San people

"Bushmen" redirects here. For other uses, see Bushman.
San people

San children, Namibia.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Botswana (55,000), Namibia (27,000), South Africa (10,000), Angola (<5,000), Zimbabwe (1,200)
all languages of the Khoe, Kx'a, and Tuu language families
San religion
Related ethnic groups
Khoikhoi, Xhosa, Basters, Griqua

The San people (or Saan), also known as Bushmen or Basarwa, are members of various indigenous hunter-gatherer people of Southern Africa, whose territories span Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho[1] and South Africa. There is a significant linguistic difference between the northern people living between the Okavango River in Botswana and Etosha National Park in northwestern Namibia, extending up into southern Angola; the central people of most of Namibia and Botswana, extending into Zambia and Zimbabwe; and the southern people in the central Kalahari towards the Molopo River, who are the last remnant of the previously extensive indigenous San of South Africa.[2][3]

The ancestors of the hunter-gatherer San people are considered to have been the first inhabitants of what is now Botswana and South Africa. The historical presence of the San in Botswana is particularly evident in northern Botswana's Tsodilo Hills region. In this area, stone tools and rock art paintings date back thousands of years. The San were traditionally semi-nomadic, moving seasonally within certain defined areas based on the availability of resources such as water, game animals, and edible plants. As of 2010, the San population in Botswana numbers about 50,000 to 60,000.[4]:5

From the 1950s through the 1990s, the San switched to farming because of government-mandated modernisation programs. Despite the lifestyle changes, they have provided a wealth of information in anthropology and genetics. One broad study of African genetic diversity completed in 2009 found that the San were among the five populations with the highest measured levels of genetic diversity among the 121 distinct African populations sampled.[5][6][7] The San are one of 14 known extant "ancestral population clusters". That is, "groups of populations with common genetic ancestry, who share ethnicity and similarities in both their culture and the properties of their languages".[6]

Despite some positive aspects of government development programs reported by members of the San and Bakgalagadi communities in Botswana, many have spoken of a consistent sense of exclusion from government decision-making processes, and many San and Bakgalagadi have alleged experiencing ethnic discrimination on the part of the government.[4]:89 The United States Department of State described ongoing discrimination against San, or Basarwa, people in Botswana in 2013 as a "principal human rights concern".[8]:1

Ethnic nomenclature

The indigenous hunter-gatherer people of southern Africa prefer to be identified by the names of their individual nations, for example the:

Various terms—including San, Bushmen and Basarwa—have been used to refer to them collectively. Each of these terms has a problematic history, as they have been used by others to refer to them, often with pejorative connotations.[13][15] In the 1970s, many Western anthropologists adopted the term San (or Saan) to refer to the people collectively, although some later switched back to the term Bushmen.[2][16] Historically San was a derogatory term meaning "foragers" (saa "picking up from the ground" + plural -n in the Haiǁom dialect), applied to them by pastoralist Khoikhoi rivals.[17] The term became associated with people without cattle or people who stole cattle, and is still an ethnic slur in the central Kalahari.[11][18][19] The term Bushmen is still widely used by others and to self-identify;[11][13][15][19] however, opinions vary on whether it is appropriate as it is sometimes viewed as pejorative.[12][18][20][21]

The consensus of delegates representing the people at various meetings held in the 1990s was in favour of using the term San to refer to them collectively, as it was considered the most neutral term.[22][23] These meetings included the Common Access to Development Conference organised by the Government of Botswana held in Gaborone in 1993,[13][15] the 1996 inaugural Annual General Meeting of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) held in Namibia,[24] and a 1997 conference in Cape Town on "Khoisan Identities and Cultural Heritage" organised by the University of the Western Cape.[20][25] According to anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee, the term San was in general use by the people themselves by the late 1990s.[26] Representatives of the people from WIMSA and the South African San Institute attending the 2003 Africa Human Genome Initiative conference held in Stellenbosch reiterated that they prefer to be described by either their individual group names or the collective term San.[27]

There are regional variations in acceptable nomenclature:


Further information: San healing practices and San rock art
Drinking water from the bi bulb plant
Starting a fire by hand
Preparing poison arrows
San man

The San kinship system reflects their interdependence as traditionally small mobile foraging bands. San kinship is comparable to Eskimo kinship, with the same set of terms as in European cultures, but also uses a name rule and an age rule. The age rule resolves any confusion arising from kinship terms, as the older of two people always decides what to call the younger. Relatively few names circulate (approximately 35 names per sex), and each child is named after a grandparent or another relative.

