San-Speaking Peoples

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San-Speaking Peoples

ETHNONYMS: G I wi, G I I ana, Hai I I om, Kxoe (Makwengo), Nharo (Naro); !Koõ (!Xoõ); !Xu; Zhu I õasi (!Kung)


Identification. The term "San" has replaced "Buchman" as an ethnographic term designating both the contemporary and the precolonial southern African peoples who speak, or spoke, languages containing click consonants and who have been described as hunter-gatherers or foragers. Thus, San-speaking peoples do not constitute an ethnic group in the usual sense. The most widely known are those who call themselves "Zhu I õasi" (!Kung or Juwasi in most ethnographies), although the other peoples mentioned above have also been extensively described; about ten other groups have been well studied by linguists. In Botswana, all these peoples are called collectively "Basarwa," and this term is often seen in recent ethnographic literature.

Location. The Zhu I õasi live in the semiarid savdveld (savanna) of northwestern Botswana (Ngamiland) and in adjacent parts of Namibia. The !Xu, whose anglicized ethnonym is the source of the name "!Kung," live in the better-watered tropical open woodlands of southern Angola. The Axoe live along the Okavango River, in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia; the Hai I I om occupy a large part of north-central Namibia, between the Cunene River and the Etosha Pan. The Nharo live in the limestone karst zone of the Ghansi District of Botswana. The G I wi, G I I ana, and !Koõ live throughout the poorly watered central sand zone of Botswana, extending into Namibia, in conditions most closely approximating true desert. The I I Anikhoe, the so-called Swamp Bushmen, live in the Okavango Delta floodplain; the Deti live along the Botletli River. Several other peoples who are called San in the ethnographic literature speak Khoe languages and live in the hill, mopane -forest, and salt-pan environments of eastern Botswana. These highly diverse geophysical regions share a number of features: seasonal rains, falling mainly as localized thunderstorms during the hot months, October to May; high variation in average annual rainfallaround 45 centimeters in Ngamiland, some 50 percent higher in Angola, and 50 percent lower in central Botswana; summer temperatures that often exceed 37° C; and cool winters, with night temperatures as low as -4° C in Botswana and Namibia.

Demography. In 1980 the most reliable sources estimated that about 30,000 San-speaking peoples lived in Botswana, about 12,000 in Namibia, and about 8,000 in Angolarepresenting about 3 percent of the population of Botswana, 1.2 percent of that of Namibia, and 0.1 percent of Angola's people. The Zhu I õasi, who previously had wide birth spacing and a low birthrate, now have one of the highest recorded birthrates in the world, according to 1980 statistics, with 6.7 live births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. Zhu I õasi infant mortality, at 85 per 1,000 births, is comparatively low by African standards, as is child mortality. Life expectancy at birth was 45 years for Zhu I õasi in the 1960s, but improved nutrition and health care have probably lengthened life spans; survivors to age 5 have good prospects of living into their 70s. There are no comparable statistics for other San speakers, but health-ministry surveys suggest that similar demographic profiles may be found in Botswana.

Linguistic Affiliation. San languages are usually classified as being in the Khoisan Family; there are three sets of these languages, each with its own history. Zhu I oasi, !Xu, and Au I I ei (formerly spoken around Lake Ngami, now with few living speakers) are mutually intelligible and together constitute the Northern Khoisan Group; they are grammatically, syntactically, and lexically distinct from other Khoisan languages. G I wi, G I I ana, Kxoe, Nharo, and I I Anikhoe, plus Deti, Buga, Tshukhoe, Kwa, and several others, form the Khoe Group, formerly Central Khoisan, which is closely related to the Nama that is spoken by Khoi peoples (often called Hottentots in the past); Hai I I om is a dialect of Nama. In general, the geographically adjacent Khoe languages (e.g., G I wi and G I I ana) are very similar and are mutually intelligible, whereas those farther apart (e.g., Nharo and Deti) are structurally alike but become progressively less interintelligible. The principal extant Southern Khoisan languages are !Koõ and Tsassi, spoken across a long, narrow band of the southern Kalahari. All Khoisan languages are predominantly mono- and bisyllabic and tonal, and they contain click consonants (which are conventionally represented by ¦, !, and ¦ ¦although Bantu orthography, which uses c for ¦ and, q for !, and x for ¦ ¦, is preferable in nonlinguistic contexts). The replacement of click by nonclick consonants is common in the Khoe languages of eastern Botswana, where some of these languages are being completely replaced by Setswana.

