This term was given to the San during their long battle against the colonists. The San interpreted this as a proud and respected reference to their brave fight for freedom from domination and colonization. Many now accept the terms Bushmen or San. Like the first people to inhabit other countries in the world, the San have an unfortunate history of poverty, social rejection, decline of cultural identity and the discrimination of their rights as a group. Yet, the San have also received the attention of anthropologists and the media with their survival and hunting skills, wealth of indigenous knowledge of the flora and fauna of Southern Africa, and their rich cultural traditions.
San people speak numerous dialects of a group of languages known for the characteristic 'clicks' that can be heard in their pronunciation, represented in writing by symbols such as ! or /. Made up of small mobile groups, San communities comprise up to about 25 men, women and children. At certain times of the year groups join for exchange of news and gifts, for marriage arrangements and for social occasions.
Not related to the BaNtu tribes, the San are descendants of Early Stone Age ancestors. Clans and loosely connected family groups followed seasonal game migrations between mountain range and coastline. They made their homes in caves, under rocky overhangs or in temporary shelters. These migratory people do not domesticate animals or cultivate crops, even though their knowledge of both flora and fauna is vast. The San categorized thousands of plants and their uses, from nutritional to medicinal, mystical to recreational and lethal. San men have a formidable reputation as trackers and hunters.
San trackers will follow the 'spoor' (tracks) of an animal across virtually any kind of surface or terrain. Their skills even enable them to distinguish between the "spoor" of a wounded animal and that of the rest of the herd. At about the beginning of the Christian era a group of people who owned small livestock (sheep and perhaps goats) moved into the northern and western parts of South Africa and migrated southward. These pastoralists, called Khoikhoi or 'Hottentot' resembled the San in many ways and lived by gathering wild plants and domesticating animals. Coincidently in the eastern parts of the country another migration was occurring - the BaNtu speaking peoples were moving southward bringing with them cattle, the concept of planting crops and settled village life. Ultimately, the 'Hottentots' met these black-skinned farmers and obtained from them cattle in exchange for animal skins and other items.
Thus, when the white settlers arrived in the mid 17th century the whole country was inhabited by 3 different groups - the hunter-gatherers (San), the pastoralists (Khoikhoi) and the farmers (BaNtu). At first, the San co-existed peacefully with the Nguni (a sub-language group of the BaNtu) speakers (the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele) who intermarried with the San and incorporated some of the distinctive and characteristic 'clicks' of the San language into their own languages.
Contact with Nguni and Sotho-Tswana farmers is depicted in the San rock art. The artists started including representations of cattle and sheep as well as of people with shields and spears, in their paintings. Unfortunately, hunter-gatherers cannot live permanently alongside a settled community and thus problems arose. When the San fought against the BaNtu, they were at a huge disadvantage not only in numbers but also in lack of weapons. With the Europeans, they were at an even greater disadvantage. The Europeans owned horses and firearms. In this period, the number of San was greatly reduced. They fought to the death and preferred death to capture where they would be forced into slavery.
The San have no formal authority figure or chief, but govern themselves by group consensus. Disputes are resolved through lengthy discussions where all involved have a chance to make their thoughts heard until some agreement is reached. Certain individuals may assume leadership in specific spheres in which they excel, such as hunting or healing rituals, but they cannot achieve positions of general influence or power. White colonists found this very confusing when they tried to establish treaties with the San. Leadership among the San is kept for those who have lived within that group for a long time, who have achieved a respectable age, and good character. San are largely egalitarian, sharing such things as meat and tobacco.
Land is usually owned by a group, and rights to land are usually inherited bilaterally. Kinship bonds provide the basic framework for political models. Membership in a group is determined by residency. As long as a person lives on the land of his group he maintains his membership. It is possible to hunt on land not owned by the group, but permission must be obtained from the owners.
The San will eat anything available, both animal and vegetable. Their selection of food ranges from antelope, Zebra, porcupine, wild hare, Lion, Giraffe, fish, insects, tortoise, flying ants, snakes (venomous and non-venomous), Hyena, eggs and wild honey. The meat is boiled or roasted on a fire.
