Thursday, 31 May 2007


The Bushmen, often referred to as the San or the generic term Khoisan, are the remnants of Africa's oldest cultural group, genetically the closest surviving people to the original Homo-Sapien core from which the Negro emerged. They are small in stature generally with light yellowish skin, which wrinkles very early in life. Despite the later massive expansion of the pastoral and agrarian tribal cultures, those Bushman groups that utilised environments that were unsuitable for farming, survived until fairly recently with a high level of genetic purity.

They were hunter/gatherers, with traditionally about 70/80% of their diet consisting of plant food, including berries, nuts, roots and melons gathered primarily by the women. The remaining 20/30% was meat, hunted by the men, using poisoned arrows and spears. Their hunting & gathering economy and social structure had remained virtually unchanged for tens of thousands of years until very recently, a socio-economic culture that has sustained mankind universally during their evolution until the advent of agriculture. The Bushmen did not farm or keep livestock, having no concept of the ownership of land or animal.

Their social structure is not Tribal because they have no paramount leader and their ties of kinship are fairly relaxed. They are a loosely knit family culture where decisions are made by universal discussion and agreement by consensus. An individual's opinion is naturally weighted according to their level of skill and experience in the particular field of discussion.

Families within a clan would speak a common language but neighboring clans would usually speak a different tongue, although there would normally be a fair degree of similarity & understanding between them. As you will appreciate, the further afield the clans, the less commonality in language and vocabulary.

Bushmen are generally nomadic within fairly limited boundaries, governed by the proximity of other families and clans. As a very loose guideline, the territory of a family may stretch to a 25-mile circle. Obviously, if there are no other bordering clans or other people these areas may stretch further, as far as is needed to ensure adequate food and water sources.

The roles of men & women were very distinct and rarely overlap, which is a characteristic almost universal amongst hunter/gatherers the world over. It based on survival needs encouraging the most efficient utilisation of available skills and resources. Despite what is often perceived as a very sexist society, the importance of women is very high within the group and their opinions often take precedence, particularly where food is concerned.

It is very difficult today to find genetically pure lines, but in some areas groups can be found which appear to have little or no interbreeding with other peoples and cultures. It is even more difficult to find Bushmen who still totally reliant on traditional methods of survival. The reasons for this are very varied and often the cause of much academic, ideological, economic and political conflict. Without pointing fingers I will try to explain the different forces that have impacted most heavily on these "First People" of Africa.

Bushmen - A term first applied by white explorers and settlers over 200 years ago. It was in those days a derogatory term applied to people held in very low esteem by the whites, the Bantu & the Khoi khoi. The Bantu tribes used various names including BaSarwa (a Tswana term).

San - The term used by the Khoi khoi. Although it is difficult to get a literal translation, the word was far from complimentary as these people despised the Bushmen as scavengers. In the 1960's it was first used by the Harvard Kalahari Research Group, although there is apparently some evidence of a German professor first coining the word in the 1950's in place of the term "Bushman" which he deemed offensive. Ironic that he replaced it with a word that was even more derogatory. Anyone disputing this should visit the Ju/wasi Bushmen in Hereroland, eastern Namibia, and call them "San".

Their response will be colorful to say the least. Although I would much rather an actual Bushman term be adopted such as Khwe (Variations of this name, generally meaning "The People", can be found throughout Botswana) various Bushmen groups in Namibia seemed to have accepted "San" as a suitable name. The situation is currently very convoluted but a good overview can be found at
Khoikhoi - A people found scattered throughout southern Africa who were genetically similar to the Bushmen and speak a language akin to the Bushman tongue using the click consonants.

They keep sheep, goats and latterly cattle, unlike the Bushmen who traditionally kept no livestock. Various theories exist as to the origins of this socio-economic transition. My best guess is that their roots lay in at least 2 major interactions with Arabs or other peoples of the Middle East. Khoi is their own name for themselves and is now used by most people because the Dutch term "Hottentot" was considered derogatory.

During the white expansion there was significant interbreeding, first with whites and later with Bantu. From this interaction specific clans emerged bearing names such as Witboois and Afrikaner (not to be confused with the white Afrikaaners), with pride. Many of these groups moved to the North to escape persecution.

Khoisan - The term most applied by academia today, referring to the Bushman/Khoi gene pool or, as is often stated, applying to all those people sharing related languages that use the Click Consonants. Still, I feel, not a respectful term as in incorporates the Khoikhoi term San.
Bantu - A generic term applied to African Negroid tribal people who migrated down from central Africa over millennia.