Five innovative technologies used by the San people of southern Africa

The San peoples, or Bushmen, are members of various Khoe, Tuu, or Kxʼa-speaking indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures that are the first cultures of Southern Africa, and whose territories span Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa.

You are likely not to find this indigenous population on their native lands in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique as they have been displaced in the name of conversation. The San, one of the oldest people in the world and the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20,000 years, have gone through a period of social rejection, discrimination and poverty.

These people of the Kalahari desert have for over 20 years now been evicted from their lands to make way for tourism and mining activities. Since they are considered a threat to wildlife, many of them have been evicted from their homes, their water supply has been cut off and they have been restricted from hunting.

The Central Kalahari game park is now almost a no-go area for them even though they have lived in the desert for years. Meanwhile, the site is hosting one of the largest diamond mines in the world. In 2006, the high court granted the San the right to return to their land, but as of 2016, the government was still enforcing a permit system.

Even though the San of southern Africa are being displaced, the lives and cultural practices of these traditional hunter-gatherers will forever be etched in the minds of many, especially their amazing technologies. Here are some of them.

Complex arrows with poisons

Early hunters were known for complex, poisoned arrows that they developed themselves. According to a report by Google Arts and Culture, each arrow comprises three parts — a point made of metal onto which poison is applied; a flight made of wood with feathers to stabilize the arrow as it cuts through the air and a link shaft made of bone that bridges these two parts.

When the poisoned tip pierces an animal’s skin, the link shaft breaks off. With this, the animal is not able to rub the arrow out against a tree, leaving the tip in the skin as the poison begins to work. The poison the San used on their arrows was deadly. It could take several hours for the poison to bring an animal down. Hunters would then use spears to finally bring the animal down. 

Interestingly, the San made their own adhesive to glue their arrowheads to the shafts or handles. The strong but brittle glue breaks under pressure, and this leaves a poisoned arrow-tip in a wounded animal, as stated by the Google Arts and Culture report.

Ostrich eggshell water containers

It was difficult for San people who lived in the driest regions to find water. So, they often stored water, and they did this by using ostrich egg shell containers that were carefully engraved. A hole was made in one end of the egg shell and a bit of grass or other material was used as a stopper once the container has been filled with water. While hunting game, the San carry along these egg shell containers filled with water.


Descended from hunter-gatherers who lived in southern Africa before the arrival of herder and farmer groups, the San are famous for their rock arts. Early hunter-gatherers developed paints made from yellow and red ochre and charcoal mixed with eland blood, animal fat or egg albumin. The art forms had intimate connections with the spiritual beliefs of the San. Today, there are at least 250,000 painted and engraved sites in southern Africa, with the oldest painted art dating back to 27,000 years ago.

Plants to create medicines

Different indigenous plants were used by the San to create medicines to cure, stop, or prevent diseases and illnesses. The San mostly used the Buchu whose leaf is used to make medicine. It is used to disinfect the urinary tract during infections of the bladder, urethra, prostate, or kidney. 

Digging sticks

San and Khloe women used digging sticks to dig up roots and bulbs. Sharpened at one end, the stick was weighted with a bored stone “to give it extra impact to loosen the soil.” Women could also bang the bored stones on the ground to call the spirits of the dead.

First Posted by Face2face Africa

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