The San are not wasteful and every part of the animal is used. The hides are tanned for blankets and the bones are cracked for the marrow. Water is hard to come by, as the San are constantly on the move. Usually during the dry season, these migrants collect their moisture by scraping and squeezing roots. If they are out hunting or travelling, they would dig holes in the sand to find water. They also carry water in an ostrich eggshell.
The San belief system generally observes the supremacy of one powerful god, while at the same time recognizing the presence of lesser gods along with their wives and children. Homage is also paid to the spirits of the deceased. Among some San, it is believed that working the soil is contrary to the world order established by the god. Some groups also revere the moon. The most important spiritual being to the southern San was /Kaggen, the trickster-deity. He created many things, and appears in numerous myths where he can be foolish or wise, tiresome or helpful.
The word '/Kaggen' can be translated as 'mantis', this led to the belief that the San worshipped the praying mantis. However, /Kaggen is not always a praying mantis, as the mantis is only one of his manifestations. He can also turn into an Eland, a hare, a snake or a vulture - he can assume many forms. When he is not in one of his animal forms, /Kaggen lives his life as an ordinary San.
A ritual is held where the boy is told how to track an Eland and how the Eland will fall once shot with an arrow. The boy will become an adult when he kills his first large antelope, preferably an Eland. Once caught, the Eland is skinned and the fat from the animal's throat and collarbone is made into a broth. In the girls' puberty rituals, a young girl is isolated in her hut at her first menstruation. The women of the tribe perform the Eland Bull Dance where they imitate the mating behaviour of the Eland cows.
A man will play the part of the Eland bull, usually with horns on his head. This ritual will keep the girl beautiful, free from hunger and thirst and peaceful. As part of the marriage ritual, the man gives the fat from the Elands' heart to the girls' parents. At a later stage, the girl is anointed with Eland fat. In the trance dance, the Eland is considered the most potent of all animals, and the shamans aspire to possess Eland potency. The San believed that the Eland was /Kaggen's favourite animal. San people have vast oral traditions, and many of their tales include stories about the gods that serve to educate listeners about what is considered moral San behaviour.
Of prime importance in all San groups is a ritual dance that serves to heal the group. The great 'medicine or healing dance' and the rain dance were rituals in which everyone participated. During these dances, the women usually sat around a central fire as they sang and clapped their hands. The men then first danced around the women in a clockwise direction and then vice versa. As the dance increased in intensity, the dancers reached trance-like, altered, states of consciousness and were transported into the spirit realm where they could plead for the souls of the sick.
These trance dances are depicted in the rock art left behind by the San. The shamanic figures are often painted in strange 'bending forward' postures. Shamans or 'medicine men' explained later that they adopted this posture during their trance dances because they experienced a great deal of pain when the 'potency' started boiling in their stomachs and their stomach muscles started contracting. They also often experienced spontaneous nosebleeds at this time. These nosebleeds are depicted in the many rock paintings of trance dances. As other groups invaded the territory of the San and influenced their way of life, the pictures of soldiers, wagons and horses served to record historical events.
The Kalahari San held similar beliefs and revered a greater and a lesser god, the first associated with life and the rising sun, and the latter with illness and death. The shamans, who went into trances and altered states of existence during ritual dances, thus acquired access to the lesser god who caused illness. Birth, death, gender, rain and weather were all believed to have supernatural significance, for example, people acquired good or bad rain-bringing abilities at birth and this ability was reactivated when the person died.
Another shared belief was the fact that, when the world was first created, animals and people were indistinguishable. People had not yet acquired manners and culture and only after the second creation, were they separated from the animals and educated in a separate social code. Most San believed that upon death, the soul went back to the great god's house in the sky. Dead people could, however, still influence the living and, when a medicine man died, the people were very concerned lest his spirit become a danger to the living.
The hardiness of the San allowed them to survive their changed fortunes and the harsh conditions of the Kalahari Desert in which they are now mostly concentrated. Today, the small group that remains has adopted many strategies for political, economic and social survival. The San retain many of their ancient practices but have made certain compromises to modern living. The westernised myths regarding the San have caused considerable damage. They portray the San as simple, childlike people without a problem in the world. This could not be further from the truth.
Due to absorption but mostly extinction, the San may soon cease to exist as a separate people. Unfortunately, they may soon only be viewed in national museums. Their traditions, beliefs and culture may soon only be found in historical journals.
Read more detailed information on the San Culture