Introduction:The San are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20 000 years. The term San is commonly used to refer to a diverse group of hunter-gatherers living in Southern Africa who share historical and linguistic connections. The San were also referred to as Bushmen, but this term has since been abandoned as it is considered derogatory. There are many different San groups - they have no collective name for themselves, and the terms 'Bushman', 'San', 'Basarwa' (in Botswana) are used. The term, 'bushman', came from the Dutch term, 'bossiesman', which meant 'bandit' or 'outlaw'.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.
Historical backgroundNot 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.Colonialism destroyed the San migratory way of life, they were no longer allowed to roam freely and trophy hunters destroyed the vast herds of game that formed their principal supply of food. Both Black and White farmers built up huge herds of cattle that destroyed the foods that had been the San staple diet for centuries. Enslavement and sometimes mass destruction of San communities, by both White and Black farmers, followed. Many became farm labourers and some joined Black farming communities, and intermarried with them, which added to the destruction of the social identity of the San people.
Social & Cultural life: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.
Hunting Methods:The San are excellent hunters. Although they do a fair amount of trapping, the best method of hunting is with bow and arrow. The San arrow does not kill the animal straight away. It is the deadly poison, which eventually causes the death. In the case of small antelope such as Duiker or Steenbok, a couple of hours may elapse before death. For larger antelope, this could be 7 to 12 hours. For large game, such as Giraffe it could take as long as 3 days. Today the San make the poison from the larvae of a small beetle but will also use poison from plants, such as the euphorbia, and snake venom.A caterpillar, reddish yellow in colour and about three-quarters of an inch long, called ka or ngwa is also used. The poison is boiled repeatedly until it looks like red currant jelly. It is then allowed to cool and ready to be smeared on the arrows. The poison is highly toxic and is greatly feared by the San themselves; the arrow points are therefore reversed so that the poison is safely contained within the reed collar. It is also never smeared on the point but just below it - thus preventing fatal accidents.The poison is neuro toxic and does not contaminate the whole animal. The spot where the arrow strikes is cut out and thrown away, but the rest of the meat is fit to eat. The effect of the poison is not instantaneous, and the hunters frequently have to track the animal for a few days. The San also dug pitfalls near the larger rivers where the game came to drink. The pitfalls were large and deep, narrowing like a funnel towards the bottom, in the centre of which was planted a sharp stake. These pitfalls were cleverly covered with branches, which resulted in the animals walking over the pit and falling onto the stake.When catching small animals such as hares, guinea fowls, Steenbok or Duiker, traps made of twisted gut or fibre from plants were used. These had a running noose that strangled the animal when it stepped into the snare to collect the food that had been placed inside it. Another way of capturing animals was to wait at Aardvark holes. Aardvark holes are used by small buck as a resting place to escape the midday sun. The hunter waited patiently behind the hole until the animal left. When this happened, it was be firmly pinned and hit on the head with a Kerrie (club).The San are intelligent trackers and know the habits of their prey. On discovering where a herd has gathered, they immediately test the direction and force of the wind by throwing a handful of dust into the air. If the ground is bare and open, he will crawl on his belly, sometimes holding a small bush in front of him. Hunters carry a skin bag slung around one shoulder, containing personal belongings, poison, medicine, flywhisks and additional arrows. They may also carry a club to throw at and stun small game, a long probing stick to extract hares from their burrows or a stick to dig out Aardvark or Warthog.Hunting is a team effort and the man whose arrow killed the animal has the right to distribute the meat to the tribe members and visitors who, after hearing about the kill, would arrive soon afterwards to share in the feast. According to San tradition, they were welcome to share the meal and would, in the future, have to respond in the same way. However, plant foods, gathered by the womenfolk, are not shared but eaten by the woman's immediate family. The San make use of over 100 edible species of plant. While the men hunt, the women, who are experts in foraging for edible mushrooms, bulbs, berries and melons, gather food for the family. Children stay at home to be watched over by those remaining in camp, but nursing children are carried on these gathering trips, adding to the load the women must carry.Gender roles are not jealously guarded in the San society. Women sometimes assist in the hunt and the men sometimes help gather plant foods.
Rock Art:Until recently, most amateur and professional anthropologists looked at a rock painting of the San and believed that they could decipher it without any problems. The pieces that they did not understand were passed off as crude art or that the artist had too much to drink or smoke. This has been found not to be the case, and their work is recognised as holding deep spiritual and religious meaning. Contrary to popular belief, these paintings and engravings of strange human figures and animals, especially the Eland (a species of antelope), did not depict every day life but had a deeper religious and symbolic meaning.When shaman (medicine men) painted an Eland, they did not just pay respect to a sacred animal; they also harnessed its essence (N!um). By putting paint to rock, they would be able to open portals to the spirit world. San rock paintings are found in rocky areas of the KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and the Western Cape provinces. The San mainly used red, ranging from orange to brown, white, black and yellow in their paintings. Blue and green were never used. Red was derived from haematite (red ochre), and yellow from limonite (yellow ochre).Manganese oxide and charcoal were used for black; white, which does not preserve well, was probably obtained from bird droppings or kaolin. The blood of an Eland, an animal of great religious and symbolic significance, was often mixed into the colour pigments. Another striking feature of the rock art is the embodiment of action and speed. Human figures are stylized and depicted as having long strides and the animals are either galloping or leaping, or, more subtly, flicking a tail or twisting a neck. Most of the paintings have an underlying spiritual theme and are believed to have been representations of religious ceremonies and rituals.
San Belief System: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.
San Rituals:The Eland is their most spiritual animal and appears in 4 rituals:
- Boys' first kill
- Girls' puberty
- Trance dance