5 Important Facts about the San People (Bushmen)

The San are the people of southern Africa who traditionally have lived as hunter-gatherer, grouped into small bands of 30 to 100. They have also been called as Bushmen but this designation is now considered pejorative.

Today, the only surviving hunter-gatherer (San) is found in Botswana, Namibia and Angola. The San population is estimated at about 50,000 (in 2001). They camp only a few weeks at one place and do hunting and gathering over an area of up to 600 sq. kms around the camp.

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The term ‘Bushmen’ (Boschimanner) was given in the 17th century by the Dutch settlers to the diminutive hunting peoples of South Africa.

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Today, the Bushmen are mainly confined in the barren inhospitable environment of the desert of Kalahari (Namibia, Botswana, and Angola) and adjacent sub-tropical grasslands of South-West Africa. The Namibia desert has virtually no rainfall.

The desert of Kalahari has 102-254 mm (4-10 inches) of rainfall in a year. Moving towards north (towards the equator) the region becomes more wet which contains one of Africa’s most varied wildlife reserves. The famous Etosha National Park is also situated in this region.

The archaeological and historical evidences show that the Bushmen groups have extended formerly far north and eastwards into Basutoland, Natal and Zimbabwe (southern Rhodesia).


In appearance, the Bushmen show many points of resemblance to the Negritoes. They are short statured (5 feet 4 inches), but they do not have the projecting mouth, thick averted lips, and wide open eyes, characteristics of both Negroes and Negritoes.

1. Territory:

The territory in which the Bushmen live is a great plateau, about 2,000 metres above the sea level, with massive ranges in the east. Its climate is sub-tropical, and except in the extreme south-west it is a land of summer rains. The rainfall is abundant in the eastern half of the great plateau.

The abundance of rainfall has resulted into dense forests on the eastern moun­tains and coastlands, fading westward into expanses of tall grass, thorny scrub and ultimately bare sandy and stony deserts. Beyond the forests, rainfall is everywhere uncertain, and this uncertainty reaches the maxi­mum in the Kalahari and Namibia desert coast. The desert of Kalahari is characterized with ephemeral streams. The average annual rainfall of 50 cms in the north and about 15 cms in the south does not reveal the real variability of rainfall.

Permanent water is found only in depressions of the stream-beds and on low mud-flats or pans cutting the water table. In the areas of more rainfall and in the better years, there is a cover of tall grass broken by thorny and stunted trees, but elsewhere there are only patches of short ‘Bushmen grass’ with groves of acacia. But even in the driest parts of the desert a few leguminous plants flourish, especially the famous ‘Bushmen melons’, namely, tsama and naras.

2. Habitat:


The habitat of Bushmen, containing forests, grasslands and thorny bushes, is unique and renowned for their wealth of large game. There are numerous herbivores and carnivores developed and spread over wide areas. Many species of antelope, both large like the great kudu, and small like the duiken and steenbok, are found in great number

Other herbi­vores are giraffe, ostrich, zebra, elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and quake, upon which prey a large number of carnivores like lion, leopard, wildcat, lynx, hyena and jackal. The Bushmen also eat small animals like ants, lizards, frogs, bees and locusts. The edible fruits are less abundant, but the animal food supply is far richer.

3. Hunting:

The Bushmen are basically hunters. Hunting plays a greater part than the gathering of plants, but it involves close conformity to this seasonal alter­nation of widespread abundance, followed by migration of game to a few favoured spots. Thus, the territory of Bushmen must contain permanent water sources on which both beast and man depend.

Trespass across tribal frontiers is dangerous unless previous relations are friendly. A hunter may follow wounded animals into neighboring territory, but he must visit the band and share his game, if caught, he will be attacked. But these movements are irregular and individual.

No permanent alliances are formed, and continued trespass or killing from whatever cause will lead to a feud involving whole bands which may be perpetuated by sporadic encounters over several generations.

The Bushmen band and its territory is a miniature realm; it consists of a number of families, each with its own huts, and only at the dry season are these families likely to be united in the vicinity of a water-hole.

In the remaining season, they scatter over the territory which they hold in common and hand on to their descendants. Their encampments are selected by the senior male, who lights a fire before the women begin to build the shelters.

4. Food:

Each family produces its own food. The women collect the roots, berries, grubs, insects and small game like tortoises, frogs and lizards as well as firewood and water.

The digging stick, where the ground is hard, is often tipped with horn and weighted with a bored stone. Water is collected and brought into the camp in ostrich egg-shells or dried bucks’ stomachs, for the Bushmen always camp several miles from their water-holes, especially in the dry season.

The men also go out almost daily to hunt, and unless they are following wounded game return for the main evening meal.

The hunting methods vary with the season and the prey. Usually, a man goes out alone with his son or other relative whom he is training, and a dog. He moves with bow and poisoned arrow towards a water-hole or salt lick.

The hunter creeps up to leeward and Endeavour’s to approach as closely as possible, since the range and impact of his arrows are not great.

