have a look at the video below!
A Little History – Where Did The San Bushmen Of The Kalahari Desert Come From?
Being the first inhabitants of the Southern Africa region, the San are descended from early Stone Age ancestors.
From their early days, the San unlike their neighbors have always been a migratory people without domesticated animals, or cultivated crops.
Their clans and loosely connected family groups followed seasonal wildlife migration from the mountain ranges, desert, and coastline.
The San would make use of caves, temporary shelters, or rocky overhangs as their home, and their knowledge of the local flora was essential for survival.
The san trackers could follow the tracks (spoor) of an animal virtually over any kind of surface or terrain.
Their skills were so prodigious that they could distinguish, a wounded or weakened animal from the rest of the herd just from the tracks left behind.
Moving On, Migration And Cultures Mixing.
At about the start of the Christianity era, a group that owned livestock moved into the Western and Northern parts of South Africa.
These pastoralists were called Khoikhoi or Hottentot and closely resembled the San as they also lived by gathering wild plants. (so the Hottentot and the San are not the same people!)
At the same time, another migration was happening; The Bantu migration Southwards. These people brought with them cattle and agriculture, and a settled way of life.
When the white man arrived in the mid- 17th century, the region was inhabited by three different groups.
Initially, the San coexisted peacefully with the Nguni (sub-language group of the Bantu) speakers, who intermarried and incorporated some of the distinctive clicks of the San language into their own.
Unfortunately, due to their way of life, the San could not live permanently in settled communities, and problems arose.
When the San fought against their Bantu neighbors, they were at a disadvantage in terms of numbers, and weaponry.
This disparity was even greater when they faced Europeans, as the Europeans had firearms and horses, and the San numbers plummeted as a result.
The San often preferred fighting to the death, instead of a life of slavery that came with capture.
It is really sad when you think about it 🙁 . Have a look at the video below, with a story of a San that is not so unusual:
Colonialism disrupted the San migratory way of life even further, as they were shoe-horned in one area, not allowed to roam free, while trophy hunters decimated the wildlife that they depended on for sustenance.
Both white and black farmers built up huge herds of cattle that wiped the food that had been a staple diet for the San.
Mass destruction of San communities by farmers both black and white, enslavement, and destruction of their food sources forced many into community living, and intermarriages which eventually added to the destruction of the social identity of the San as people.
What Are The San Bushmen Known For- Culture And Lifestyle.
The San have no formal authority figures, chiefs, or monarchs but rather are a group consensus kind of people.
Disputes are solved through lengthy discussions, involving all interested parties, whose voices and opinions are heard and considered.
In certain aspects of their lives such as hunting, rituals, or healing, certain individuals may assume leadership provided they excel in these activities, but they are limited to only that and not overall authority.
Those chosen to represent the clan are usually, those who have lived a respectable age within the group, and are of good character.
Land is owned collectively, and the rights to the land are inherited, with kinship bonds forming the basis for political associations. As long as a person lives on the land of his group, he maintains his membership and rights.
To be able to hunt on land that is not owned by the group, permission must be obtained from the owners.
The San hunt with bows and arrows, and they are excellent hunters. They coat their arrows with poison from the Euphorbia, or snake venom, with the poison doing most of the killing as they hunt.
Their diet mainly consisted of both animals and vegetables, with a selection of animals from antelope, zebra, wild hare, tortoise, snakes; both venomous and non-venomous, hyena, fish, insects, giraffe, lion, flying ants to wild honey.
They are also talented trackers with a deep knowledge of their prey’s behavior. Hunters when they track a herd, will crawl on their belly, sometimes holding a small bush in front of them (If the ground is bare and there is a high risk of being spotted by the prey).
In the following video, you can see an intense 8-hour hunt, documented by one of my favorite biologists in the world: David Attenborough!
The hunters also travel light, carrying a skin bag on the shoulder containing a few personal items, medicine, additional arrows, poison, and flywhisks.
Hunting is also a team effort with the man whose arrow killed the animal having the right to distribute the meat to the tribe.
With their environment being rather dry and scarce, the San are not wasteful and every part of the animal finds a use.
The women are experts at foraging, while the children stay at home to be watched over by those remaining in the camp, but nursing children are carried by their mothers on these foraging trips.
The women are also responsible for the temporary shelters, which are used to guard their few personal items and protect the meat. Most San are also monogamous but if a hunter is skilled enough, he can afford to have a second wife.
The San also believe in a divine being who is a representation of nature and all that surrounds them.
They believe in a good and benevolent god, Kang who is opposed to the evil god Gauab. They also believe in the spirits of the dead, of whom they are very afraid.
The San bury their dead in the fetal position with all objects belonging to them in life, then they highlight the location by covering the tomb with stones.
Unlike the neighboring Bantus, who revere their dead, the San fear the spirits of the dead.
The word ‘/Kaggen’ can be translated as ‘mantis’, this led to the conclusion that the San worshipped the praying mantis.
An important aspect of San’s life is ritual dances that serve to heal the group.
Some dances such as the healing dance and the rain dance were rituals in which everyone participated, with the men dancing and the women sitting around a central fire clapping and dancing.
The trance dances are depicted in the rock art left behind by the San.
In terms of clothing, men wear a small ankle or antelope skirt, a leather coat, sometimes a cap of antelope fleece, and a necklace of ostrich feathers, and for the most experienced hunters, elephants or giraffes’ tail hair as a hunting trophy.
In addition to leather coats, women wear a double leather apron that goes down the front and the back.
The women also decorate their hair, arms and legs with rings and necklaces made with small discs of ostrich egg shells.
The San Today- Do the Bushmen still exist?
The San bushmen of the Kalahari desert today have been forced to settle, to become livestock herders, away from their way of life.
Their problems also vary with where they are in Southern Africa, with for example the San community in South Africa has most of their land rights recognized, while in other places they have no land rights.
Due to their way of life, the San were used to the wilderness stretches of Southern Africa, but the countries in Southern Africa demarcated most of the land they used as hunting grounds as National reserves or national parks and made it illegal for anyone to hunt wild animals within these zones.
In Botswana the government set up a reserve, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to protect the traditional territory of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari desert.
But with the discovery of diamonds in the reserve, the government decided to forcibly remove the San.
Their social amenities were closed, their water supply cut off and the people trucked away to resettlement camps outside the reserve.
These San are not able to hunt or gather and knowing no other way of life, are dependent on government handouts. Many are now dealing with illnesses such as TB and HIV/AIDS, alcoholism, and depression.
In 2006, the Bushmen won the right in court to go back to their lands, but the government has done everything in its power to make the return impossible.
The government cemented over their existing boreholes, and although the San representatives launched another lawsuit against the government, just to gain access to their boreholes.
The San have also been refused permits to hunt on their own land, with those found hunting for their family’s sustenance being put behind bars.
The san’s lifestyle and economy have always been and are still based on hunting and gathering, unfortunately, their way of life, their livelihood, and the people themselves are in decline due to modern-day pressures.
My Final Conclusion.
I find it quite sad that the way of life of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari desert has declined enormously, and I think that we all can learn a lot from how these oldest people on the planet used to live!
It was my great pleasure to write about this, as I am fascinated by this kind of culture.
But if you have any more questions about the San, please feel free to ask them below or join me on my social media pages or Facebook group, for more pictures of my travels to Africa!
I wish you happy travels!