views updated Jun 11 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Khoi-San, Kung, Khwe, Juwasi, Basarwa, Bushmen
LOCATION: Botswana, Northern South Africa, Namibia
RELIGION: San Religion


The San trace their roots to the Kalahari Desert region of southern Africa. Several ethnic groups who historically survived through a hunter-gatherer lifestyle comprise the San people. The language of these groups is similar in origin. At one point in history, the San were known as “Bushmen,” a term that most scholars today regard as racist. Controversy still surrounds the naming of these peoples. Other terms such as Khwe and Basarwa also have been used to describe these groups. The term San has been the preferred term by anthropologists since the 1970s, although the term Khoi-San also is commonly used. The Khoi (Hottentots) differ from the San in that they are taller and made their living through agriculture instead of foraging.

It is believed that San have lived in the area of the Kalahari Desert for thousands of years; they may be the first humans to have occupied this region before the appearance of the Nguni and other black peoples. Historians and anthropologists attribute the presence of the San in the Kalahari to animated paintings that appear on on rocks, walls, and caves in areas as distant as Namaqualand, the Drakensberg, and the Southern Cape. These forms of painting are considered the oldest in Africa. Many San subgroups continue today to live nomadic lives among more sedentary peoples such as the Bantu. There are many different San peoples, who lack a collective name but are variously referred to as “Bushmen,” “San,” “Basarwa” (in Botswana), and so on. The individual groups identify by names such as Juhoansi and Kung, and most call themselves “Bush-men” when referring to themselves collectively.

As hunter-gatherers, San initially subsisted on animals they caught, as well as honey, roots, and fruits they would gather. What they ate and where they resided was dependant traditionally on the seasons and the movement of animals indigenous to the Kalahari. Many scholars regard their traditional way of life as being in harmony with nature. The San would take care to use only what they needed and would not over-hunt or take too many plants. Their bodies are characterized as short and slight in build. Their hands and feet are small, and their yellow-brown skin would wrinkle early in life. Some San groups most likely kept cattle and sheep.

Two languages spoken by the San—Khoe and Zhu I õasi—contain words referring to agricultural terms that date back 2,000 years. Further development of an agriculturalist way of life appears to have occurred 500 years later with the arrival of Bantu-speaking peoples to the region. The Bantu planted sorghum and millet, kept goats, and practiced metallurgy. Some linguistic evidence suggests that San peoples sold or traded cattle with Nguni and Sotho-Tswana Bantu speakers. These patterns suggest that while foraging remained important to the San people, it was combined with herding and farming over time.

The arrival of white colonists to the San's traditional hunting grounds in the 17th century changed the San way of life. While some San joined the white society in subservient roles, others migrated to the west and north in search of lands where they could continue their traditional way of life. Today the San live primarily in the northwestern Cape, the Kalahari, Namibia, and Botswana. While a few San, mainly those who continue to live in the desert, still practice their traditional way of life, the people as a whole are considerably less nomadic.

Most San groups maintain a practice of hereditary leadership. This tradition is seen in the term for “chief,” which is I xaiha and comes from a root word for “wealth.” The authority of these leaders is limited today, although some individuals who possess such leadership positions will be elected to state-created offices, such as heads of village development committees. Holders of such positions tend to be older and respected among their people.

Since the mid-1990s the central government of Botswana has promoted a relocation policy aimed at moving the San out of their ancestral land on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve into newly created settlements. Although the government categorically denies that relocation has been forced, a 2006 court ruling confirmed that the removal was unconstitutional and residents were forcibly removed. Opponents to the relocation policy claim that the government's intent is to clear the area—an area the size of Denmark—for the lucrative tourist trade and for diamond mining. As of the mid-2000s, many San were poised to return to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of Africa's largest protected nature reserves.

Similarly, the San group as a whole has little voice in the national political process and none of the tribal groups is recognized in the constitution of Botswana. Over the generations, the Bushmen of South Africa have continued to be absorbed into the African population, particularly the Griqua sub-group, which are an Afrikaan-speaking people of predominantly Khoisan. Today, less than 5% of the approximately 100,000 San live as hunter-gatherers. Their cultural heritage is in danger of disappearing.


