The San ‘Bushmen’ also known as Khwe, Sho, and Basarwa are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, (and are part of the Khoisan group), where they have lived for at least 20,000 years. They are hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa. Genetic evidence also suggests the San Bushmen are one of the oldest peoples in the world. Their home is in the vast expanse of the Kalahari desert.
San Bushman carrying his two kids
The Bushmen are the remnants of Africa’s oldest cultural group, genetically the closest surviving people to the original Homo sapiens “core” from which the Negroid people of Africa emerged. Bushmen are small in stature generally with light yellowish skin, which wrinkles very early in life. Bushmen traditionally lived in Southern Africa in the following countries, although virtually none live purely by hunting and gathering today: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola, with loosely related groups in Tanzania.
San father hugging his children
Recorded history also placed them in Lesotho and Mozambique. Rock art and archaeological evidence can place them as far north as Libya, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, with the evidence of legend & racial type suggesting some traces remain.
San old man
Bushmen is an Anglicization of boesman, the Dutch and Afrikaner name for them; saan (plural) or saa (singular) is the Nama word for “bush dweller(s),” and the Nama name is now generally favoured by anthropologists. Each of these terms has a problematic history, as they have been used by outsiders to refer to them, often with pejorative connotations. The individual groups identify by names such as Ju/’hoansi and !Kung (the punctuation characters representing different click consonants), and most call themselves by the pejorative “Bushmen” when referring to themselves collectively.
San kids with facial painting
The term San was historically applied by their ethnic relatives and historic rivals, the Khoikhoi. This term means “outsider” in the Nama language and was derogatory because it distinguished the Bushmen from what the Khoikhoi called themselves, namely the “First People”. Western anthropologists adopted San extensively in the 1970s, where it remains preferred in academic circles. The term Bushmen is widely used, but opinions vary on whether it is appropriate because it is sometimes viewed as pejorative.
The Bushmen Tribe of Tsumkwe
The San are said to be descendants of Early Stone Age ancestors. They are nomadic group living in temporary shelters, caves or under rocky overhangs. With the arrival of the first Europeans settlers in 1652 in Southern Africa sparked clashes as they sought new territory they exterminated the Sans whom they deemed to be inferior like wild animals. They called them “Bushmen” and proceeded to wipe out 200,000 of them in 200 years. They also sold them in slave markets and to traveling circuses.
According to Dr Ben Smith, genetic evidence suggests they are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world, going back to perhaps 60,000 years. They have genetic traces that no one else in the world has, that put them at the root of the human tree – we are related to them, but they are not as closely related to us. They were in South Africa thousands of years before, the iron age Bantu people arrived with their superior technology.
San Bushmen,the world`s oldest people
The San have a rich oral history and have passed stories down from generation to generation. The oldest rock paintings they created are in Namibia and have been radiocarbon-dated to be 26 000 years old. The San rock art gives us clues about their social and belief systems.
San Basarwa woman and her bay
One of the most significant pieces of Rock art found in South Africa was found on Linton Farm in the Eastern Cape. The panel was removed from the farm in 1917 and taken to the South African Museum in Cape Town. It is known as the Linton panel, and an image from this panel was used in the new South African Coat of Arms.
Eighty-three years in museum care, protected from the elements, has made the Linton panel one of the best preserved of all pieces of South African rock art. In 1995, the panel featured as one of the premiere attractions in the international exhibition, “Africa: the Art of a Continent”.
San man with his arch. San people are expert archers
The figure embodies the spirit of the African Renaissance. When European nations began their Renaissance, they turned to the classical age of Greece and Rome when art and architecture had reached its zenith. San rock art is one of the great archaeological wonders of the world, and is a mirror which reflects the glories of the African past.
San women of Ghanzi in Botswana
San languages, characterised by implosive consonants or ‘clicks’, belonged to a totally different language family from those of the Bantu speakers. Broadly speaking, they are two different and identifiable languages, namely the Khoikhoi and San. Many dialects have evolved from these, including /Xam, N?¡, !Xu, Khwe and Khomani. NÃ mÃ¡, previously called Hottentot, is the most populous and widespread of the Khoikhoi and San languages.
Ju/’hoansi San People making arrows
The San bushmen major language groups include !Kung, Khomani, Vasekela, Mbarakwena, /Auni, Auen, /Gwi, //Ganaa, Kua, /Tannekwe, /Geinin, /Xoma, //Obanen Ganin, /Xam-ka!ke and !Xo.
Very little is known about the different dialects of South Africa’s San people, as most of these beautiful, ancient languages were never recorded. Fortunately, the /Xam dialect, which is spoken by the San, was recorded almost in its entirety, thanks to the work of a German linguist, Dr WHI Bleek.
San woman holding her beautiful baby boy
/Xam speakers originally occupied a large part of western South Africa, but by 1850, only a few hundred /Xam speakers lived in remote parts of the Northern Cape. Today, the language is no longer exists, but survives in 12 000 pages of hand-written testimony taken down word-for-word from some of the last /Xam speakers in the 1860s and 1870s. These pages record not just the /Xam language, but also their myths, beliefs and rituals. A comprehensive /Xam dictionary was produced by Dr Bleek at the time, but was only published years later (DF Bleek: 1956).
San woman with her baby
South Africa’s motto, written on the SA coat of arms is a /Xam phrase: !ke e: /xarra //ke, literally meaning: diverse people unite.
Economy and Socio-Political Structure
Bushmen were hunter/gatherers, with traditionally about 70/80% of their diet consisting of plant food, including berries, nuts, roots and melons gathered primarily by the women. The remaining 20/30% was meat (mostly antelopes), hunted by the men using poisoned arrows and spears on hunts that could last several days. They made their own temporary homes from wood that they gathered.
Their hunting & gathering economy and social structure had remained virtually unchanged for tens of thousands of years until very recently, a socio-economic culture that has sustained mankind universally during their evolution until the advent of agriculture. The Bushmen did not farm or keep livestock, having no concept of the ownership of land or animal.
Their social structure is not tribal because they have no paramount leader and their ties of kinship are fairly relaxed. They are a loosely knit family culture where decisions are made by universal discussion and agreement by consensus. An individual’s opinion is naturally weighted according to their level of skill and experience in the particular field of discussion.
Families within a clan would speak a common language but neighboring clans would usually speak a different tongue, although there would normally be a fair degree of similarity & understanding between them. Apart from family relations, bearing the same name (out of only about 35 names per gender) would also foster a “name kinship”.Bushmen are generally nomadic within fairly limited boundaries, governed by the proximity of other families and clans. As a very loose guideline, the territory of a family may stretch to a 25-mile circle. Obviously, if there are no other bordering clans or other people these areas may stretch further, as far as is needed to ensure adequate food and water sources.
San (Bushmen) children of Kalahari Desert
The roles of men & women were very distinct and rarely overlapped, which is a characteristic almost universal amongst hunter/gatherers the world over. It based on survival needs encouraging the most efficient utilisation of available skills and resources. Despite what is often perceived as a very sexist society, the importance of women is very high within the group and their opinions often take precedence, particularly where food is concerned.
San (Bushmen) of Kalahari Desert
Traditionally, bushman women spent 3-4 days a week gathering veldkost (wild plants), often going out in groups to search for edible or medicinal plants. Furthermore, before the advent of trade with Bantu or white settlers, all tools, construction material, weapons or clothes were made of plants or animal products.
About 400-500 local plants and their uses were known to bushmen, along with the places where they grew – not only providing a balanced nutrition, but also moisture from roots even in time of drought.