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.
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.
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 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.
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. NÃ mÃ¡, 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.