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Social and Cultural life The relative equality of group members and the concept of sharing were central to the San way of life. Although they did not have political leaders, the leadership of senior members or of those individuals with specific abilities was recognised in the group. Read the Full Story
Everyday life of the San Everyday life The San were traditionally hunter-gatherers and, as such, their day-to-day economic activities were centered on survival, not on commercial gain. Read the Full Story



For most of the past 100 000 years, South Africa has been inhabited by small, mobile groups of hunter-gatherers called the San (Bushmen). The San are believed to be the descendants of the people who have lived in the subcontinent from time immemorial - their true origins being shrouded in the mists of time.

mysterious little men called the whole wide expanse of South Africa 'home'; the mountains, deep valleys and wide plains: all were their dwelling places. And, contrary to popular belief, they did not spend their lives wandering around aimlessly. They knew each region well and were able to plan their seasonal wanderings to coincide with the ripening of fruits, berries and roots. They spent hours observing the wild animals around them until they, more than any other southern African tribe, had an intimate knowledge of the animal's behavior, whereabouts and movements.

Fortunately they expressed their appreciation of their environment and their beliefs and rituals in beautiful rock paintings all over South Africa. With their rock art they turned the South African countryside into one big open-air art gallery for those who came after them to enjoy!

Historical Background

The San were gradually replaced by agro¬pastoralists whose presence dates back to little more than 2 000 years ago. The first of these groups, the KhoiKhoi (Hottentot) people, settled in the Western Cape area. The KhoiKhoi herded -, cattle and sheep and had a social structure completely different from that of the San. There was, however, a lot of interaction between the two groups, so much so that linguists later classed both their languages as "Khoisan".

The KhoiKhoi were later follow~d by the first influx of Black people from the north. At first the San co-existed peacefully with these Nguni¬speakers (tile Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele) who intermarried with the San and also incorporated some of the distinctive and characteristic "clicks" of the San language into their own languages. Contact with Nguni and Sotho-Tswana farmers was depicted in the San's rock art. The artists started including representations of cattle and sheep as well as of people with shields and spears, in their paintings.

The most severe threat to the San's survival came in the form of the White settler farmers and later colonial rule. Colonialism destroyed their nomadic 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 veld foods that had been the San's 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 groups and intermarried with them, which added to the destruction of the social identity of the San people.


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