African San Bushmen people – The world’s most ancient race


The San ‘Bushmen’ also referred to as Khwe, Sho, and Basarwa are one of the earliest inhabitants of southern Africa, (and are part of the Khoisan group), where they have existed for at least 20,000 years. They are hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa. Genetic proof also suggests the San Bushmen are one of the oldest races in the world. Their home is in the vast expanse of the Kalahari desert.

San Bushmen, the world`s oldest people

The Bushmen are the remnants of Africa’s oldest cultural group, genetically the closest surviving people to the original Homo sapiens “core” from which the Negroid people of Africa emerged. Bushmen are small in stature generally with light yellowish skin, which wrinkles very early in life.

Bushmen traditionally lived in Southern Africa in the following countries, although virtually none live purely by hunting and gathering today: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola, with loosely related groups in Tanzania.

Recorded history also placed them in Lesotho and Mozambique. Rock art and archaeological evidence can place them as far north as Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, with the evidence of legend & racial type suggesting some traces remain.

Bushmen is an Anglicization of boesman, the Dutch and Afrikaner name for them; saan (plural) or saa (singular) is the Nama word for “bush dweller(s),” and the Nama name is now generally favored by anthropologists. Each of these terms has a problematic history, as they have been used by outsiders to refer to them, often with pejorative connotations. The individual groups identify by names such as Ju/’hoansi and Kung (the punctuation characters representing different click consonants), and most call themselves by the pejorative “Bushmen” when referring to themselves collectively.

San kids with facial painting

The term San was historically applied by their ethnic relatives and historic rivals, the Khoikhoi. This term means “outsider” in the Nama language and was derogatory because it distinguished the Bushmen from what the Khoikhoi called themselves, namely the “First People”.

Western anthropologists adopted San extensively in the 1970s, where it remains preferred in academic circles. The term Bushmen is widely used, but opinions vary on whether it is appropriate because it is sometimes viewed as pejorative.

The Bushmen Tribe of Tsumkwe

The San are said to be descendants of Early Stone Age ancestors. They are nomadic groups 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.

According to Dr Ben Smith, genetic evidence suggests they are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world, going back to perhaps 60,000 years. They have genetic traces that no one else in the world has, that put them at the root of the human tree – we are related to them, but they are not as closely related to us. They were in South Africa thousands of years before, the iron age Bantu people arrived with their superior technology.

San old man

The San have a rich oral history and have passed stories down from generation to generation. The oldest rock paintings they created are in Namibia and have been radiocarbon-dated to be 26 000 years old. The San rock art gives us clues about their social and belief systems.

One of the most significant pieces of Rock art found in South Africa was found on Linton Farm in the Eastern Cape. The panel was removed from the farm in 1917 and taken to the South African Museum in Cape Town. It is known as the Linton panel, and an image from this panel was used in the new South African Coat of Arms.

Eighty-three years in museum care, protected from the elements, has made the Linton panel one of the best-preserved of all pieces of South African rock art. In 1995, the panel featured as one of the premier attractions in the international exhibition, “Africa: the Art of a Continent”.

The figure embodies the spirit of the African Renaissance. When European nations began their Renaissance, they turned to the classical age of Greece and Rome when art and architecture had reached its zenith. San rock art is one of the great archaeological wonders of the world and is a mirror that reflects the glories of the African past.

San languages, characterized by implosive consonants or ‘clicks’, belonged to a totally different language family from those of the Bantu speakers. Broadly speaking, they are two different and identifiable languages, namely the Khoikhoi and San. Many dialects have evolved from these, including /Xam, N?¡, !Xu, Khwe and Khomani. Nà má, previously called Hottentot, is the most populous and widespread of the Khoikhoi and San languages.

The San bushmen major language groups include !Kung, Khomani, Vasekela, Mbarakwena, /Auni, Auen, /Gwi, //Ganaa, Kua, /Tannekwe, /Geinin, /Xoma, //Obanen Ganin, /Xam-ka!ke and !Xo.

