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The San: The Oldest People on Earth

Updated on August 20, 2018
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Mary and her husband work on international projects and have travelled to many places in Spain.

The Oldest Memory of our Ancestors

Paintings in the San Centre
Paintings in the San Centre | Source

The San People or the Bushmen of Africa

Hanging on to the edge of livable land by your finger nails is a hard way to live a life. But the Innu do it, the Bedou manage in a different kind of desert and in the furthest tip of Africa, the San people teach us about life on the fringe.

The gods must have been crazy to park a nation in a desperately dry scrub landscape, but here they are and here they developed culture with art and music and a way of life that would shame the values of "progressive" cultures.

With their click language, their synergies with the world around them and smiles that would break your heart, we have more to learn from the San then than they will ever learn from us. We have much to thank them as they carry the oldest memory of our ancestors.

Drawings of the San People

More San Paintings
More San Paintings | Source

The San -The Oldest People on Earth

The San are maybe the oldest people on earth. Sometimes called the Bushmen or the Kaang, they have lived in and around the Kalahari for about 20,000 years. This area spans South Africa, Botswana, Angola and Namibia. They are distinguished by the clicking sounds (!) in their language.

The ancient San were hunter gatherers. They lived in small groups of 3 or 4 families, easy to support and move as they search for better hunting grounds. Later on, as new migrations of pastoralists people called the Khoi arrived, this new group after failing to pasteur the land, joined the hunter gatherers San and were both later referred to as Khoi San. The colonialists called them Hottentots or bushmen.

This group now called Khoisan still lives in the Kalahari where it is still possible for them to continue their lifestyle. Some have gone on and because their culture is slowly disappearing, they set up this center in South Africa called, !khwa tuu. It is their way of not only sharing their way of life with other people but also to educate the new generation of the old ways of their ancestors.

The paintings depict in vivid colours how the San people live, what they do together as communities. They educate visitors how the ancient people lived, being so much more united with their natural environment.

Paintings of the San

Another San Painting
Another San Painting | Source

The San Cultural and Educational Center

When we went to South Africa, one of the things we set out to do is learn as much as we could of its culture and given that the San were the earliest inhabitants of the place, we wanted to know more about them.

Undeterred by the distance of the center where we could learn more about the San, we drove early one morning from Cape Town to Yzerfontine, 70 kms. northwest of Cape Town to !Khwa ttu, the San Cultural and Educational Center. Set on 850 acres of land, the center is there to preserve the heritage of the San, educate the public on the life of the San and give training to San people on rock art, anthropology, an community tourism.

A San guide brought us around and as the center has recreated the San way of life, we were immediately transported into their world, the way they lived, the food they ate and how they looked at life in general.

The Centre has recreated the old San way of life by planting the food and natural medicines they used, their common habitat and practices, and the animals important to them. The San also expressed in paintings the way looked at their world and these adorn the walls of the Centre.

The tiny "village" of the San - Recreated in !Khwa tuu

Recreated San Village
Recreated San Village | Source

How the San lived

The San lived together but really as a small group in very crude shelters of grass and wood. Some also lived in rock shelters.They followed the trek of the animals they hunted.

There was no hierarchy in the San community. They lived in small huts and just a common place for their weapons. They used bows and arrows that were poisoned and with these and their acute sense of where the animals were, they got their food and clothing. Ostrich eggs, as an example, were used to hold water or any liquid.

They also know of plants that they can depend on for food and medicines.

Our San Guide - Explaining the Way of Life of the San People

How San People Lived
How San People Lived | Source

San descendants

The San descendants try to know as much of their cultural heritage as more of the older folks are passing on. Here, this San young man explained to us how the San in the ancient days built the fire, how they hunted, fed and clothed themselves. As in the past, they tell stories to pass on their knowledge, traditions and beliefs to younger generation.

The Wealth of the Ancient San - Symbols of Prowess

Wealth for the Early San
Wealth for the Early San | Source

The Mystical Symbols of the San - The Eland and the Mantis

Mythical Symbols of the San
Mythical Symbols of the San | Source

Nature is the San's World

Animals and nature play an important role in the San people's lives. They survive on nature, including animals that they trap and hunt, roots, berries and fruits, leaves and bark of plants.

The Eland and the Mantis are two mythical symbols among the early San. The Mantis is the manifestation of the god they worshipped, Kaggen, which is translated into Mantis. Kaggen, of course, has other forms of manifestion like an Eland.