History and Cultural Refotions

Accumulating archaeological and archival evidence provides the basis for a more comprehensive reconstruction of the later prehistory of southern Africa than was possible as recently as 1970, when it was generally thought that Bantu-speaking peoples arrived only two or three centuries ago, bringing with them grain horticulture and cattle-sheep-goat pastoralism. It is now known that cattle and sheep were widely kept, almost certainly by Khoisan-speaking peoples, beginning about 2,000 years ago; both the Khoe languages and Zhu I õasi contain indigenous vocabularies for stock keeping, indicating that some of these pastoralist-foragers must have been San speakers. About 500 years later, Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists spread into many parts of the region, introducing sorghum, millet, and probably goats, as well as metallurgy; linguistic evidence suggests that speakers of Nguni and Sotho-Tswana Bantu languages obtained cattle from Khoisan peoples. Since that time, mixed economies that combine foraging, herding, and farming in varying proportions have been predominant. Nevertheless, it has not been uncommon for local groups of both Bantu and Khoisan speakers to rely exclusively on foraging when drought, disease, raiding, or political subjugation have made herding and farming impossible; San peoples in this condition have been the subjects of most ethnographic studies. Interregional and transcontinental trade is archaeologically documented from the ninth century, when iron and copper jewelry, glass beads from Asia, and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were widely distributed and reached even into the Kalahari and Ngamiland. The Portuguese Atlantic-coast trade penetrated from the Congo through Angola into Namibia and Botswana in the seventeenth century and was recorded a hundred years later by the first Europeans to enter those areas; these observers noted that many different groups of San speakers engaged with Bantu and Nama speakers in such trade, which followed ancient routes of communication and exchange. European hunter-merchants accelerated this trade, beginning in the 1840s. Throughout the 1880s, until the market collapsed, San speakers were major providers of ivory and ostrich feathers, for which the merchants paid with European goods. Horses and donkeys were introduced by these merchants; donkeys, especially, became important economic assets. Most of the San-speaking peoples became impoverished during the period from 1850 to 1920, but some of them (the Deti and a few Zhu ¦ õasi, for example) retained modest herds. Many, especially in southern and eastern Botswana, became serfs of Twsana patrons; a few became marginal foragers, partially dependent on their serf and client kin. Labor migration to South African gold mines, which began in the 1890s, increased dramatically for San speakers in the 1950s, when efforts to recruit them were intensified in order to augment insufficient Bantu labor. Different groups were variably affected: as many as 50 percent of Kwa men were absent from their villages at any given time, but only 10 percent of Zhu I õasi men ever went to the mines. Opportunities to work in the mines are no longer available to San speakers.


San settlements are composed of one to a dozen or more homesteads, each containing a set of separate households, the heads of which are ideally related as parent and child or as descendants of common grandparents, that is, as siblings and first cousins. Larger settlements may contain 200 or 300 persons. Many homesteads, as well as individual households todayand probably all of them in precolonial timesalso set up temporary encampments near seasonal rain pools, from which their members hunt and collect wild-plant products; livestock are usually kept there as well, and fields may be cultivated nearby. In Botswana, settlements rarely contain only persons of a single language group; in Ngamiland, for example, Zhu I õasi, I Au I I ei, Nharo, Nama, Mbanderu, Mbukushu, and Tswana homesteads may all be found in the same settlement. Houses within a homestead are normally built close together and usually face a common open area, but homesteads within a settlement may be 2 to 3 kilometers apart; clients and persons employed as herders tend to live adjacent to their patrons and employers. Conical grass huts are frequently used, especially at temporary encampments, but round, one-room, wattle-and-daub houses with thatched roofs are more common among most groups.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Although famed as foragers, fewer than 5 percent of San-speaking peoples have relied on foraging for the bulk of their subsistence during the twentieth century; even these few have depended on herding-farming relatives and on neighbors for dietary supplements of meat, milk, and grains, as well as for supplies of such desired goods as iron for arrow points and spears, metal containers, glass beads, tobacco, and, when obtainable, sugar, coffee, and tea. Herding-farming San speakers also forage, as do rural Bantu speakers (the poorer of whom obtain 25 percent of their livelihood from foraging). It has been reported that during the 1970s hunting provided 11 percent of the diet of the Zhu I õasi, whereas gathered plants contributed 85 percent of the calories that were consumed by those who owned no livestock and 10 percent to 68 percent of the caloric intake of stock owners. Large antelopeeland, kudu, gemsboksand giraffes still provide the bulk of the dietary meat, but small antelope, birds, and reptiles are also important. Seasonal and annual variation is great; the proportion of the diet that is obtained by hunting may rise to 30 percent during the dry winter months (May to August) but falls to less than 1 percent during the wet summer (December to February). Those Khoe speakers who live along rivers and in the delta rely heavily upon fish, the abundance of which is also highly seasonal. The contribution of gathered plants, about 100 species, is subject to similar fluctuation. For example, in September and October mongongo nuts may supply as much as 90 percent of the calories of Zhu I õasi who own no livestock, but these nuts are seldom available from November to March. Mongongo groves are restricted to narrow ecological zones; most San-speaking groups rely on more widely distributed wild nuts and legumes (mainly morula nuts and species of Bauhinia beans). Goats are kept by individuals in all San-speaking groups, but fewer than one-third of households own any of these animals; cattle ownership is even more restricted, but the Deti are wealthy in these animals, as are small proportions of families in several other groups. Goats are readily slaughtered for home consumption and are sold locally for slaughter by others. Cattle are milked and are eaten when they die; when available, surplus oxen and old bulls are slaughtered for important ritual occasions and may also be sold. The few owners of large herds fatten oxen for commercial sale. Crops are grown by most homesteads and, where conditions are favorable (i.e., in Angola and eastern-southern Botswana), contribute substantially to subsistence. Mixed fields are usual; these are planted with some combination of sorghum, millet, maize, sweet-reed (a type of sugarcane), cowpeas, and melons. Women sell home-brewed beer. The cash purchase of maize meal, sugar, coffee and tea, soap, cosmetics, clothing, and utilitarian household items has increased since the late 1970s.