Very little is known about the different dialects of South Africa’s San people, as most of these beautiful, ancient languages were never recorded. Fortunately, the /Xam dialect, which is spoken by the San, was recorded almost in its entirety, thanks to the work of a German linguist, Dr WHI Bleek.

Economy and Socio-Political Structure

Bushmen were hunter/gatherers, with traditionally about 70/80% of their diet consisting of plant food, including berries, nuts, roots and melons gathered primarily by the women. The remaining 20/30% was meat (mostly antelopes), hunted by the men using poisoned arrows and spears on hunts that could last several days. They made their own temporary homes from wood that they gathered.

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Their hunting & gathering economy and social structure had remained virtually unchanged for tens of thousands of years until very recently, a socio-economic culture that has sustained mankind universally during their evolution until the advent of agriculture. The Bushmen did not farm or keep livestock, having no concept of the ownership of land or animal.

Birth, Death, Marriage and initiation

Amongst the Bushman or San, birth is not generally a big issue. They don’t really prepare and or go to a hospital-like modern man. It is claimed that a Bushman women who is about to give birth will simply go behind a bush and “squeeze out” the baby.

There is also some claims that they prepare a medicine from devils claw (Harpagophytum spp.), have the baby, and is back in her daily routine within a hour. In reality she is likely to take her mom or an elder aunt along, for comfort and help. The book “Shadow Bird” by Willemien le Roux, describes a Bushman birth with complications, and the old woman that was called to help, so it doesn’t always go as easy as it is supposed to.

Among most Bushmen, a wedding is a private event between the Bridegroom and the Bride. Only in exceptional cases may a guest be invited, but there is no celebration or other ritual as we understand it, only a private “ceremony” or agreement between the two people involved.

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.

The San Religion

Most Kalahari Bushmen believe in a “Greater” and a “Lesser” Supreme being or God. There are other supernatural beings as well, and the spirits of the dead. The “God” or supreme being first created himself, then the land and its food, the water and air. He is generally a good power, that protects and wards of disease and teaches people skills. However, when he is angered, he can send bad fortune. The greater god, depending on his manifestation, is called different names by the same people at different times, and also have different names among the different language groups.

The lesser god is regarded as bad or/and evil, a black magician, a destroyer rather than builder, and a bearer of bad luck and disease. Just like the “supreme being” he is called by various names. They believe bad luck and disease is caused by the spirits of the dead because they want to bring the living to the same place they are. Similar to the black people in South Africa, the Bushman has a strong belief that the ancestral spirits play an important role in the fate of the living, but they don’t use the same rituals to appease them.

Cagn/Kaggen is the name the Bushmen gave their god; the first sociologists translated this as “Mantis”, maybe wrongly. This god being nothing else than the unseen presence of nature and everything that surrounded them. They also prayed to the moon and the stars but they could never explain exactly why they did this. Cagn/Kaggen was seen as human-like and also had magical powers and charms.

San Rock Art

The Sans rock art is one of the greatest in the world. The San/bushmen paintings are one of Southern Africa’s greatest cultural treasures. Subjects of the bushmen/san paintings range from animals (mainly eland) to humans, therianthropes to ox-wagons and mounted men with rifles.

San 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

In terms of archaeology we have a seamless stone tool tradition, and a seamless art tradition, going back 27,000 years with the ‘Apollo 11’ stones – indeed, the San have longest continuing art tradition in the world.

The general features of southern African San art are explained in terms of concepts that pervade the cognitive systems of San people from all areas.

Amongst all San groups, the most important ritual is the Great Dance. In this dance, through trance, the San says that they harness a kind of spiritual power that is like electricity. In a Bushmen society, shamanism is practiced at a trance dance. The visions that are seen by the shamans in a trance, is where they get their inspiration to paint.


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