The Eland features in one of the bushmen's rituals: the first kill. A male San will only be considered an adult in the community after he has successfully killed an Eland. Elands are spiral horned antelopes. These two symbols recreate for them life, creation, death, fertility, and birth.

They have rituals they followed with the shaman leading in these ceremonies which included predicting a good hunt, predicting the future, the weather as well as taking care of the well being and health of the community through knowledge of natural healing properties of plants and nature.

Have you heard of the San before?

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The Old Way from the San of the Kalahari - A Story of the Old People

The Old Way: A Story of the First People
The Old Way: A Story of the First People
When only 19 years of age, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, the author of this book was brought by her father, a Raytheon founder, to live with the San in the Kalahari and in this book, she shares with us her knowledge of these people. More compelling than just the knowledge is her actual experience of living with them at such a young age. Learn of the ways and rituals of the San which may have determined our own heritage in a remarkable way. What a privilege it is to hear from someone who is almost one of these Sans. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote from her rare privilege of actual living with the San people.

San Plants for Healing - San knew their plants well

San Healing Plants
San Healing Plants | Source

San Use of Plants

The San used plants for tea, healing and food. They even brewed their own beer. Many of these plants are now recognized for their medical uses.

Wild Rosemary Used by the San - Guide explaining its uses

San's Wild Rosemary
San's Wild Rosemary | Source

Have you visited South Africa? - Let us know

Have you been to South Africa?

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© 2012 Mary Norton

What do you think of the San? - Share with us or just leave us some comments

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    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      22 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you. I appreciate your comment.

    • Erudite Scholar profile image

      Jeff Zod 

      22 months ago from Nairobi

      Hey Mary,

      I really enjoyed reading your insightful hub about the San people. The San people are very interesting. I love the fact that they are artists.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      22 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      You would love their art as well.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 

      22 months ago from Fresno CA

      What a fascinating people and way of life. I would love to see that and meet them first-hand.



    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Tim, you are very generous in your comment. I love that visit. We drove far from Capetown but we were really keen to know more about the San so we just did it and were not disappointed at all.

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Hi, Mary,

      You have a brilliant talent for bringing the reader along with you on your journeys. The pictures are fabulous and the educational material you wrote here gave me insights on a culture and people I knew very little about. Your travels to S. Africa must have been enlightening and intriguing.

      Thanks for a well written and well researched article about the San People.

      Much respect and admiration to a skilled writer and world traveler,


    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 years ago

      You're welcome.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you so much. It's my way of improving my writing.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 years ago

      Yes, you have had many adventures and I am glad you are sharing them.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I was the same, heard the clicking people or maybe it was in the movie, the Gods Must Be Crazy, not sure now. We got interested about this Centre and drove there all the way from Capetown. Glad we did.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 years ago

      This article and the photos are very interesting. I actually heard about the clicking language long before I learned about the people. In Geography there were passing mentions of the Hottentots. Your article gives a good overview of the San people. Thank you for posting.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Yes, it is amazing how they still are in touch with many elements of their culture.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      You have had so many interesting travel experiences Mary. Thanks for sharing some of what you learned about the San people and how they lived so close to nature. Their art is beautiful.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks Ram. The more we explore, the more we see how similar we are.

    • Ram Ramakrishnan profile image

      Ram Ramakrishnan 

      3 years ago

      When the wonder of evolution is understood well, one feels a kinship with all life-forms. It is then only natural to sense a bond with the San people despite the apparent strangeness of their language, way of life, and beliefs. Interesting page.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      3 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Very interesting article. South Africa intrigues me and I'd love to visit someday. Thanks for this well-written tour and story of the old people.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you paper facets. You are very encouraging. Just what I need to keep on writing or learning to write better.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 

      5 years ago from La Verne, CA

      This page about your experience of the Kalahari and its native people is excellent. I even noticed that your writing voice and presentation is far superior to the travel articles I receive from the local newspaper. Travel is back in vogue; but unlike other waves of travel like the Grand Tour middle income earners can take advantage in this time of air travel. Pages like yours really are a plus for someone doing research on their comings excursions.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 

      5 years ago from Australia

      Thank you for sharing this article about such an interesting culture. You are lucky to have witnessed it.

    • jolou profile image


      8 years ago

      This is very interesting information. I like the photos too.

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 

      8 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      What a beautiful lens. The San artwork is really wonderful.


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