San people are the oldest people of Southern Africa, having lived there for at least 20,000 years, making them the oldest people on the continent. The name “San” refers to a heterogeneous collection of hunter-gatherers residing in Southern Africa with historical and linguistic links. These people are sometimes referred to as “San”.
The San were also known as the Bushmen at one point in time; however, this word is no longer used since it is seen as being pejorative. There are a great number of distinct San tribes; yet, the labels “Bushman,” “San,” and “Basarwa” (in Botswana) are used to refer to this population since they do not have a collective name. The English word “bushman” originated from the Dutch word “bossiesman,” which meant “bandit” or “outlaw” in its original context.
During the San people’s protracted conflict with the colonists, this label was bestowed upon them. The San understood this to be a reference to their valiant struggle for liberation from colonialism and dominance, and they took pride and respect in making this connection. Many people now are comfortable using the terms Bushmen or San. The tragic history of the San includes periods of poverty, social rejection, the erosion of cultural identity, and the violation of their rights as a community. This is similar to the experiences of the first people to occupy various areas across the globe. In spite of this, anthropologists and members of the media have taken an interest in the San because of their remarkable capacity for self-preservation and hunting, their richness of indigenous knowledge of the flora and fauna of Southern Africa, and their rich cultural traditions.
People who speak San languages use a group of languages that are noted for the distinctive ‘clicks’ that can be heard in their pronunciation. These clicks are represented in writing by symbols such as ! and /.
San people speak a variety of dialects of this language group. San communities are made up of tiny nomadic groups and may include as many as 25 men, women, and children in them at any one time. At particular periods during the year, people get together to catch up, share news and presents, make marriage plans, and celebrate social events.
People of the San and their history
The San are ancient people descended from people who lived in the Stone Age and are not linked to the Bantu tribes. Clans and other loosely related family groupings followed the seasonal migrations of the game between the mountains and the shore. They hid in caves, behind rocky overhangs, and in makeshift shelters when they weren’t in their permanent houses. Despite their extensive understanding of flora and wildlife, these nomadic people do not keep animals as pets or develop crops. Instead, they travel from place to place. The San people classified hundreds of plants according to their purposes, which ranged from magical to recreational to fatal as well as nutritious and therapeutic. Trackers and hunters of the highest caliber, San men have earned a fearsome reputation.
Trackers from the San tribe are able to trace the ’spoor’ (tracks) of an animal over nearly any surface or terrain. They are so skilled that they are even able to tell the difference between the “spoor” left behind by a wounded animal and that left behind by the rest of the herd. Around the time of the beginning of the Christian era, a group of people who had small animals (sheep and maybe goats) arrived into the northern and western portions of South Africa and then went southward. These individuals are said to have been the first inhabitants of South Africa. These pastoralists, also known as Khoikhoi or “Hottentot,” resembled the San in many aspects and made their living by collecting wild herbs and taming wild animals. They were nicknamed “Hottentot.”
At the same time, in the eastern portions of the nation, another migration was taking place: people who spoke the Bantu language were coming southward, bringing livestock, the idea of cultivating crops, and a village-based way of life with them. In the end, the “Hottentots” came into contact with these dark-skinned farmers and were able to barter with them in order to acquire cattle in return for animal skins and other goods.
Therefore, when the white settlers came in the middle of the 17th century, the whole region was inhabited by three distinct groups: the hunter-gatherers (also known as the San), the pastoralists (also known as the Khoikhoi), and the farmers (Bantu). At first, the Nguni speakers (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele) who intermarried with the San and adopted some of the peculiar and characteristic ‘clicks’ of the San language into their own languages coexisted amicably with the San. Nguni is a sublanguage group of the Bantu linguistic family.
Rock art created by the San people shows evidence of their interaction with Nguni and Sotho-Tswana farmers. In their paintings, the painters began depicting humans using spears and shields, as well as livestock and sheep. They also included individuals carrying spears and shields. Unfortunately, hunter-gatherers and established communities cannot coexist peacefully for an extended period of time, and this has led to a number of difficulties. When the San battled against the Bantu, not only did they lack weapons, but they also had a significant numerical deficit. This put them at a significant disadvantage in the battle.
They were at an even bigger disadvantage when they were dealing with the Europeans. Both horses and weaponry were in possession of Europeans. During this time, there was a precipitous drop in the number of San. They were willing to fight to the last end and chose death than capture, which would have resulted in their being sold into slavery.
They were no longer permitted to travel freely, and trophy hunters decimated the immense herds of wildlife that comprised their primary source of food. All of these factors contributed to the demise of the San migratory way of life, which was caused by colonialism. Farmers of black and white descent amassed massive herds of cattle, resulting in the extinction of several plant species that had been a mainstay of the San diet for hundreds of years.