Children have no social duties besides playing, and leisure is very important to San of all ages. Large amounts of time are spent in conversation, joking, music, and sacred dances. Women have a high status in San society, are greatly respected, and may be leaders of their own family groups. They make important family and group decisions and claim ownership of water holes and foraging areas. Women are mainly involved in the gathering of food, but may also take part in hunting.

The most important thing in San life is water. Droughts may last many months and waterholes may dry up. When this happens, they use sip wells. To get water this way, a San scrapes a deep hole where the sand is damp. Into this hole is inserted a long hollow grass stem. An empty ostrich egg is used to collect the water. Water is sucked into the straw from the sand, into the mouth, and then travels down another straw into the ostrich egg.

Traditionally, the San were an egalitarian society.[39] Although they had hereditary chiefs, their authority was limited. The San made decisions among themselves by consensus,[40] with women treated as relative equals.[41] San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts regularly rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services.[42]


Villages range in sturdiness from nightly rain shelters in the warm spring (when people move constantly in search of budding greens), to formalised rings, wherein people congregate in the dry season around permanent waterholes. Early spring is the hardest season: a hot dry period following the cool, dry winter. Most plants still are dead or dormant, and supplies of autumn nuts are exhausted. Meat is particularly important in the dry months when wildlife can not range far from the receding waters.

Women gather fruit, berries, tubers, bush onions, and other plant materials for the band's consumption. Ostrich eggs are gathered, and the empty shells are used as water containers. Insects provide perhaps 10% of animal proteins consumed, most often during the dry season.[43] Depending on location, the San consume 18 to 104 species, including grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and termites.[44]

Women's traditional gathering gear is simple and effective: a hide sling, a blanket, a cloak called a kaross to carry foodstuffs, firewood, smaller bags, a digging stick, and perhaps, a smaller version of the kaross to carry a baby.

Men hunt in long, laborious tracking excursions. They kill their game using arrows and spears tipped in diamphotoxin, a slow-acting arrow poison produced by beetle larvae of the genus Diamphidia.[45]

Early history

Wandering hunters (Basarwa Bushmen), North Kalahari desert, c. 1892

A set of tools almost identical to that used by the modern San and dating to 44,000 BCE was discovered at Border Cave in KwaZulu-Natal in 2012.[46]

Historical evidence shows that certain San communities have always lived in the desert regions of the Kalahari; however, eventually nearly all other San communities in southern Africa were forced into this region. The Kalahari San remained in poverty where their richer neighbours denied them rights to the land. Before long, in both Botswana and Namibia, they found their territory drastically reduced.[47]


Various Y chromosome studies show that the San carry some of the most divergent (oldest) human Y-chromosome haplogroups. These haplogroups are specific sub-groups of haplogroups A and B, the two earliest branches on the human Y-chromosome tree.[48][49][50]

Mitochondrial DNA studies also provide evidence that the San carry high frequencies of the earliest haplogroup branches in the human mitochondrial DNA tree. This DNA is inherited only from one's mother. The most divergent (oldest) mitochondrial haplogroup, L0d, has been identified at its highest frequencies in the southern African San groups.[48][51][52][53]

In a study published in March 2011, Brenna Henn and colleagues found that the ǂKhomani San, as well as the Sandawe and Hadza peoples of Tanzania, were the most genetically diverse of any living humans studied. This high degree of genetic diversity hints at the origin of anatomically modern humans.[54][55]

Recent analysis suggests that the San may have been isolated from other original ancestral groups for as much as 100,000 years and later rejoined, re-integrating the human gene pool.[56]

A DNA study of fully sequenced genomes, published in September 2016, showed that the ancestors of today's San hunter-gatherers began to diverge from other human populations in Africa about 200,000 years ago and were fully isolated by 100,000 years ago, well before the first archaeological evidence of modern behaviour in humans. [57]