Industrial Arts. Leatherworking was important in the past, as was blacksmithing, but no longer. A few women in the riverine-delta area still weave baskets for local use and for sale.

Trade. The majority of San speakers live in or near villages, in which one or more small shops are located. Those who live in the central Kalahari, in western Ngamiland, and on many cattle posts rely primarily on itinerant traders and on informal arrangements with periodic visitors. Fairly often they travel on foot, donkey, or horseback to the nearest shop, which may be 100 kilometers away.

Division of Labor. Women bear the major responsibility for child care, but men play important supporting roles. Adolescents learn their adult roles mainly from older members of their respective sexes. Men hunt the larger animals, but women collect smaller species, such as tortoises, and may assist in the monitoring of snare lines. Women gather the greater quantity of plant foods, but men bring in smaller amounts as well, especially after successful hunts. Men of all groups do the heavier work of cattle management (well digging, corral building, branding, slaughtering). In some groups, women may participate in herding and be responsible for milking (as among the Zhu I õasi). Elsewhere, these may be considered inappropriate activities for women (as among most Khoe speakers). Among the Zhu I õasi, relative age modifies the division of labor, in that older cohorts and siblings have some directional control over their juniors. Leadership positionswhich may be held by either men or women in a related set of familiesdo not relieve the leaders from obligations of work, but they do provide avenues for disproportionate long-term gains; the terms for "leader" in the Zhu I õasi and Khoe languages are derived from words that designate "wealth." Diviners and curers, who also may be women as well as men, are generally held in high esteem.

Land Tenure. Land tenure is vested in a set of related families whose claim to generationally inherited rights to a particular area is considered legitimate. Generally, individuals acquire two such rights bilaterally through their parents. Residence in one of these tenure areas and regular participation with relatives in the other are essential if a person wishes to retain these rights. Seasonal movement within tenures is common, as is vesting among relatives in different tenures. The current leader of a landholding group is in most cases also the nominal "owner" of the land. Nonresidents must obtain permission from this person to use the land; such permission is rarely refused to kin and rarely given to others.


Kin Groups and Descent. All San speakers reckon kinship bilaterally; membership in Zhu I õasi and Khoe local descent groups is determined by rights that are inherited through either father or mother or through both. The Hai I I om, who in the past lived in patrilineal local groups, reckon descent unilineally.

Kinship Terminology. Zhu I õasi terminology is of the Eskimo type, with older siblings and cousins distinguished by sex; all Khoe and !Koõ terminologies are Iroquois, with bifurcate-merging avuncular terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The majority of marriages are monogamous, with polygyny being restricted to the wealthier men. Marriages are ideally arranged by parents, in consultation with senior members of the kinship group. The Zhu I õasi prefer bilateral-cousin marriages, excluding first cousins; Khoe speakers prescribe cross-cousin marriage, including first cousins. The !Koõ permit marriage only to more distant relatives. The Zhu I õasi prefer virilocal postmarital residence for couples who are related matrilaterally and vice versa; the other groups prefer uxorilocal residence. Bride-service was once required, but today it is often replaced by marriage payments in livestock. Divorce is common until a child is born to a couple, after which time it is rare.

