The San Bushmen of southern Africa are an ancient people whose imprint can be traced back to about 45,000 years, in fact the oldest gene pattern amongst modern humans is that of the Khoe-San, dating back to about 80,000 years ago, thus we are all distant descendants of the San. Africa’s oldest indigenous people once had free roam of Southern Africa but over the years have seen their territories encroached upon by modern expansion. They can now only be found in a few protected pockets of southern Africa, mostly in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. The San are the finest example of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that existed in the Stone Age and are our closest link to a bygone era. From an anthropological and cultural perspective there is a wealth of fascinating knowledge to delve into.
The San are probably most well known for their evocative rock art that can still be found in caves and rock walls around southern Africa. These paintings created by a mixture of ground-up stones, eland blood, and fat give vital insight into the Bushman’s way of life as well as their mystical mythology. The San Bushmen view the Eland as a sacred animal and depict it often in their artwork, when doing so they are trying to tap into its essence. The beautiful rock paintings in hues of red ochre, brown, black and white are symbolic and hold deep religious and spiritual significance. The paintings often portray elements of the trance dance that the shaman enacts which is why you see people with blood streaming from their nose or bent in strange positions. This spiritual trance and rock art is connected by opening a portal to the spiritual realm.
The Eland’ spiritual importance comes through in many other intriguing rituals of the San. For instance, when a girl has her first menstruation there is a ceremony where she stays in a hut while the women and men of the tribe perform a dance imitating the Eland’s mating ritual – this is to ensure that she will stay beautiful, peaceful, and free from hunger and thirst. Dance is very important in the San culture, dances can be for medicinal healing or a call for rain. The whole tribe takes part in these dances around the fire, building in intensity until they reach a trance and communicate with the spiritual realm.
In a San community there is no chief or leader of the tribe, instead everyone plays an equal role and important decisions are made as a group after an in-depth discussion where everyone has a chance to have their say. Leaders may evolve naturally from an exceptional skill level in hunting or valuable wisdom when it comes to medicinal herbs, these leaders will be respected and looked to for advice but won’t have dominion over the group. Furthermore, gender roles aren’t incredibly strict and while it is usually the men who do the hunting and the women who do the gathering it is not unheard of for women to join hunts or men to go gathering as well.
As hunter-gatherers the San are excellent hunters and their tracking skills are particularly impressive, they can deduce from the spoor what time the animal passed by and even whether it is injured or ill. The San can also follow their prey over great distances and with incredible speed. Their primary tool for hunting is a bow and poisoned arrow, neurotoxic poison is made by boiling beetle larvae into a jelly like consistency which is applied to the arrow. Hunting is on a subsistence level and all care is taken to ensure none of the animal goes to waste. Meat from a successful hunt is shared amongst the tribe, however the foraged food is only shared amongst immediate family members.
Travellers on a Jenman African Safaris Desert Delta Discoverer trip have the rare and fascinating opportunity to learn more about the Ncoakhoe San Bushmen in the Kalahari region of Botswana. As part of a community-based tourism project, guests stay at a Bushmen owned lodge called Dqae Qare San Lodge. Here they can engage with the local San community and learn more about the fascinating rituals and practices which include story-telling, traditional dances, tracking secrets, and bush walks where they share their valuable knowledge. It is an enlightening experience that leaves guests with a lasting memory as well as deeper connection to the land of their ancestors.