Photo by Charles Fred
The term San refers to a diverse group of hunter-gatherers living in Southern Africa who share historical and linguistic connections. The San were also referred to as Bushmen, but this term has since been abandoned as it is considered derogatory. Today, San communities can be found in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola. The San bushmen are also said to be related to the Hadzabe group found in Tanzania. More on Hadzabe click here
The San bushmen people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Southern Africa and in the world. For years the Bushmen a hunter and gatherer ethnic group spread throughout the South of Africa from the Zambezi river to the Cape of Good Hope in search of food, with their few possessions.
Photos by Petr Kosina
The San bushmen have lived in Southern Africa for tens of thousands of years. The San are said to be descendants of Early Stone Age ancestors. They are nomadic group living in temporary shelters, caves or under rocky overhangs. With the arrival of the first Europeans settlers in 1652 in Southern Africa sparked clashes as they sought new territory they exterminated the Sans whom they deemed to be inferior like 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.
SAN BUSHMEN TRIBES
There is no formal leadership structure among the San bushmen community. Decisions are arrived at a consensus and issues are deliberated upon and discussed communally. Certain roles may require leadership from individuals with expertise such as hunting. No single group member holds positions of general influence over the rest of the community. This set up proved to be problematic to white colonialists when they wanted to enter into agreements with the San communities. The San bushmen are therefore free to do and go as they please within the constraints of their customs. If there is a disagreement within a group, the group may split and go their own separate ways with little or no coercion. They have no taxes, no Government, except that imposed upon them by outsiders.
WHICH GROUP DO A SAN BELONG TO?
The San will eat anything available, both animal and vegetable. Their selection of food ranges from antelope, Zebra, porcupine, wild hare, Lion, Giraffe, fish, insects, tortoise, flying ants, snakes (venomous and non-venomous), Hyena, eggs and wild honey. The meat is boiled or roasted on a fire. The San are not wasteful and every part of the animal is used. The hides are tanned for blankets and the bones are cracked for the marrow.
If they are out hunting or traveling, they would dig holes in the sand to find water. They also carry water in an ostrich eggshell.
SAN BUSHMEN HUNTING
The Sans are skillful hunters and can read the tracks in the Kalahari desert like a notebook. Hunting is usually done by men. They use traps or poisoned arrows and bow to catch their prey.
It takes a couple of hours before the prey dies when struck with the poisoned arrows. In cases of large game such a giraffe it can take up to 3 days. The poison used for hunting is made from various materials such as the larvae of a small beetle, poison from plants, such as the euphorbia, and snake venom. A caterpillar called ka or ngwa is also used to make toxic poison hence handled with extreme care so as to avoid fatal accidents.
The poison used for hunting is said to be neuro toxic and does not contaminate the whole animal. The spot where the arrow strikes is cut out and thrown away, whereas the rest of the game is fit for consumption. Hunting is a team effort and every game hunted is shared amongst the tribe members. Whilst the men are hunting the women forage for edible wild vegetables and fruits. Though the men can equally assist the women in gathering wild vegetables and fruits.
SAN BUSHMEN ROCK ART
When Europeans first encountered rock art of the San people, or Bushmen, in southern Africa some 350 years ago, they considered it primitive and crude. They were just “Bushman paintings,” two-dimensional accounts of hunting and fighting and daily life. Twentieth-century scholars had much more respect for the aesthetics of the paintings—often finely detailed and exquisitely colored—but many also viewed them largely as narrative accounts of hunter-gatherer life. A closer look in recent years has yielded another picture altogether. For the San, rock paintings weren’t just representations of life; they were also repositories of it. When shamans painted an eland, they didn’t just pay homage to a sacred animal; they also harnessed its essence. They put paint to rock and opened portals to the spirit world. 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. Scholars believe that the trance dance serves as the foundation for rock art, and clear corollaries between cave images and trance ceremonies appear in the ...cave paintings. These ancient images offer a record into ages past. Source Drakensberg Tourism
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.Source Kalahari Kgalagadi
The San bushmen believe that there is a supreme god and lesser gods. There are other supernatural beings as well, and the spirits of the dead. According the San bushmen of the Kalahari they believe that the supreme god is associated with life and the rising sun, and the lesser god with illness and death. The shamans, have access to the lesser gods who cased illness during the ritual dance trance.
The San bushmen also pay homage to the spirits of the deceased. Most San believed that upon death, the soul went back to the great god’s house in the sky. The dead influenced the lives of the living. For example when a medicine man died, the Sans would be concerned as to whether his spirit may return to haunt and endanger the living.
Birth, death, gender, rain and weather were all believed to have supernatural significance, for example, people acquired good or bad rain-bringing abilities at birth and this ability was reactivated when the person died.
San Bushmen do not have initiation ceremonies as witnessed in other neighboring communities. However, they do have rituals that may be percieved to be similar to initiation rites for women and men.
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 is said will keep the girl beautiful, free from hunger and thirst and peaceful.
Marriage amongst the San Bushmen is a private low key event. Just an agreement between two couples. Guests are said to be invited only in exceptional cases. 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.
The great 'medicine or healing dance' and the rain dance were rituals as well as a social function in which everyone in the San bushman group participated. The women sit around a central fire singing and clap their hands whereas the men wearing rattles on their legs made from dried seed pods dance around the women.
The first few hours of a trance dance are relaxed and sociable. Singing and clapping becomes more intense as the dancing enter into a trance. The men sweat profusely as they begin to breath heavily and have glossy stares. Whilst in a trance the men are transported to the spirit world where they would plead for the souls of the sick and ask for them to be healed. When entering a trance, shamans often bleed from their nose and experience excruciating physical pain. A ritual dance can last from half to full day.
Following the healing dance the shaman narrates their experiences in the spiritual world. It is from these experiences that the San Bushmen painted the rock art and more recently on canvas.
Men in their late teens may serve as an apprentice to an experienced shaman for years. The men who seek to become shamans normally do it not for personal gain but to be able to serve the members within their communities in that capacity
LIFE IN THE 21ST CENTURY
The San Bushmen have been able to survive their changed fortunes and the harsh conditions of the Kalahari Desert in which they are now mostly concentrated. There are organizations that seek to help them address the numerous challenges they currently face such as health problems, land rights, language preservation, environmental challenges, job creation and education.
The Gods Must Be Crazy A Coke bottle dropped from an airplane disrupts the quiet life of a family of a San family living in the deep isolation of the Kalahari desert. Xi, the head of the family, takes the evil thing and embarks on a journey to the end of the world to return it to the gods.
Clips from The God Must Be Crazy 1 San Bushmen Documentary Iindawo Zikathixo (In God's Places)
The Kalahari Bushmen - Botswana
Mike Elliot Bushmen
San By KrugerPark
Art of Africa Specialists in San Bushmen Arts and Crafts
African Bushmen Creation Myth