Slavery of San people and, at times, the complete annihilation of their towns by white and black farmers followed shortly after. A large number of San people took up work as farm laborers, while others joined Black agricultural communities and intermarried with their members, further contributing to the erosion of the San people’s social identity.
Existence of San people in society and culture
The San people do not have a formal authority figure or chief; instead, they are self-governed and make decisions by communal agreement. Disputes are settled via in-depth conversations, during which all parties concerned are given the opportunity to express their perspectives and remain participating until an agreement is achieved.
Certain people are capable of assuming leadership roles within certain domains in which they specialize, such as healing rituals or hunting, but they are unable to acquire positions of broad influence or authority in their societies. When white colonists attempted to negotiate treaties with the San, they found this information to be exceedingly perplexing. Those who have been part of the San community for a significant amount of time, are of honorable reputation, and have reached a respectable age are given priority for positions of leadership. The San practice a kind of egalitarianism that involves sharing resources like meat and cigarettes.
Land is often held by a group, and rights to land are typically passed down via families in a hierarchical fashion. Relationships of kinship serve as the fundamental basis for all political structures. The place of residence is used to identify membership in a group. A person’s membership in a group is maintained so long as they continue to reside on the property that belongs to that group. It is possible to go hunting on property that is not held by the club, but prior permission from the land’s owners is required.
Methods of hunting used by the San
The San are known to be accomplished hunters. The use of a bow and arrow is their preferred technique of hunting, despite the fact that they perform quite a bit of trapping. The animal is not immediately put to death by the arrow shot by the San. The fatal poison is what, in the end, results in the demise of the victim. It is possible that a tiny antelope like a duiker or steenbok may live for a number of hours after being shot before succumbing to their wounds.
This might take anything from seven to twelve hours for bigger antelope. It may take as long as three days if you’re going for a big game like a giraffe. The San now produce their poison from the larvae of a little beetle; however, they will also employ poison derived from plants, such as the euphorbia, and venom from snakes.
What kind of food did the San people prefer?
The San consume whatever is readily accessible to them, including both vegetables and animals. Antelope, Zebra, Porcupine, Wild Hare, Lion, Giraffe, Fish, Insects, Tortoise, Flying Ants, Snakes (Both Venomous and Non-Venomous), Hyena, Eggs, and Wild Honey are some of the foods San people eat. The meat is prepared by boiling it or roasting it over an open flame.
The San are not wasteful people, and they make use of every part of the animal. The skins are tanned to make blankets, and the marrow is extracted from the bones by cracking them. As a result of their nomadic lifestyle, the San have a difficult time finding sources of water. The majority of the time, during the dry season, these travelers get the moisture they need by scraping and squeezing the roots of plants. When they are out hunting or traveling, in order to locate sources of water, they will dig holes in the sand. They also transport water in the shell of an ostrich egg.
Another kind of insect that is used is a caterpillar that is named ka or ngwa and is approximately three quarters of an inch long with a yellowish-reddish coloration. The poison is subjected to many boilings until it attains the consistency of red currant jelly. After it has been allowed to cool, it is then prepared to be smeared on the arrows.
Since the San are terrified of the extremely poisonous poison, the arrow tips have been switched around so that it may be securely confined inside the reed collar. This will prevent the poison from spreading outside of the reed collar. It is also never smeared on the tip, but rather slightly below it, which helps to avoid mishaps that might result in fatalities.
The toxin is neurotoxic, yet it does not infect the animal in its whole. The portion of the flesh that was hit by the arrow is removed and discarded, while the remaining portion of the animal may be consumed. Because the poison takes some time to take action, the hunters are usually need to follow the animal for many days before it is killed.
In addition, the San built traps close to major rivers in areas where wildlife traveled to drink water. The traps were enormous and deep, and like a funnel, they became narrower as they descended towards the bottom. In the middle of each trap was a pointed spike. These traps were cunningly covered with branches, which led to the animals wandering over the pit and falling onto the stake. This was accomplished by a combination of cunning and intelligence.
Traps composed of twisted intestines or fiber from plants were used for trapping smaller animals like hares, guinea fowls, steenbok, or duiker. These species were difficult to capture. These were equipped with a moving noose that strangled the animal as soon as it entered the trap in order to retrieve the food that had been concealed inside it. Waiting at aardvark holes was another method that may be used to capture animals.
Small buck often takes refuge in the burrows dug by aardvarks during the middle of the day to get out of the heat. The hunter hid himself behind the hole and waited patiently until the animal had fled. When this took place, it resulted in the victim being tightly trapped and getting a blow to the skull with a Kerrie (club).