The San peoples occupy highly diverse geophysical regions that share a number of features: seasonal rains, falling mainly as localized thunderstorms during the hot months, October to May; high variation in average annual rainfall—around 45 centimeters (18 inches) in Ngamiland (some 50% higher in Angola and 50% lower in central Botswana); summer temperatures that often exceed 37°c (99°F); and cool winters, with night temperatures as low as –4°c (25°F) in Botswana and Namibia. The Zhu I õasi live in northwestern Botswana, in a semi-arid savanna region known as Ngamiland and in surrounding regions of Namibia. The Xu group live in more tropical open woodlands in southern Angola that receive considerably more precipitation. Axoe occupy the banks of the Okavango River, in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia while the Hai I I om reside in north-central Namibia, between the Cunene River and the Etosha Pan. The Nharo live in the Ghansi District of Botswana, an area known for its limestone. The G I wi, G I I ana, and Koõ live in central Botswana and Namibia in areas that are sandy and receive little rainfall. The I I Anikhoe live in a flood plain created by the Okavango Delta; the Deti live along the Boteti River. Several other peoples who are called San in the ethnographic literature speak Khoe languages and live in the hill, mopane (a type of tree)forest, and salt-pan environments of eastern Botswana.

Because the San groups are so diverse, estimating the population is difficult. In 1980, it was estimated that about 30,000 San-speaking peoples lived in Botswana, about 12,000 in Namibia, and about 8,000 in Angola—representing about 3% of the population of Botswana, 1.2% of that of Namibia, and 0.1% of Angola's people. As of 2008 the entire San population was estimated at about 100,000. That year, regions with significant San populations include Botswana (55,000), Namibia (27,000) and South Africa (10,000).

The Zhu I õasi, who previously had a low birthrate and often waited years between births to conceive, now have one of the highest recorded birthrates in the world. In 1980, 6.7 live births were recorded for every 1,000 women of childbearing age. However, the infant mortality rate for the Zhu I õasi is comparatively low among Africans; in 1980, it stood at 85 per 1,000 births. Life expectancy has been improving since the 1960s when it was 45 years for Zhu I õasi. Now, demographers estimate that children who live to age 5 have a good chance of living into their 70s. Health ministry surveys done in Botswana suggest the Zhu I õasi statistics are similar for other San groups.


The term “San” as an ethnographic term refers to both the contemporary and the pre-colonial southern African peoples who speak, or spoke, languages containing click consonants and who traditionally practiced a hunter-gatherer or forager way of life. They speak numerous dialects of a group of languages known for the characteristic “clicks” that can be heard in their pronunciation, all of which incorporate “click” sounds represented in writing by symbols such as ! or /.

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 10 other groups have been well studied by linguists.

San languages are considered part of the Khoisan language family. Among the San languages are three sets. The first set is the Northern Khoisan Group. It consists of speakers of Zhu I oasi, Xu, and Au I I ei and was common to the area around Lake Ngami. This language today has few living speakers, and is distinct from other Khoisan languages in its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. The second set is known as the Central Khoisan Group. It includes speakers of G I wi, G I I ana, Kxoe, Nharo, and I I Anikhoe, plus several other dialects, Deti, Buga, Tshukhoe, and Kwa, among them. It is closely related to Nama (also known historically as Hottentots), and Hai I I om, a dialect of Nama. The languages within the Central Khoisan Group are generally quite similar to each other, though differences in vocabulary and sentence structure develop in regions that are further from the central area. The final group of languages is known as Southern Khoisan, and consists of languages spoken along the southern Kalahari area. The primary languages in this area are Koõ and Tsassi. All of the Khoisan languages are known for containing mostly mono- and bisyllabic words. They also are tonal in nature, and contain click consonants. In writing, symbols such as ! and ¦ typically designate a click consonant, although Bantu orthography is starting to replace that practice by using c for ¦ and q for!. The use of letters in place of symbols is occurring more frequently in eastern Botswana, and some of the Khoisan languages are being replaced altogether by Setswana. That replacement marks a further erosion of San culture.


