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The Khoisan People of Southern Africa (Part Two) - The San People

Updated on March 9, 2016

The San People

Having discussed The Khoikhoi People in Part One of this article we will now take a look at the San People who were hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa. They were called Bushmen by early settlers in the 1600’s although this became a derogatory term because it alluded to their alleged low status as people who did not own livestock. It is still used today - there are differences of opinion as to how acceptable a name it is.

Various other names such as Sho, Khwe, Kung and Baswara were also used to refer to the San People. I use the term San, San People or Bushmen to refer to them in this article.

They lived in Southern Africa for at least 20 000 years before other African people migrated there and before colonists arrived. As mentioned in Part One of this topic the Khoikhoi People introduced the keeping of sheep and cattle to the San People and the two groups merged to form one, known as the Khoisan.

Currently there are approximately 100 000 San People living in the Kalahari Desert as well as the North Western area of South Africa. The Kalahari Desert is a semi-arid area which encompasses much of Botswana, parts of Namibia, the Karoo and parts of South Africa.

Southern Africa

Culture and Lifestyle

The San were short in stature (1.5 metres on average) and had a yellowish tinge to their skin. They had a noticeably wrinkled skin, probably from the hours spent outdoors in the sun. The social structure of their society was a loosely based one. Discussions on various matters by the group led to agreements and decisions being taken. Leaders were only appointed for certain roles that needed to be filled but mostly they did not have leaders.

They lived in family groups of 12 to 30 people and originally did not keep animals or grow crops. Being hunter-gatherers they were nomadic, moving according to where foodstuffs and game could be obtained, but within limited boundaries.

The women would often go out in groups for a few days a week to gather foodstuffs as well as plants that were used medicinally. Some were applied to wounds while others were used as medicines or in healing ceremonies. During times of drought moisture was obtained from roots dug up from the ground.

They carried a sling bag made of animal skin, a kaross or cloak, and a digging stick. The san men wore a covering around their waist but often did not wear anything on their upper body. A large portion of their diet was obtained from plants such as roots, nuts, leaves, bulbs, berries and melons. They sought out eggs and wild honey too - their diet comprised of anything that was available. The men went out to hunt animals, the antelope (including duiker and steenbok) being the most common animal they caught. They would also hunt zebra, giraffe, wild hare and snakes. They used bows with arrows with poisoned tips as well as spears for hunting.

Bushman With Bow & Arrow


The San were known to be accomplished trackers and hunts would sometimes continue for a number of days as they pursued their prey relentlessly. This especially occurred when the animal had been shot with an arrow or thrown with a spear and it took some time for it to die from the poison. The meat was enjoyed after being cooked over a fire. Other means of capturing animals was accomplished using pitfalls and traps where animals would fall into a pit or be snared.

Being on the move a lot the San made temporary shelters from wood and branches, camping in open areas in groups, or they sheltered in caves or under overhanging rocks. The ones who lived at the coast gathered seafood such as mussels and perlemoen as well as catching fish and seals. Wood and bone were used as hooks for fishing and other tools were made from stones. Another method of fishing they practised was that of tidal traps, which comprised of walls made from stones stacked on one another.

Leisure time was important to the San as they needed to converse, play music and dance. Of significance was the Great Medicine or Healing Dance where the women clapped their hands and sang, sitting around the fire while the men danced around the women, first in one direction, then in the opposite one. As the dance progressed they went into a kind of trance and asked for healing for the souls of the sick. Another dance of note was the Rain Dance. The San used ostrich eggshells to make beads as well the whole shells for storing liquids. They did not however make any pottery.

Approximately 2000 years ago some groups of San People in the Northern Areas (now known as Botswana) of Southern Africa started to keep livestock. This unfortunately often led to conflict with the Khoikhoi People. Many migrated away from this area to more arid or mountainous areas while others integrated with the Khoikhoi which resulted in the emergence of the Khoisan People.

