Genetic evidence suggests that the San People in Africa are one of the oldest peoples in the world. Their home is in the vast expanse of the Kalahari desert.
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.
Recorded history also placed them in Lesotho and Mozambique.
San People in Africa: Rock Arts
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.
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.
History of the San People in Africa
The San People in Africa are said to be descendants of Early Stone Age ancestors. They are nomadic groups living in temporary shelters, caves, or under rocky overhangs.
The arrival of the first European settlers in 1652 in Southern Africa sparked clashes as they sought new territory they exterminated the Sans whom they deemed to be inferior to 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, which 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.
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.
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.
Language of the San People in Africa
San languages, characterized 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.
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.
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.
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.
Knowledge of Plants
About 400-500 local plants and their uses were known to bushmen/San People in Africa, along with the places where they grew – not only providing balanced nutrition, but also moisture from roots even in times of drought.
Plants were used in ways similar to western phytomedicine to treat wounds and heal illnesses; other plants were rather part of healing ceremonies in which a healer would burn plants to make rain, trance to heal an ailment, or perform a charm to bring fertility.
The range of ailments treated included wounds including snake bites, colds, stomach aches, toothache or headache, or diarrhea but also infections like malaria, tuberculosis, or syphilis.
One bushman plant, Hoodia Gordonii, even made the worldwide news since it was patented by a pharma company as diet support due to its traditional bushman usage to suppress appetite and hunger – a law case against “bio piracy” ensued, with the parties settling to royalties being paid to bushmen organisations.
The bushmen’s diet and relaxed lifestyle have prevented most of the stress-related diseases of the western world.
Bushmen health, in general, is not good though: 50% of children die before the age of 15; 20% die within their first year (mostly of gastrointestinal infections).
Average life expectancy is about 45-50 years; respiratory infections and malaria are the major reasons for death in adults. Only 10% become older than 60 years.
Birth, Death, Marriage and initiation
Amongst the Bushman or San, birth is not generally a big issue. They don’t really prepare and or go to a hospital like modern man.
It is claimed that a Bushman women who is about to give birth will simply go behind a bush and “squeeze out” the baby.
There is also some claims that they prepare a medicine from devils claw (Harpagophytum spp.), have the baby, and is back in her daily routine within a hour.
In reality she is likely to take her mom or an elder aunt along, for comfort and help.
The book “Shadow Bird” by Willemien le Roux, describes a Bushman birth with complications, and the old woman that was called to help, so it doesn’t always go as easy as it is supposed to.
After the, birth a Bushman child will receive much love and attention from his parents and other adults and even older children.
Their love of children, both their own and that of other people, is one of the most noticeable things about the Bushman
Realities Bushmen face
If a child is born under very severe drought conditions, when the fertility of the Bushman women are in any case low, perhaps to prevent such an occurrence.
The mother will quietly relieve the just-born baby of severe and certain future suffering by ending its life.
This is most likely to happen in lean years if she is still suckling another child and will obviously not be able to feed both of the children
This is acceptable behaviour, and born out of necessity and not malice or any other consideration.
It stems from the simple realiy of live in a harsh climate, and the realization that the life of the child that a lot has already been invested in, and that might be put at risk by tender feelings for a new-born that are in any case likely to die soon, are not likely to have a good outcome.
Death is a very natural thing to the Bushmen as shown by the following lines from a Bushman song, quoted by Coral Fourie in her book “Living Legends of a dying culture”.
“The day we die a soft breeze will wipe out our footprints in the sand. When the wind dies down, who will tell the timelessness that once we walked this way in the dawn of time?”
If some-ones dies at a specific camp, the clan will move away and never camp at that spot again. Bushmen will never knowingly cross the place where some-one has been buried.
If they have to pass near such a place, they will throw a pebble on the grave and mutter under their breath, to the spirits to ensure good luck.
They never step on a grave and believe that the spirit remains active on that spot above ground, and they don’t want to offend it.
Among San People in Africa, a wedding is a private event between the Bridegroom and the Bride.
Only in exceptional cases may a guest be invited, but there is no celebration or other ritual as we understand it, only a private “ceremony” or agreement between the two people involved.
The Bushmen don’t have initiation ceremonies. There is some dancing and cleansing ceremony after a maiden has shed her first menstrual blood.
Boys are not considered men until they have killed their first large and dangerous animal. Thereafter they are are treated as full members of the clan or tribe.
Religion of the San People in Africa
Most Kalahari Bushmen believe in a “Greater” and a “Lesser” Supreme being or God.
There are other supernatural beings as well, and the spirits of the dead.
The “God” or supreme being first created himself, then the land and its food, the water and air.