San stories grow out of an oral tradition in which dramas about natural phenomena, dancing, drumming, poetry, death, and struggles between justice and mercy provide insight into how the ancient San people lived. In one story, retained as part of an online collection of oral narratives, the sun and moon spar. Ultimately, however, the sun spares the backbone of the moon so that it may grow again. Other works capture feelings of sadness that come from separating from a friend, or a loss of community because of migration and a desire to return home.


San religions are polytheistic. Many gods are worshipped; however, San people do acknowledge that one god is supreme. Religious rituals show respect for deities, wives and children of deities, and spirits of those who have died. Some San also refrain from tilling soil, believing that such an agricultural practice would violate the world order established by god. San stories incorporate the role of gods in day-to-day life, with deities often serving as educators about good moral behavior. How gods are viewed varies with the different San peoples. The Zhu I õasi and the Koõ, for instance, regard the supreme god as playing the role of creator as well as administrator of earthly events. Lesser gods in many San groups are ancestors from their communities.

Many San practice a communal dance as a healing ritual for their community. The dance is believed to transform spiritual energy into medicine. During the dance, many participants go into a trance, and spiritual energy is called on to heal physical and psychological illnesses. Religious practitioners in San communities tend to be healers or shaman who will visit the world of spirits in order to create rain, ward off evil, and cure illness. Many San use blood, fat, and sweat from the eland (an African antelope) to generate spiritual energy, and images of the eland today often are made from the actual blood of the animal. The dancing that the San practice often involve performing in a circle around an animal carcass. As men and older women move their bodies in trance, young women clap and sing. The dancing occurs for hours, and leads often to an altered state of consciousness and hallucinations on the part of the shaman. The dances occur during occasional ceremonies or when the community is in crisis.


No major holidays exist in indigenous San culture. San who have converted to Christianity or moved to more urban areas generally observe the same holidays as the dominant communities of those locales.


The main ceremonies among San peoples are dance performances; these are usually attended by members of an extended family, but may include other relatives. The first menstruation of girls and the arrival of adolescence for boys traditionally were celebrated with dances initiating the youngsters into adulthood.

In the past, scar marks would be applied to the face, back, and chest of men and to the thighs of women to mark important life events, but these rituals are rarely performed today. Female genital mutilation also has not been recorded among the San people. Zhu I õasi, Nharo, and G I wi girls have a brief initiation at first menstruation, and Tshukhoe boys are circumcised.

Most San marriages are monogamous, although polygamous relationships are permitted for wealthier men. San parents generally arrange marriages of their children, in consultation with elders within their kinship groups. Some San groups—including the Zhu I õasi and Khoe—will allow cousins to marry. For others, the choice of more distant relatives as marital mates is preferred. If a child is not quickly born to a newly married couple, divorce is likely to occur.

The San treat death as a movement into a new spiritual realm. The Zhu I õasi understand death as a source of food for the supreme god. In this belief, humans are caused to die so the deity can eat. Some relatives of a newly deceased individual will believe that the god would try and cause the early deaths of survivors out of a desire to eat them, as well. The worry of early death fades as time passes.


The San organize their households and their communities on the basis of kinship ties. The Zhu I õasi, for instance, make use of what they call hxaro networks that link persons who are related through common great-grandparents. Sometimes, these networks create communal living arrangements. At other times, they create a sense of family among nomadic communities that span distances of 200 kilometers (125 miles) or more. Other San groups, including the Nharo and Khoe groups, have similar exchange networks. In the hxaro networks, marriages are arranged and certain familial obligations are imparted to participants. Gifts—called kamasi in Zhu I õasi and kamane in Nharo—are given in separate exchanges. San peoples also create social networks based on individuals who might not be related by blood but are of a similar age, as well as name groups, which often were based on identification with particular clans.

San groups maintain order through the use of ridicule, verbal abuse, dispersal, and divination. These practices have replaced executions and murders that were communally sanctioned in the past. The communities use informal hearings to resolve minor disputes. More serious cases are referred to local and district courts.

San children often live in huts built next to those of their parents. Parents and elders teach children proper forms of behavior at an early age. As a result, children tend to be well behaved and are taught to play with each other and to treat members of the opposite sex with respect and kindness. The wisdom and knowledge about the past that elderly San possess also is greatly valued by the community.