Some of the Bushmen especially that of the Kalahari, are very skilled in the use of disguises, and imitate the cries of the young animals

Arrow poisons are variously collected from plant juices, snake sacs and the dried bodies of spiders. The hunter following the spoor of the wounded animals must reach it before the hyena or the vulture snatches his prey. Success in hunting is ensured by magical observances which vary in different parts of the country.

In the rainy season, large game can be driven into the treacherous mud-flats, where they are easily mired. During the height, they (beasts) shed their hooves; animals can be run down on foot and finally disabled with the knobbed throwing stick. Individual hunters will also construct snares and traps.

Poisoned drinking places are frequently prepared at the height of the drought in the desert areas. Occasionally when more food is required, the whole of a Bushmen group will combine in a drive which is carefully prepared forehand. The beaters move out in a wide sweep on the higher ground. Large pitfalls, sometimes four yards long and deep, floored over with a thin layer or brush, are also constructed by the group along a track down to a water-hole.

Every man hunts or gathers for his own immediate family, and he can and does establish private property not only in what is brought in, but also in resources found and left for gathering at a later date. This is usually done by sticking an arrow in the ground close to the ‘bees hive’ nest of ostrich eggs, or patch of roots which the discoverer wishes to preserve.

The arrow by its individual marking establishes the identity of the owner. When a large game is brought into the game it is in fact generally shared. The hunter keeps the valuable hide and sinew and directs the division and distribution of the meat.

The abundance of wild beasts and game in the Bushmen territory ensures a fairly abundant supply of hides, bone and sinew. Bones and sinew are of great importance, affording the bone marrow for shaft and the tough bowstring. The leg bone of an ostrich or giraffe, split, scraped and ground down to a point provides the best arrow tip. The hides, especially buckskin, are used for clothing and bags.

5. Clothing:

The clothing of a Bushmen is scanty. A man wears a triangular loin-cloth whose point is drawn backwards between the legs; a woman wears a squarish front apron hanging from a waist belt, while older women sometimes wear an apron at back as well and suspend it from the shoulder. But the most important item of a female dress is the cloak, locally known as cross.

It is both a garment and a hold all. When it is tied at the right shoulder and at the waist, the baby, the food and the firewood are all held in its folds on the daily journey back to the camp.

Men also often wear a light cloak over the right shoulder and covering the back; among some groups skin caps and tough hide sandals are worn.

The ostrich egg is used as water container. The large eggs of ostrich not only provide water containers, which are carried in netting bags, but also the material for the Bushmen beads.

The shells are broken into small chips. These chips are board, shaped to rough discs. The ostrich eggs are bartered for iron-knives, spearheads, millet and tobacco. They also exchange or barter honey, wax, feathers, ivory, skins and beads.

The Bushmen way of life is integrated with their environment. The small size of Bushmen communities enables them to continue their tradi­tional hunting and gathering without depleting the land’s resources. At least eighty types of animals are hunted in their region.

Their knowledge of the animals and plants, and their cooperation with neighboring Bushmen enable them to procure a sufficient food supply. By owning few possessions, less babies and children, and sharing their belongings they enjoy an unrestricted freedom of movement.

The effective organizational unit in traditional San society is the band, the members of which are linked by elaborate kin networks. Although polygamy is permitted, most marriages are monogamous. Religious practices are not clearly institutionalized in spite of the existence of a rich and complex mythology.

Magical and medical practices are closely integrated with dancing and trance states, constituting a system of both psychological and physical healing. The San are known for the fine paintings that they and their ancestors have executed on the walls of caves and rock-shelters.

The Bushmen, being attune to desert life, have a strong sense of survival. In times of drought, the women cease to conceive; when hunting they take care not to hurt females and young of the prey species; they make fires with the minimum amount of wood; they store water in ostrich shells; and they use almost every part of the animals they hunt.

Since water supply is scarce, its supply determines the animal population arid, in turn, the size of a Bushmen community. In brief, the Bushmen of Kalahari have wonderfully adjusted to their natural environment.

The mode of life and fulfillment of basic and higher needs of Bushmen Kalahari desert reveals a good example of the people with simple technology coping with a difficult environment (habitat). A Bushmen, with his small bow and arrows in hand, conceals himself by placing over his crouched body the skin of an ostrich, mounted on a frame.

Moving cautiously towards the herd, he imitates the movements of these great birds so cleverly that these do not suspect his presence until one of them under his arrow. The need of these people for water is paramount, since the Kalahari Desert they inhabit is one of the most inhospitable desert habitats in the world.

They fill ostrich-egg shells during the short season when the water-holes are not dry, or use their intimate knowledge of the country to find the roots, bulbs and melon-like fruits that contain Moisture or store up liquids.

Not even the most stagnant pool (pond) daunts them, for in such cases they place grass filters at the bottom of the Hollow reeds they use in sucking up water. The lifestyle of Bushmen is a topical example of man’s symbiotic relationship with his physical Environment.


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