Ancestral land conflict in Botswana

Much tribal land in Botswana, including land occupied by the San people (or Basarwa), was lost during colonization, and the pattern of loss of land and access to natural resources continued after Botswana's independence.[4]:2 The San have been particularly affected by encroachment by majority tribes and non-indigenous farmers onto traditionally San land. Government policies from the 1970s transferred a significant area of traditionally San land to White settlers and majority agro-pastoralist tribes.[4]:15 Much of the government's policy regarding land tended to favor the dominant Tswana tribe over the minority San and Bakgalagadi peoples.[4]:2 Loss of land is a major contributor to the problems facing Botswana's indigenous people, including especially the San's eviction from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.[4]:2 The government of Botswana decided to relocate all of those living within the reserve to settlements outside it.[4]:16 Harassment of residents, dismantling of infrastructure,[4]:17 and bans on hunting appear to have been used to induce residents to leave.[4]:16 The government has denied that any of the relocation was forced.[58] A legal battle followed.[59] The relocation policy may have been intended to facilitate diamond mining by Gem Diamonds within the reserve.[4]:1718

Hoodia traditional knowledge agreement

Hoodia gordonii, used by the San, was patented by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1998, for its presumed appetite suppressing quality. A licence was granted to Phytopharm, for development of the active ingredient in the Hoodia plant, p57 (glycoside), to be used as a pharmaceutical drug for dieting. Once this patent was brought to the attention of the San, a benefit-sharing agreement was reached between them and the CSIR in 2003. This would award royalties to the San for the benefits of their indigenous knowledge.[60] During the case, the San people were represented and assisted by the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), the South African San Council and the South African San Institute.[33][34]

This benefit-sharing agreement is one of the first to give royalties to the holders of traditional knowledge used for drug sales. The terms of the agreement are contentious, because of their apparent lack of adherence to the Bonn Guidelines on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing, as outlined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).[61] The San have yet to profit from this agreement, as P57 has still not yet been legally developed and marketed.

Representation in mass media

San paintings near Murewa, Zimbabwe
San paintings near Murewa

Early representations

The San of the Kalahari were first brought to the globalized world's attention in the 1950s by South African author Laurens van der Post. In 1955, Van der Post was commissioned by the BBC to go to the Kalahari desert with a film crew in search of the San. The filmed material was turned into a very popular six-part television documentary a year later. Driven by a lifelong fascination with this "vanished tribe", Van der Post published a 1958 book about this expedition, entitled The Lost World of the Kalahari. It was to be his most famous book. In 1961, he published The Heart of the Hunter, a narrative which he admits in the introduction uses two previous works of stories and mythology as "a sort of Stone Age Bible", namely Specimens of Bushman Folklore' (1911), collected by Wilhelm H. I. Bleek and Lucy C. Lloyd, and Dorothea Bleek's Mantis and His Friend. Van der Post's work is largely discredited, as it is the subjective view of a European in the 1950s and 1960s. His opinions branded the San as simple "children of Nature" or even "mystical ecologists".

Documentaries and non-fiction

John Marshall, the son of Harvard anthropologist Lorna Marshall, documented the lives of San in the Nyae Nyae region of Namibia over a more than 50-year period. His early film The Hunters, released in 1957, shows a giraffe hunt. A Kalahari Family (2002) is a five-part, six-hour series documenting 50 years in the lives of the Juǀʼhoansi of Southern Africa, from 1951 to 2000. Marshall was a vocal proponent of the San cause throughout his life.[19] His sister Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote several books and numerous articles about the San, based in part on her experiences living with these people when their culture was still intact. The Harmless People, published in 1959 (revised in 1989), and The Old Way: A Story of the First People, published in 2006, are the two primary works. John Marshall and Adrienne Miesmer documented the lives of the !Kung San people between the 1950s and 1978 in Nǃai, the Story of a ǃKung Woman. This film, the account of a woman who grew up while the San lived as autonomous hunter-gatherers, but who later was forced into a dependent life in the government-created community at Tsumkwe, shows how the lives of the !Kung people, who lived for millennia as hunter gatherers, were forever changed when they were forced onto a reservation too small to support them.[62]

