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The San People: The Lifestyle and Culture of One of Africa’s Oldest Indigenous Tribe


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The San people are the oldest known inhabitants of Southern Africa, where they have been living for over 20,000 years.

They are a diverse group of hunter-gatherers who share linguistic and historical connections, and are commonly referred to as the San.

However, this term encompasses a wide variety of different groups, and they do not have a collective name for themselves. Other terms used to refer to the San include Bushmen and Basarwa (in Botswana), although the former term has been considered derogatory and is no longer widely used.

The San have a long and proud history of fighting against colonizers and defending their freedom from domination. The term “bushman” was originally used by Dutch colonizers to refer to the San, and was meant as a derogatory term meaning “bandit” or “outlaw”.

However, the San interpreted this term as a reference to their bravery and resistance against colonial oppression, and many now accept the terms Bushmen or San to refer to themselves.

Despite their long history in Southern Africa, the San have faced significant challenges over the years, including poverty, social rejection, a decline in their cultural identity, and discrimination against their rights as a group.

However, they have also received significant attention from anthropologists and the media, who have been fascinated by their survival and hunting skills, their deep knowledge of the flora and fauna of Southern Africa, and their rich cultural traditions.

One of the most distinctive features of the San language is the use of clicking sounds in their pronunciation, which are represented in writing by symbols such as ! or /.

The San people live in small, mobile groups, with each community comprising up to about 25 men, women, and children. At certain times of the year, these groups come together to exchange news and gifts, arrange marriages, and participate in social occasions.

This strong sense of community and connection to one another has helped the San to maintain their unique cultural traditions and way of life, despite the many challenges they have faced over the years.

History of the San people

The San people, also known as the Bushmen, are the descendants of Early Stone Age ancestors who have lived in Southern Africa for at least 20,000 years.

They are a group of hunter-gatherers who followed seasonal game migrations between mountain ranges and coastlines.

The San made their homes in caves, under rocky overhangs, or in temporary shelters. Unlike the Bantu tribes, the San did not domesticate animals or cultivate crops.

However, their knowledge of both flora and fauna is vast, and they categorized thousands of plants and their uses, from nutritional to medicinal, mystical to recreational, and even lethal. The San men are known for their formidable reputation as trackers and hunters.

Around the beginning of the Christian era, a group of pastoralists, called Khoikhoi or ‘Hottentots’, moved into the northern and western parts of South Africa and migrated southward.

They resembled the San in many ways and lived by gathering wild plants and domesticating animals. At the same time, the Bantu-speaking peoples were moving southward, bringing with them cattle, the concept of planting crops, and settled village life.

Also read: 10 Smallest Tribes In Africa

When the white settlers arrived in the mid 17th century, the country was inhabited by three different groups: the hunter-gatherers (San), the pastoralists (Khoikhoi), and the farmers (Bantu).

At first, the San co-existed peacefully with the Nguni speakers (a sub-language group of the Bantu) who intermarried with the San and incorporated some of the distinctive and characteristic ‘clicks’ of the San language into their own languages.

However, problems arose when the San fought against the Bantu. The San were at a huge disadvantage not only in numbers but also in lack of weapons.

With the Europeans, the San were at an even greater disadvantage. The Europeans owned horses and firearms. During this period, the number of San was greatly reduced as 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, and they were no longer allowed to roam freely. 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’s staple diet for centuries.

Enslavement and sometimes mass destruction of San communities by both black and white farmers followed. Many became farm laborers, and some joined black farming communities and intermarried with them, which added to the destruction of the social identity of the San people.

Despite their unfortunate history of poverty, social rejection, and discrimination of their rights as a group, the San have also received attention from anthropologists and the media for their survival and hunting skills, their wealth of indigenous knowledge of the flora and fauna of Southern Africa, and their rich cultural traditions.

The Social and Cultural Practices of the San People

The San people have a unique social structure that is based on group consensus rather than a formal authority figure or chief.

This egalitarian system allows everyone in the group to have a voice in decision-making processes and disputes are resolved through lengthy discussions until an agreement is reached that satisfies everyone involved.

Leadership among the San is not based on power or influence, but rather on individuals who excel in specific areas such as hunting or healing rituals.

However, these leaders do not have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the group as a whole. Instead, leadership is earned through age, experience, and good character. This system of leadership proved confusing to white colonists who were used to hierarchical leadership structures.

In terms of property ownership, land is usually owned by the group as a whole and rights to the land are inherited bilaterally.

The kinship bonds provide the basic framework for political models, with membership in the group determined by residency.

As long as a person lives on the land of their group, they maintain their membership within that group. However, it is possible to hunt on land that is not owned by the group, but permission must be obtained from the owners.

Despite the San’s unique social and political structure, they are known for their generosity and communal sharing. Resources such as meat and tobacco are shared among the group, further emphasizing the importance of community and cooperation.

This strong sense of community is a fundamental aspect of San culture and has helped them survive and thrive for thousands of years.


The San people have a great hunting skill and prefer to use a bow and arrow to catch their prey. The arrows used by the San are dipped in poison made from beetle larvae, plants, or snake venom, and it takes several hours to several days for the animal to die after being hit by the arrow.

The San’s diet includes various animals such as antelope, zebra, porcupine, wild hare, lion, giraffe, fish, insects, tortoise, and snakes.

They also consume eggs and wild honey. The San utilize every part of the animal, and water is scarce, so they collect moisture by scraping and squeezing roots or digging holes in the sand to find water. They even carry water in ostrich eggshells.

The San also use traps made of twisted gut or plant fibers to catch small animals and dug pitfalls near rivers to trap larger game.

The San are skilled trackers and follow their prey’s habits to catch them. Women gather food such as mushrooms, bulbs, berries, and melons while the men hunt.

The San share their hunted meat with the tribe members and visitors, but plant food gathered by women is eaten only by their immediate family.

San people beliefs and ritual

The San people hold the Eland in high spiritual regard and incorporate it into four significant rituals, including boys’ first kill, girls’ puberty, marriage, and trance dance.

During these rituals, the Eland is believed to possess unique powers that can be transferred to individuals who partake in the ceremony.

The San people have a rich tradition of storytelling, and many of their tales revolve around the gods and serve as moral lessons for listeners to learn from. The Eland is believed to be one of /Kaggen’s favourite animals, according to San mythology.


The San people, also known as the Bushmen, have a rich cultural heritage that spans back more than 20,000 years. However, their way of life has been under threat for many decades, and they continue to face numerous challenges in the modern era.

One of the biggest challenges for the San is the perception that their lifestyle is primitive and that they need to be brought into the mainstream of society.

This has led to many San people being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and being forced to live in poverty and squalor.

Despite these challenges, the San people have demonstrated remarkable resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity.

They have developed new strategies for political, economic and social survival, while still retaining many of their ancient practices and beliefs.

However, despite their resilience, the San people are still at risk of extinction. Their way of life is under threat, and their culture and traditions may soon only be found in history books and museums.

It is therefore crucial that we work to protect the San people and their way of life. This means recognizing and respecting their cultural heritage, and working to restore their land rights and provide them with the support they need to thrive.

Ultimately, the fate of the San people is in our hands. We have the power to ensure that they continue to exist as a distinct and vibrant culture, or to consign them to the dustbin of history.


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