San (Kung) Women


Rock Art

There are many paintings in caves in Southern Africa that were done by the San People which illustrate their way of life and their beliefs. The colour red was used a lot as well as brown, white, orange, yellow and black to a lesser degree. Animals such as elephants and rhinoceros, but most notably antelopes, are often found in their art as well their dance rituals. There are also depictions of half-animal, half-human beings in their paintings. Rock Art in Southern Africa has been dated as old as 28 000 years.

San Rock Art



The San spoke a number of different languages which all have ‘click sounds’ (implosive consonants) in them, which were not found elsewhere in Africa. These sounds were represented in writing in the form of symbols. Families within one group would speak the same language but a neighbouring group would often speak a different language, although mostly there was a reasonable amount of understanding and similarity between them.

Some Khoisan words are used today by South Africans for local names and terms. An example is the word ‘Karoo’ a name for a semi-arid area in the country.

The San/Bushmen Today

Marriage, Birth & Death

The majority of Bushman weddings today are an event that takes place between the bridegroom and the bride only. A guest is only invited under exceptional circumstances and there is an agreement or private ceremony between the couple getting married.

The woman who gives birth is helped by her mother or an aunt; complications sometimes occur. The newborn child receives much attention and care from the parents and other adults as well as older children. This great love and attention shown towards children is an outstanding characteristic of Bushmen People.

Death is seen as a natural occurrence in the lives of Bushmen although they make a point of moving away from a camp where someone has died and do not step on the grave of a dead person.

Religion (Folklore & Beliefs)

The majority of the Kalahari Bushmen believe in a ‘Greater’ and a ‘Lesser’ Supreme Being or God. They believe there are other beings in the supernatural world as well as the spirits of those who have died. They believe that the Greater God created himself first, then the land with its food as well as the air and water.

The Lesser God is seen as being evil, one who brings disease and bad fortune. They also believe that the spirits of the ancestors play a significant part in the fate of those still alive.

The Bushmen regard the Mantis as a superbeing or a ‘Dream Bushman’, one that is human. He is called /Kaggen and can manifest himself in many forms, such as that of an eland, a snake or a vulture. Many of the rock paintings left behind by the San People are those of a human with the head of a Mantis (The Praying Mantis).


Aspects of San People’s Lives Today

Being integrated to some extent into other societies has had some detrimental effects on the Bushmen such as alcoholism, poverty and illness. In some cases there has been a decline in the community and family structure leading to a sense of despondency. Many of them live in reserves today and keep sheep and goats or grow crops; these places are not always suitable for hunting and gathering, while others work on farms. In Namibia Bushmen are allowed to hunt within certain boundaries on condition that they use traditional methods. They are not permitted to use vehicles, firearms, horses or dogs for hunting.

In general their health is not good, children often die young and the average life expectancy is 45 to 50 years. Major causes of early adult deaths are malaria and respiratory infections.

Having been driven off and away from their original habitation in the past, there are measures being taken to restore the San/Bushmen to their lands and give them the dignity they deserve. They are a delightful people who like to smile and laugh a lot.

Paintings of Giraffe


leisure Time



"South African History Online." ""

"Bradshaw Foundation." ""

"South Africa" ""

"Siyabona Africa." ""

"Rebirth Africa." ""

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© 2015 David Edward Lynch


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    • DaveOnline profile imageAUTHOR

      David Edward Lynch 

      2 years ago from Port Elizabeth, South Africa

      Thanks for your comments Martie, the research was extensive but well worth it.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Well-researched and very interesting, thank you, DaveOnline :)

    • DaveOnline profile imageAUTHOR

      David Edward Lynch 

      3 years ago from Port Elizabeth, South Africa

      Thanks so much. I have seen the movie you mention, it is a comedy and there is a sequel. It's unfortunate that there aren't many Bushmen around any more.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Brilliant hub. I have seen the Bushmen depicted in movies, particularly The Gods must be Crazy, but knew little about their culture.


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