He is generally a good power, that protects and wards of disease and teaches people skills. However, when he is angered, he can send bad fortune.
The greater god, depending on his manifestation, is called different names by the same people at different times, and also have different names among the different language groups.
The lesser god is regarded as bad or/and evil, a black magician, a destroyer rather than builder, and a bearer of bad luck and disease.
Just like the “supreme being” he is called by various names
. They believe bad luck and disease is caused by the spirits of the dead, because they want to bring the living to the same place they are.
Similar to the black people in South Africa, the San People in Africa have a strong believe that the ancestral spirits play an important role in the fate of the living, but they don’t use the same rituals to appease them.
Cagn/Kaggen is the name the Bushmen gave their god; the first sociologists translated this as “Mantis”, maybe wrongly.
This god being nothing else than the unseen presence of nature and everything that surrounded them.
They also prayed to the moon and the stars but they could never explain exactly why they did this. Cagn/Kaggen was seen as human like and also had magical powers and charms.
The Bushmen’s beliefs go beyond that. The eland is their most spiritual animal and appears in four rituals: boys’ first kill, girls’ puberty, marriage and 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.
He becomes an adult when he kills his first large antelope, preferably an eland.
The eland is skinned and the fat from the elands’ throat and collar bone is made into a broth. This broth has great potency.
San People in Africa: Rituals for Girls
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 behavior 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 People in Africa believe that the eland was /Kaggen’s favourite animal.
The spirits are only vaguely identified and are thought to bring sickness and death.
‘Medicine People’ or shamans protect everyone from these spirits and sickness.
A shaman is someone who enters a trance in order to heal people, protect them from evil spirits and sickness, foretell the future, control the weather, ensure good hunting and generally try to look after the well being of their group.
Studies have shown that the Bushmen have many strategies for dealing with ill health.
The women are experts at harvesting and preparing medicinal plants for the treatment of a wide range of ailments.
Blood letting and scarification may also serve as a medicinal function.
The best-known Bushmen medical practice is the healing dance. This is when the healers or shamans enter a trance by way of rhythmic clapping and stamping of the dancers feet.
A shaman or medicine person is someone who enters a trance in order to heal people, foretell the future, control the weather, ensure good hunting and so forth.
The Bushmen have many shamans. They are ordinary people who perform everyday tasks and are not a privileged class.
The shamans sometimes exercise their supernatural powers in the dream world, but principally it’s practiced at a trance dance.
At a trance dance the women sit around a central fire and clap the rhythm of songs. The men will dance around the women.
With the sounds of the dancing rattles and thudding steps combined with the women’s songs they activate a supernatural potency that resides in the songs and in the shaman themselves. When the potency ‘boils’ and rises up the shamans’ spine, they enter a trance.
The shamans rely on hyperventilation, intense concentration and highly rhythmic dancing to alter their state consciousness.
Inexperienced shaman can fall to the ground unconscious if they can’t control their level of concentration.
When entering a trance, shamans often bleed from their nose and experience excruciating physical pain. The shamans’ arms stretch behind them as the transformation into the spirit world takes place.
During the trance the shamans perform their tasks, the most important is to cure people of any ailments.
They lay their trembling hands on these people and draw sickness from them into their own bodies.
Then, with a high-pitched shriek, they expel the sickness through a ‘hole’ in the nape of the neck, the n//au spot. The sickness thus returns to its source, which is thought to be unidentified wicked shamans.
The next day, fully recovered, the shaman will tell people of his experiences with the spiritual world.
It is from these experiences that the Bushmen painted rock art and more recently on canvas.
Today about half of the men and a third of the women in the Kalahari are said to be shamans.
Most young men strive to become shamans, not for personal gain, but to serve their community in that capacity. In their late teens they will ask an experienced shaman to teach them.
The apprenticeship may last some years, during which the novice will dance with the older man, absorbing his potency.
San People in Africa: San Trance Dance
A trance dance occurs not only for the healing of the sick but also serves as a social and sacred function.
A fire is lit where a group, mostly women sit in a circle around it. The dancers, mostly men, will start dancing in a circle around these women. They will have rattles on their legs made from dried seed pods.
The group sitting around the fire will sing, clap and tend to the fire while the dancers are trying to enter a trance.
The first few hours of a trance dance are relaxed and sociable.
Then, when the first person shows signs of entering a trance, the clapping and singing gets more intense.
This could be when they start to sweat profusely, begin to breath heavily and have glossy stares.
Traditional healing dance – not only curing illness, but also a means of relieving any existing social tensions.
The dancers will soon begin to enter a trance. From here they will be able to start healing the people. A normal dance will last about 6 hours but occasionally can go for the whole day.