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Updated on August 21, 2010

Bushmen, nomadic, hunting and gathering people of South Africa. The aboriginal people of South Africa, they were once the only inhabitants of that vast district, but, driven westwards by later arrivals, they are now found mainly in the barren regions extending from the inner ranges of the mountains of Cape Province, through the Kalahari Desert, and, from there, to the area around the Orambo River, north of Damaraland.

Their language, which is close to that of the hottentot, is largely monosyllabic and extremely difficult. Its chief peculiarity is the use of'clicks' as certain consonants. The Bushmen show climatic adaptations; they are of very small stature, with a long and low skull, and large prominent cheekbones. They have a dusky yellow complexion. Traditionally, their clothing consists of a triangular piece of animal skin, which is passed between the legs and tied round the waist. The women wear long skin wraps. The Bushmen live in low huts made of reed mats, or holes in the earth. The ostrich eggshell is used for carrying water. The diet of the Bushmen of Botswana has been well studied. Vegetable foods make up 60-80 per cent of their diet, animal foods the remainder. Despite the great variety of food species that could be hunted, the Bushmen concentrate only on a small number.

Social organisation is simple. Each band, consisting of a few families, lives independently in a large territory within which it alone has hunting rights.

Bushmen Language

The Bushmen language belongs to the Khoisan, or Click, language family, which is unrelated to any others. The Khoisan languages make extensive use of sounds, the so-called clicks (implosive or suction stops), which are rarely found in other languages. Some subgroups of the Khoisan languages have four varieties of clicks, other five. Like other African languages, they also employ tones as a means of distinguishing between sounds and between meanings. See also click languages.

Photo by ChanMuk
Photo by ChanMuk

Bushmen Way of Life

Much of Bushmen culture is specifically designed to adapt to the harsh conditions of life in their semidesert environment. The lack of a permanent water supply is the most severe handicap the Bushmen must face. Water must frequently be carried in ostrich eggshell containers for 20 miles (32 km) or more. On the other hand, the semidesert conditions have proved advantageous for hunting both big and small game.

In this environment the various separate subdivisions of the Bushmen survive best in small groups or bands. Each band consists of a few families led by a headman and usually numbers between 25 and 60 people. The IKung ("!" symbolizes one of the click sounds) subdivision, for example, has about 1,000 people living in 27 independent bands plus 9 other groups that have entered the employ of neighboring African societies. Each of the nomadic groups continually shifts its camp in the almost never-ending search for food. Material goods, therefore, tend to be of simple design and few in number. Bushmen housing is usually in the form of caves, rock shelters, or semicircular wood and reed windbreaks, quickly constructed and easily abandoned. Their tools, such as the digging stick, weapons, such as the bow and poison-tipped arrow, clothing, ornaments, musical instruments, and other forms of art are also simply adapted to a life of movement in an area of limited resources.

Each dwelling in an encampment is typically occupied by a family consisting or husband, wife, and children, who are joined with the other families by strong ties of kinship and marriage. Together the members of a band exploit the food and water resources of a territory they regard as their own, however vaguely defined its boundaries may be. The property rights of other bands are scrupulously respected, although pursuit of big game into neighboring territories is permitted, and water and food may 'be shared between bands in a crisis.

Bushmen Religion

Bushmen religion is also spare in is beliefs and rituals, in keeping with the harsh limits imposed by the environment and with the need to devote great energy to survival in the present life. A greater god, predominantly good in nature, and a lesser god, predominantly, though not solely, evil, and other spirits are thought to be responsible for the fortunes of the band and its members. Medicine men have the power to cure disease and avert misfortune.

Bushmen Social Structure

Band activities are supervised by a headman, usually an older man skilled in hunting and with great knowledge of the territory. His principal duty is to plan the band's migrations so as to preserve and distribute the resources over the seasons of the year. When the band moves, the headman walks at the head of the line, chooses the new campsite, and has first choice of the place for his own hut and fire. But he carries his own possessions, shares hunger and thirst equally with the other members of the band, and has no other special privileges. Although his eldest son normally inherits his position, the people have the right to turn to another more respected person in the group for leadership.

Thus Bushman politics may be regarded as a kind of simple democracy in which there are no social classes, no special benefits from property ownership, and nearly equal opportunities for leadership. This sense of equality is also found in the lack of desire to accumulate material possessions as marks of high prestige. The rigors of the nomadic life make simplicity more valuable than possessions.


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