San, Namibia, Tsumkwe, Hunter, Gather, Africa, Tribal, Bushman, Pipe, Smoking, Lasa Photograph by Ben Mcrea -

San (Bushmen) people; The First People In South Africa

The earliest hunter-gatherers in southern Africa were the San people. The San were also known as ‘Bushmen’, a term used by the European Colonists that is now considered derogatory. The San populated South Africa long before the arrival of the Bantu-speaking nations, and thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

South Africa is a country of many cultures, known by its citizens as the Rainbow Nation.  The aboriginal indigenous people – the San Bushmen and Khoikhoi (collectively known as Khoisan) were joined by an influx of Bantu and Europeans to evolve into present-day South Africa’s cultural make-up

How we got here

The aboriginal Khoikhoi people have lived in the region for millennia. Indigenous Africans in South Africa are descendants of immigrants from further north in Africa who first entered the northern areas of the country roughly 1700 years ago.

White South Africans are descendants of later European settlers, mainly from the Netherlands and Britain.

The Coloureds are descended at least in part from all of these groups, as well as from slaves from Madagascar, East Africa and the then East Indies, and there are many South Africans of Indian and Chinese origin, descendants of labourers who arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Photograph: Eric Lafforgue

The difference between San and Khoekhoe

The San’s genetic origins have been traced back to the beginning of modern humanity. Modern humans were said to evolve around 200 000 years ago in Africa.

We know that the San were in Southern Africa at least 117 000 years ago (Eve’s footprints at Langebaan, as well as archaeological sites at Pinnacle Point and Blombos on the coast of the Western Cape, serve as evidence). The San (often called Bushmen) lived by hunting game with bows and arrows and foraging for food.

The Khoekhoe, by comparison, are said to have arrived in the Western Cape only about 2 000 years ago. They were herders, pastoralists, and potters. There are conflicting accounts as to how the two groups interacted. Some accounts say peacefully, others refer to massacres of the San by Khoe livestock farmer bands.

THE SAN were nomads. They organised themselves into small family groups, or bands – a married couple, their children, a sister or brother, a cousin or close friend and their partners, children and several grandparents or elderly relatives.

Photograph by Ben Mcrea –

A series of bands laid claim to a particular territory, which was theirs across generations, so that there was an unmistakably powerful tie between the people and their land. There was absolute respect for one another’s territory, and other bands would only venture onto another’s land if invited, or with permission.

The San were also, apparently, not exclusive to the Cape of South Africa. Evidence of San have been found in Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.

The KHOEKHOE’S structure was different, one with which we are more familiar. Theirs was a patriarchal clan society, divided into villages of roughly 100 people.

Each clan had its hereditary head and a clearly-defined piece of land on which their livestock would graze. Their livestock moved from one grazing ground to another dependent on the seasons and climate. The Nama people of the Richtersveld still practise transhumance today.

The two would have, over time, adopted similar ways of living as their lifestyles affected one another, and their access to land became limited.


San Language, culture and religion: 

San languages, characterised by implosive consonants or ‘clicks’, belonged to a totally different language family from those of the Bantu speakers. Broadly speaking, they are two different and identifiable languages, namely the Khoikhoi and San. Many dialects have evolved from these, including /Xam, N?¡, !Xu, Khwe and Khomani. NÁƒ mÁƒÂ¡, previously called Hottentot, is the most populous and widespread of the Khoikhoi and San languages.

Very little is known about the different dialects of South Africa’s San people, as most of these beautiful, ancient languages were never recorded. Fortunately, the /Xam dialect, which is spoken by the San, was recorded almost in its entirety, thanks to the work of a German linguist, Dr WHI Bleek.

/Xam speakers originally occupied a large part of western South Africa, but by 1850, only a few hundred /Xam speakers lived in remote parts of the Northern Cape. Today, the language is no longer exists, but survives in 12 000 pages of hand-written testimony taken down word-for-word from some of the last /Xam speakers in the 1860s and 1870s. These pages record not just the /Xam language, but also their myths, beliefs and rituals. A comprehensive /Xam dictionary was produced by Dr Bleek at the time, but was only published years later (DF Bleek: 1956).

South Africa’s motto, written on the SA coat of arms is a /Xam phrase: !ke e: /xarra //ke, literally meaning: diverse people unite.


Bushmen is an Anglicization of boesman, the Dutch and Afrikaner name for them; saan (plural) or saa (singular) is the Nama word for “bush dweller(s),” and the Nama name is now generally favoured by anthropologists. Each of these terms has a problematic history, as they have been used by outsiders to refer to them, often with pejorative connotations. The individual groups identify by names such as Ju/’hoansi and !Kung (the punctuation characters representing different click consonants), and most call themselves by the pejorative “Bushmen” when referring to themselves collectively.

The term San was historically applied by their ethnic relatives and historic rivals, the Khoikhoi. This term means “outsider” in the Nama language and was derogatory because it distinguished the Bushmen from what the Khoikhoi called themselves, namely the “First People”. Western anthropologists adopted San extensively in the 1970s, where it remains preferred in academic circles. The term Bushmen is widely used, but opinions vary on whether it is appropriate because it is sometimes viewed as pejorative.


What happened to them?

The arrival of Apartheid many years later further repressed the Khoisan, and they quickly became one of the country’s most threatened cultural groups.

Climate change also had a direct impact on the Khoisan. 22,000 years ago, when they first lived in Southern Africa, the land was wet, fertile and packed full of wild game. All of this started to dry out as the region became hotter and drier.


What remains of South Africa’s first people live predominantly in the Northern Cape:

  • most of the San groups live in the Kalahari
  • the Khwe and !Xun live around Platfontein in Kimberley
  • the Khoekhoe, including the Nama people, live in the Northern Cape
  • the Korana live mainly in Kimberley and the Free State
  • the Griqua are more widely spread – there are groups in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal

‘Hidden San’ communities are believed to live in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.


Other regions with significant populations

Botswana: 55 000
Namibia: 27 000
South Africa: 10 000
Angola: 5 000
Zimbabwe: 1 200

– The History of South Africa|
– SAN (BUSHMEN) PEOPLE: THE WORLD MOST ANCIENT RACE/PEOPLE | Trip down memory lane (also source for some images used above)
– The San | South African History Online

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