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.

History of the San People

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.

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 and 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.

San 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.

What did the San eat?
The San 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.

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.

San 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. Gender roles are not jealously guarded in the San society. Women sometimes assist in the hunt and the men sometimes help gather plant foods.

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
  • Marriage
  • Trance dance

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.

Music and Dance

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.

Life of the San Today

Today, the San suffer from a perception that their lifestyle is 'primitive' and that they need to be made to live like the majority cattle-herding tribes. Specific problems vary according to where they live. In South Africa, for example, the !Khomani now have most of their land rights recognised, but many other San tribes have no land rights at all. Few modern San are able to continue as hunter-gatherers, and most live at the very bottom of the social scale, in unacceptable conditions of poverty, leading to alcoholism, violence, prostitution, disease and despair.

The last of the hunter-gatherers were forcibly evicted from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve as recently as April 2002, by the Botswana government to make way for diamond mines. A court case is currently in existence to help the San claim their land.

The official reason was to provide them with services such as schools and medical services, and to bring them into modern society. In fact, few of these services have materialized, and the San have been confined to bleak encampments in a hostile environment. The San are a friendly, creative, and peaceful people, who never developed any weapons of war, and have lived in harmony with their natural environment for at least 20 000 years. Properly restored to their ancestral lands, and reintegrated into the game reserves of southern Africa, San communities could become self-sustaining.

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.

San Culture

The San people have lived in Southern Africa for at least 20 000 years. Learn more about the fascinating San people and their hunting skills, wealth of indigenous knowledge and rich cultural traditions.

San Hunting Skills

The San women have expert knowledge of the veld, and are known as the chief gatherers. Learn more about the San hunting skills and their outstanding tracking abilities and ingenious hunting techniques.

Kruger National Park - South African Safari