The San are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20,000 years. The term ‘San’ is commonly used to refer to a diverse group of hunter-gatherers living in Southern Africa who share historical and linguistic connections.
Not related to the BaNtu tribes, the San are descendants of Early Stone Age ancestors. Clans and loosely connected family groups followed seasonal game migrations between mountain range and coastline. They made their homes in caves, under rocky overhangs or in temporary shelters. These migratory people do not domesticate animals or cultivate crops, even though their knowledge of both flora and fauna is vast. The San categorized thousands of plants and their uses, from nutritional to medicinal, mystical to recreational and lethal. San men have a formidable reputation as trackers and hunters.
San trackers will follow the ‘spoor’ (tracks) of an animal across virtually any kind of surface or terrain. Their skills even enable them to distinguish between the “spoor” of a wounded animal and that of the rest of the herd. At about the beginning of the Christian era a group of people who owned small livestock (sheep and perhaps goats) moved into the northern and western parts of South Africa and migrated southward. These pastoralists, called Khoikhoi or ‘Hottentot’ resembled the San in many ways and lived by gathering wild plants and domesticating animals. Coincidently in the eastern parts of the country another migration was occurring – the BaNtu speaking peoples were moving southward bringing with them cattle, the concept of planting crops and settled village life. Ultimately, the ‘Hottentots’ met these black-skinned farmers and obtained from them cattle in exchange for animal skins and other items.
Thus, when the white settlers arrived in the mid 17th century the whole country was inhabited by 3 different groups – the hunter-gatherers (San), the pastoralists (Khoikhoi) and the farmers (BaNtu). At first, the San co-existed peacefully with the Nguni (a sub-language group of the BaNtu) speakers (the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele) who intermarried with the San and incorporated some of the distinctive and characteristic ‘clicks’ of the San language into their own languages.
Contact with Nguni and Sotho-Tswana farmers is depicted in the San rock art. The artists started including representations of cattle and sheep as well as of people with shields and spears, in their paintings. Unfortunately, hunter-gatherers cannot live permanently alongside a settled community and thus problems arose. When the San fought against the BaNtu, they were at a huge disadvantage not only in numbers but also in lack of weapons. With the Europeans, they were at an even greater disadvantage. The Europeans owned horses and firearms. In this period, the number of San was greatly reduced. They fought to the death and preferred death to capture where they would be forced into slavery.
Colonialism destroyed the San migratory way of life, they were no longer allowed to roam freely and trophy hunters destroyed the vast herds of game that formed their principal supply of food. Both Black and White farmers built up huge herds of cattle that destroyed the foods that had been the San staple diet for centuries. Enslavement and sometimes mass destruction of San communities, by both White and Black farmers, followed. Many became farm labourers and some joined Black farming communities, and intermarried with them, which added to the destruction of the social identity of the San people.
SAN BELIEF SYSTEM
The San belief system generally observes the supremacy of one powerful god, while at the same time recognizing the presence of lesser gods along with their wives and children. Homage is also paid to the spirits of the deceased. Among some San, it is believed that working the soil is contrary to the world order established by the god. Some groups also revere the moon. The most important spiritual being to the southern San was /Kaggen, the trickster-deity. He created many things, and appears in numerous myths where he can be foolish or wise, tiresome or helpful.
The word ‘/Kaggen’ can be translated as ‘mantis’, this led to the belief that the San worshipped the praying mantis. However, /Kaggen is not always a praying mantis, as the mantis is only one of his manifestations. He can also turn into an Eland, a hare, a snake or a vulture – he can assume many forms. When he is not in one of his animal forms, /Kaggen lives his life as an ordinary San.
The San are excellent hunters. Although they do a fair amount of trapping, the best method of hunting is with bow and arrow. The San arrow does not kill the animal straight away. It is the deadly poison, which eventually causes the death. In the case of small antelope such as Duiker or Steenbok, a couple of hours may elapse before death. For larger antelope, this could be 7 to 12 hours. For large game, such as Giraffe it could take as long as 3 days. Today the San make the poison from the larvae of a small beetle but will also use poison from plants, such as the euphorbia, and snake venom.
The San will eat anything available, both animal and vegetable. Their selection of food ranges from antelope, Zebra, porcupine, wild hare, Lion, Giraffe, fish, insects, tortoise, flying ants, snakes (venomous and non-venomous), Hyena, eggs and wild honey. The meat is boiled or roasted on a fire.