The San people are skilled trackers who are familiar with the routines of the animals they hunt. They instantly test the direction and severity of the wind upon finding where a herd has congregated by tossing a handful of dust into the air and seeing where it goes and how strong it is. If there is nothing on the ground except wide space, he will crawl on his stomach while sometimes carrying a tiny shrub in front of him.
The skin bag is draped over one shoulder and contains personal items, poison, medicine, flywhisks, and more arrows. Hunters also carry supplementary arrows. A club to throw at and stun small game, a long probing stick to remove hares from their burrows, or a stick to dig out Aardvark or Warthog may also be carried by them.
When hunting, it takes a village to bring down a big game animal, and the hunter whose arrow was responsible for the kill had the privilege of dividing up the meat among the other members of the tribe as well as any guests who heard about the kill and came to partake in the feast. In accordance with the customs of the San people, they were invited to partake in the meal and would be expected to behave in the same manner in the future. Plant foods, on the other hand, are not shared but rather consumed by the woman’s immediate family after being gathered by the womenfolk.
The San make use of more than one hundred different plant species that are edible. Women are adept at foraging for edible mushrooms, bulbs, berries, and melons, so when the males are off hunting, they are responsible for gathering food for the household. Children are kept at home to be looked after by those who remain in camp; nevertheless, nursing children are taken on these collection expeditions, adding to the burden that the women are required to bear.
San rock art
Up until relatively recently, the vast majority of amateur and professional anthropologists who looked at a rock painting of the San and believed that they could decipher it without any problems did so. The works that they could not comprehend were explained away as examples of primitive art or as evidence that the artist had consumed excessive amounts of alcohol or tobacco. It has been discovered that this is not the case, and it is widely acknowledged that their work carries profound religious and spiritual significance.
It is a common misconception that the bizarre human figures and animals shown in these paintings and engravings, particularly the eland (which is a kind of antelope), were meant to reflect everyday life. However, these works really have a deeper theological and symbolic purpose. In San culture, the distinctions between gender roles are not rigidly enforced. Occasionally men and women work together to harvest plant foods, while sometimes women and men work together to hunt.
Not only were shamans (medicine men) paying homage to a sacred animal when they painted an eland, but they were also channeling the animal’s vital force, known as N!um. They believed that by applying paint to rocks, they would be able to open gateways to other dimensions. Rock drawings created by the San people may be seen in the rocky terrain of the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, and Western Cape.
The San like to paint with shades of red, which may vary from orange to brown, as well as white, black, and yellow. Blue and green were never utilized. Yellow came from limonite, while red was made from haematite, also known as red ochre (yellow ochre).
The color black was achieved by combining charcoal and manganese oxide, while the color white, which does not last very long, most likely originated from bird droppings or kaolin. It was common practice to incorporate the blood of an eland, which is an animal with significant religious and symbolic meaning, into the color pigments.
The rock art of San people is notable for its embodiment of action and speed, which is another one of its striking features. The human figures are depicted as having long strides, while the animals are shown either galloping or leaping, or, more subtly, flicking their tails or twisting their necks. The human figures are stylized. It is believed that the majority of the paintings depict religious rites and ceremonies of some kind, as they have an underlying spiritual theme that runs throughout most of them.
San belief system
In general, the religious system of the San acknowledges the supremacy of a single, all-powerful deity, while at the same time acknowledging the existence of several other, less powerful gods, along with their wives and offspring. Additionally, respect is shown to the reincarnated souls of the departed. There is a school of thought among some San that cultivating land is in direct opposition to the divinely ordained order of the world.
There are also some communities that honor the moon. /Kaggen, also known as the trickster-deity, was considered to be the most significant spiritual being by the southern San. He was responsible for the creation of many things and is mentioned in a great number of tales, where he is portrayed as either ignorant or clever, tedious or helpful.
The fact that the word “/Kaggen” can be translated as “mantis” contributed to the widespread misconception that the San venerated the praying mantis. Despite this, /Kaggen does not always take the form of a praying mantis; rather, the mantis is merely one of his many manifestations. In addition, he has the ability to transform into an eland, a hare, a snake, or a vulture; he may take on a variety of shapes. When he is not transforming into one of his animal forms, Kaggen leads the life of a typical San.
The eland, which is considered to be their most spiritual animal, is used in the following four rituals:
- The first kill for the boys
- Puberty in females
- Trance dance
During the ceremony, the young man is instructed on how to successfully track an eland and how the animal will die after being shot with an arrow. When the young man has killed his first significant antelope, preferably an eland, he will be considered an adult. When the eland has been captured, it is first skinned, and then the fat that has been removed from the animal’s throat and collarbone is used to make a broth.
During the first menstruation, a young girl is left alone in her hut as part of the puberty rites performed by the females. The Eland Bull Dance is performed by the women of the tribe, and it is an imitation of the courtship rituals performed by Eland cows.