Domestic Unit. Each family has its own hut; adolescent children often build small huts for themselves next to those of their parents. Each wife in a polygynous family has her own hut. Families prefer to live in homesteads that include other members of their extended family.

Inheritance. Land-tenure rights are inherited at birth. Personal property and partnerships devolve from parent to child during the lifetimes of both.

Socialization. Children are instructed from infancy in proper forms of etiquette, especially toward kin. Corporal punishment is applied and ridicule is used, but threats are very rare. In the past, groups of adolescent boys were initiated in seclusion, but this is no longer done; circumcision is reported only for the Tshukhoe. Zhu I õasi, Nharo, and G I wi girls still go through a brief initiation at first menstruation. No female genital mutilation has been recorded for any group. Scarification of the face, back, chest (for men,) and thighs (for women) was commonly applied to mark important life events, but is seldom done now.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Residence is based on bilateral kinship. Nonresident associations are also important. Among the Zhu I õasi, hxaro networks link persons who are related through common great-grandparents over distances of 200 kilometers or more; the Nharo and a few other Khoe groups have similar exchange networks. Hxaro (the Zhu I õasi term) is a system of delayed reciprocity, with obligations attached to partners; important partnerships are frequently inherited from parents, and marriages are often arranged through these channels. To celebrate marriages, childbirth, and girls' puberty initiations, giftscalled kamasi in Zhu I õasi and kamane in Nharoare given in a separate series of exchanges. Zhu I õasi age sets, I arakwe, are composed of persons who are not necessarily kin; these age sets now have few functions, but they appear to have been important in the past, when they probably were central to the hxaro framework for long-distance trade. Zhu I õasi name groups, which once may have functioned as clans, are now almost entirely forgotten; the Kxoe and some eastern Khoe have analogous residual forms.

Political Organization. All San-speaking groups have positions of hereditary leadership; the term I I xaiha, derived from a root designating "wealth," is usually translated as "chief." These leaders now have limited authority of a traditional kind, but among the Zhu I õasi they are usually elected to state-created posts such as chairman of the village-development committee.

Social Control. Ridicule, verbal abuse, dispersal, and divination are the usual means of maintaining social order, but consensually sanctioned executions and murders were not uncommon in the past. Minor disputes are adjudicated in informal hearings in which all interested parties participate. Nowadays village headmen appointed by district councils hear minor civil cases; more serious cases are referred to local and district courts.

Conflict. For many years, all San speakers have engaged in small-scale fighting among themselves and their neighbors, but there are no special war officers, and no particular prestige follows success in battle.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Zhu I õasi and the !Koõ each divide their chief deity into a creator, who now plays little active role in earthly affairs, and an administrator, whom they hold responsible for all that happens on earth. Some Khoe speakers incorporate these roles in one being. All believe in lesser spirits, who are ancestors. Ecumenism is characteristic of southern African peoples, who share numerous mythic themes: many ideas have been transferred among the different cosmologies of the region, including the various Christian forms that were added during the nineteenth century.

Religious Practitioners. There are no religious practitioners other than the diviners and curers (see "Medicine").

Ceremonies. The main ceremonies among San speakers are dance performances; these are usually attended by members of an extended family, but may include other relatives. The girls' initiation dance is restricted to relatives of the initiateone adult-male relative plays a central ritual role. Male initiation, which was important in the past, is no longer performed.

Arts. San-speaking peoples have long been famed for beadwork, both of ostrich-eggshell beads, which they manufacture, and of glass beads, which they purchase or obtain in trade. They are widely believed to be responsible for the fine rock paintings of southern Africa. Recently three men (two Zhu I õasi and one Nharo) have gained recognition as watercolorists; in 1980 one of them received a prize at the Botswana National Art Show.

Medicine. Both men and women may be curers, but most diviners are men; often both roles are combined in a single person. Divination is directed toward the analysis of problems, such as the source of misfortune, the location of stray livestock, or the cause of illness. Divination takes two forms: in one, a set of bones or disks is thrown, and the resultant patterns are interpreted; in the other, a dance is performed, during which one or more practitioners may go into a trance. Cures are almost exclusively attained through the dance performances, usually involving trance, which are directed toward physical and psychological healing as well as social well-being.

Death and Afterlife. Death is a passing into a spiritual realm that is distinct from the material realm. To the Zhu óasi, human death is senseless because people are not properly earthly food; it can be explained, however, by the belief that the administrator deity feeds on the people he causes to die. Recently dead relatives are dangerous because their spirits yearn for their kin and may attempt to bring about their early deaths in order to be reunited; this danger recedes as memory of the deceased dims with time.


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