The Kalahari Desert makes living conditions for the San harsh. San shelters are made of sticks that are arranged in a circular form. Mats woven from reeds cover the sticks on top and along the sides. The idea behind such simple dwellings was to keep them simple and fast to take apart and re-assemble for when the San group was ready to move to a new locale. Such mat-covered huts are still used in Namaqualand.

Today, most San peoples live in or near villages that have small shops that provide for their needs. Groups in the central Kalahari, western Ngamiland, and at cattle posts, however, still rely on trades and itinerant visitors for goods. These groups often will travel several dozen kilometers by foot, donkey, or horseback for necessary supplies.


Each family resides in its own hut. As children reach adolescence, they often will move out of their parent's hut and built a separate dwelling nearby. If a family is polygynous, each wife will typically have her own hut. The extended family network remains important in San life and often families will live together in a homestead, where houses will be built close together and open up into a common area. Use of certain lands is often based on inherited rights that are based on past practices. However, to continue use of a particular area of land, one must reside on that area and participate in family affairs regularly. The current leader of a landholding group is generally regarded as the “owner” of the land and can grant permission to nonresidents to use the land. Permission generally is granted to family members but not to others.

A dozen homesteads, each one with a set of households for extended members, will make up a San settlement. Larger settlements often consist of 200 to 300 individuals. The homesteads typically will be located near seasonal rain pools where hunting and foraging of plants can take place, wells can be built, and livestock can be maintained. At times, many San groups, each speaking a different language, may reside in a single settlement, particularly in Ngamiland. Although homesteads are compactly built, a settlement may be more dispersed, with homesteads scattered apart by 2–3 kilometers (1–2 miles). Often, clients of a family or domestic help will live in huts adjacent to the families that employ them.

Both the arrangement of huts within homesteads and the collecting of homesteads into settlements reflects the interdependence that the San people regarded traditional as crucial to their survival. As foragers of food and hunters of meat, working in small groups who could quickly take down and build up an encampment was a means of living with little but always having enough. Rules based on names and age were frequently used to dispel confusion over relationships among family members. In recent years, many San have begun to settle into larger groups around water sources, and many have also settled into the communities of their neighbors.


Traditional San clothing consists of a cloak known as a kaross, which is used to carry foods and supplies such as firewood, and loin cloths, sandals, and short aprons made of animal skin. All of the clothing is designed in a way that makes it easy to move quickly and carry basic household needs.


Households within a San homestead may move apart during the winter when food supplies dwindle. The traditional San diet includes wild melons, roots, and berries that women gather. Men will use a bow and arrow to hunt wild animals. Arrowheads are covered with a poison made from an insect. San men are known for having great stamina. They are willing to follow an animal herd for days until they are close enough to use their bow and arrow to kill. A kill results in a feast. Families build a fire, and sing and dance in a trance-like ritual.

During hard times, women will chew on a tree bark that acts as a contraceptive to reduce the potential of having more children. San peoples also will eat snakes, lizards, and scorpions when necessary. They store water in ostrich shells, which they bury deep into the desert sands until the time comes to tap them for drinking.


Traditional San education occurred within families, with elders teaching children proper behavior. Today, many San children face challenges in learning how to balance a rapidly modernizing world against their community's traditional way of life.


In 2006 archaeologists reported evidence of rituals practiced by the San around 70,000 years ago—the oldest indications of human rituals ever found. The ancient artwork and artifacts were discovered in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana in a cave that the San have traditionally used for rites associated with the python, an animal that plays a major role in their creation stories.

The long and rich cultural heritage that the San add to southern Africa has been exploited in recent years in an effort to promote tourism. Stereotypical depictions of the “Bushman hunter” that were first popularized in Western films such as “The Gods Must Be Crazy” have led to interest in developing more awareness and knowledge of San culture. However, the San people have drawn little benefit from these efforts. They suffer much poverty, social marginalization, and general indifference on the part of other Africans. A cultural center, known as !Khwa ttu, was established north of Cape Town in 2006 in an effort to change the San situation. The center is run by San communities who use it to promote education of their people and entrepreneurship opportunities for members of their communities. The center also creates a place for scholars to help the San themselves learn more about their cultural background and past.