Typically, a male actor will take on the role of the Eland bull, and he will accessorize his head with horns. Because of this ceremony, the girl will always be lovely, unaffected by hunger or thirst, and at peace. As part of the wedding ceremony, the guy presents the girl’s parents with the fatty tissue that comes from the eland’s heart. A later stage involves the girl being anointed with fat from an eland. The eland is regarded as the most powerful of all creatures during the trance dance, and the shamans’ goal is to achieve the level of power possessed by the eland.
The San held the belief that the eland was Kaggen’s most cherished creature. The San people have extensive oral traditions, and many of their tales include stories about the gods that serve the purpose of educating listeners about what is considered to be moral San behavior.
Music and dance
In every San community, there is at least one dance ceremony that serves the purpose of curing the community as a whole. Both the “great medicine or healing dance” and the “rain dance” were communal performances in which everybody took part. These dances often consisted of the participants singing and clapping their hands while sitting in a circle around a central fire. After that, the men danced around the women in a counterclockwise direction at first, and then they did it the other way around. As the intensity of the dance increased, the dancers entered trance-like, altered states of consciousness and were eventually transported into the spirit realm, where they were able to make their case for the immortality of the souls of the sick.
The San left behind rock art depicting their trance dances, which can be found in certain caves. The shamanic figures are frequently depicted in peculiar “bending forward” positions when they are painted. 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.
As a result, they found that adopting this posture during their trance dances was the most comfortable position for them. They also often developed nosebleeds of their own accord throughout this period. The many rock paintings that depict trance dances include an illustration of these nosebleeds. The pictures of soldiers, wagons, and horses served as a record of historical events as other groups invaded the territory of the San and influenced their way of life over time.
The people of the Kalahari San shared similar beliefs and revered a greater and a lesser god. The former was linked to life and the rising sun, while the latter was associated with illness and death. During the ritual dances, the shamans entered trances and entered altered states of existence, and as a result, they were able to communicate with the lesser god who was responsible for illness. Birth, death, gender, rain, and weather were all believed to have supernatural significance. For instance, it was believed that people acquired the ability to bring either good or bad rain at the time of their birth, and that this ability was reactivated when the person died.
Another common notion held by many people was that prior to the creation of the world, humans and other animals looked very similar to one another. People had not yet developed their manners and culture; it was not until after the second creation that they were separated from the animals and educated in a social code that was distinct from that of the animals. The majority of San people held the belief that after death, one’s soul returned to the great god’s home in the sky. However, dead people could still have an effect on those who were still alive, and when a medicine man passed away, the community was very concerned in case his spirit became a threat to those who were still alive.
The modern way of life of the San
To this day, the San people are plagued by the misconception that their way of life is “primitive” and that they should be coaxed into adopting a way of life more similar to that of the rest of the tribes, who are cow herders. Problems of a more specific nature can be experienced by people depending on where they live. In South Africa, for instance, the !Khomani has recently had the majority of their land rights recognized, whereas a great number of other San tribes do not have any land rights at all.
Few San in today’s society are able to continue their traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering, and the majority of San live at the very bottom of the social scale, in conditions of poverty that are intolerable. This can lead to alcoholism, violence, prostitution, disease, and hopelessness.
In April of 2002, the government of Botswana used force to remove the last of the hunter-gatherers from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in order to make way for diamond mines. There is a case currently pending in court that will assist the San in claiming their land.
The official reason was to bring them into modern society and provide them with services like schools and medical care as well as to bring them into the modern world. In point of fact, very few of these services have been provided, and the San have been forced to live in depressing encampments in an unfriendly environment.
The San is an outgoing, creative, and pacific people who have never created any weapons of war and have coexisted peacefully with their natural environment for at least 20,000 years. They are known for their friendliness and creativity. San communities have the potential to become self-sufficient if they are allowed to return to their native territories and are properly reintegrated into the game reserves of southern Africa.
The tenacity of the San people enabled them to endure the shifting fortunes of their society as well as the severe circumstances of the Kalahari Desert, which is where the majority of San people may be found today. Today, the small group that is still around has implemented a variety of plans to ensure their continued political, economic, and social existence.
The San continue to practice many of their traditional rituals, but they have adapted some of them to accommodate modern life. The westernized myths regarding the San have been responsible for a significant amount of harm. They portray the San as naive and carefree individuals who have never faced adversity in their lives. This is the furthest thing from the truth that it is possible to get.
It is possible that the San will cease to exist as a distinct people in the near future due to extinction and/or absorption. Sadly, it’s possible that national museums will be the only places where they can be seen soon. It’s possible that their customs, beliefs, and culture will soon be relegated to the pages of historical journals.