South African film-maker Richard Wicksteed has produced a number of documentaries on San culture, history and present situation; these include In God's Places/Iindawo ZikaThixo (1995) on the San cultural legacy in the southern Drakensberg; Death of a Bushman (2002) on the murder of San tracker Optel Rooi by South African police; The Will To Survive (2009), which covers the history and situation of San communities in southern Africa today; and My Land is My Dignity (2009) on the San's epic land rights struggle in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

Coca-Cola sponsored a documentary on San hunting entitled, The Great Dance: A Hunter's Story (2000), directed by Craig and Damon Foster. This was reveiewed by Lawrence Van Gelder for the New York Times, who said that the film "constitutes an act of preservation and a requiem"[63]

Spencer Wells's 2003 book The Journey of Man—in connection with National Geographic's Genographic Project—discusses a genetic analysis of the San and asserts their genetic markers were the first ones to split from those of the ancestors of the bulk of other Homo sapiens sapiens. The PBS documentary based on the book follows these markers throughout the world, demonstrating that all of humankind can be traced back to the African continent (see Recent African origin of modern humans, the so-called "out of Africa" hypothesis).

The BBC's The Life of Mammals (2003) series includes video footage of an indigenous San of the Kalahari desert undertaking a persistence hunt of a kudu through harsh desert conditions.[64] It provides an illustration of how early man may have pursued and captured prey with minimal weaponry.

The BBC series How Art Made the World (2005) compares San cave paintings from 200 years ago to Paleolithic European paintings that are 14,000 years old.[65] Because of their similarities, the San works may illustrate the reasons for ancient cave paintings. The presenter Nigel Spivey draws largely on the work of Professor David Lewis-Williams, whose PhD was entitled "Believing and Seeing: Symbolic meanings in southern San rock paintings". Lewis-Williams draws parallels with prehistoric art around the world, linking in shamanic ritual and trance states.

Films and music

A 1969 film, Lost in the Desert, features a small boy, stranded in the desert, who encounters a group of wandering San. They help him and then abandon him as a result of a misunderstanding created by the lack of a common language and culture. The film was directed by Jamie Uys, who returned to the San a decade later with The Gods Must Be Crazy, which proved to be an international hit. This comedy portrays a Kalahari San tribe's first encounter with an artifact from the outside world (a Coca-Cola bottle). By the time this movie was made, the ǃKung had recently been forced into sedentary villages, and the San hired as actors were confused by the instructions to act out inaccurate exaggerations of their almost abandoned hunting and gathering life.[66]

"Eh Hee" by Dave Matthews Band was written as an evocation of the music and culture of the San. In a story told to the Radio City audience (an edited version of which appears on the DVD version of Live at Radio City), Matthews recalls hearing the music of the San and, upon asking his guide what the words to their songs were, being told that "there are no words to these songs, because these songs, we've been singing since before people had words". He goes on to describe the song as his "homage to meeting... the most advanced people on the planet".


In Peter Godwin's biography When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, he mentions his time spent with the San for an assignment. His title comes from the San's belief that a solar eclipse occurs when a crocodile eats the sun.


Laurens van der Post's two novels, A Story Like The Wind (1972) and its sequel, A Far Off Place (1974), made into a 1993 film, are about a white boy encountering a wandering San and his wife, and how the San's life and survival skills save the white teenagers' lives in a journey across the desert.

James A. Michener's The Covenant (1980), is a work of historical fiction centered on South Africa. The first section of the book concerns a San tribe's journey set roughly in 13,000 BCE.

In Wilbur Smith's novel The Burning Shore (an installment in the Courtneys of Africa book series), the San people are portrayed through two major characters, O'wa and H'ani; Smith describes the San's struggles, history, and beliefs in great detail.

Tad Williams's epic Otherland series of novels features a South African San named ǃXabbu, whom Williams confesses to be highly fictionalised, and not necessarily an accurate representation. In the novel, Williams invokes aspects of San mythology and culture.

In 2007, David Gilman published The Devil's Breath. One of the main characters, a small San boy named ǃKoga, uses traditional methods to help the character Max Gordon travel across Namibia.

Alexander McCall Smith has written a series of episodic novels set in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. The protagonist of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, a Motswana woman, adopts two San children, sister and brother Motholeli and Puso.

Notable individuals

See also


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