The center continues a legacy of San traditions. The community, for instance, has long valued modesty and egalitarianism. Although elders within families and kinship groups do command some authority, there is economic or political differentiation among the San people themselves. The community has long valued cooperation between others. Material goods are usually shared communally. In many ways, that egalitarianism fits with the mobile nature of the San people. There is no point is accumulating wealth or material goods because the groups are always prepared to move when necessity arises. If they are burdened with material goods, that mobility is threatened.


Traditionally the San have had a strong work ethic. Many continue that practice today and balance farming with traditional practices of hunting and foraging along with jobs in industry and trade. Other traditional work practices that the San engaged in included pottery making and metallurgy.

The hunter-gatherer nature of the San way of life continues to some extent. In the 1970s, for instance, hunting provided less than 20% of the diet of the Zhu I õasi and plants that were gathered by women contributed about 80% of the calories that were consumed by those who owned no livestock. San communities also fish along rivers, and hunt large antelope as well as giraffe. As communities have begun to rely more on farming, many families also create small products for sale or for trade, such as iron for arrow points and spears, metal containers, glass beads, tobacco, sugar, coffee, and tea. Many San women also brew and sell beer.

Although some San men began working in South African gold and diamond mines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those opportunities are no longer available to San speakers.


Few San people engage in games or sports activities in the Western sense.


Leisure activities include conversations, music, and gathering for ritual communal dances.


San peoples are known for beads that they make from the ostrich eggshells. Many also create glass beadwork from glass beads obtained through trade. Three San artists (two Zhu I õasi and one Nharo) have gained recognition as watercolorists, and San rock paintings remain famous as one of the world's oldest art forms.


The San have suffered displacement periodically over the centuries. Bantu tribes invaded their homelands around 500 ad and white colonists began fighting for control of the rich resources in southern Africa beginning in the 17th century. These invasions have caused the San to suffer discrimination, eviction from ancestral lands, murder, and oppression. Today, many San groups are perceived as backward and primitive, and face pressure to assimilate with more urban communities or to live more like sedentary agriculturalists. Governmental policies that restrict their movement and limit land-use rights continue to be implemented into the early twenty-first century.

Alcoholism and related social problems are said to be widespread and men have been imprisoned for unauthorized hunting.


Although traditional responsibilities were gender based, the status of San women is relatively equal to that of San men. While men retain control over hunting, women determine when and where to gather traditional foods. Men tend to gain power and influence when they bring meat to their settlements. However, it is women who retain control over the daily life of the settlement when men go on hunting trips, often for days at a time.


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———. “The Remarkable Khoi and San People of the Past,” Encounter South Africa. (retrieved January 11, 2009).

———. “San.” (retrieved January 11, 2009).

———. “San Cultural Center Opens in South Africa,” Cultural Survival, 15 June 2006. (retrieved January 11, 2009).

———. “San Information,” (1998). Arts & Life in Africa Online. (retrieved January 11, 2009).

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Vossen, Rainer, and Klaus Keuthmann, eds. (1986). Contemporary Studies on Khoisan: In Honor of Oswin Köhler on the Occasion of his 75th Birthday. Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1986.

———. “What is a Trance Dance?” Art of Africa. (retrieved January 11, 2009).

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———. “Almost Outcasts: Paradigmatic History of San-Speaking Peoples and Current Attempts at Reconstruction.” Current Anthropology 31:489–524, 1990.

———. “World's Oldest Ritual Discovered: Worshipped the Python 70,000 Years Ago,” Science Daily, 30 November 2006. (retrieved January 11, 2009).

—by M. Njoroge


views updated Jun 11 2018

San / sän/ • n. (pl. same) 1. a member of the aboriginal peoples of southern Africa commonly called Bushmen. See Bushman.2. any of the Khoisan languages spoken by these peoples.• adj. of or relating to the San or their languages.


views updated Jun 11 2018

San (Bushmen) Khoisan-speaking people of s Africa. They have lived in the region for thousands of years and until recently had a hunting and gathering culture. About half still follow the traditional ways, mostly in the Kalahari region of Botswana and Namibia. Today, there are c.77,000 San.