The San people of Africa

The San people live in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. These indigenous people of Southern Africa originally lived purely as hunters and gatherers.


Imagine a society in which the work week seldom exceeds 19 hours, material wealth is considered a burden, and no one is much richer than anyone else.

This description may sound like a futuristic utopia to some. However, this quote from a 1969 Time article references the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari. Some call them San. Others call them Bushmen.

Who are the San people of Africa?

Most archaeologists believe that the San hunter-gatherer culture dates back 20,000 years. However, some archaeological evidence supports the view that the San should be attributed to the Early Later Stone Age (ELSA). The San tribes are descendants of the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa and thus belong to the oldest cultures on earth.

The term San is to be understood as a collective term for several indigenous ethnic groups in Southern Africa. These groups include, for example, the ǃKung, |Gui, Ju/'hoasi or Naro Tribe.


The history of the San

In 1652, the Dutch began colonising South Africa. Here they encountered two groups of people, both speaking languages heavily influenced by “click” sounds.

a. Cattle herders called Khoi (or Khoikhoi)
b. Hunter-gatherers called San

They are collectively referred to as Khoe-San. Khoe-San genetics reveal that those groups harbour the greatest level of diversity of all living peoples. They speak Khoisan languages, which rank among the most complex languages in the world. Symbols such as ! or / represent the typical clicks of this language in our alphabet.

The San lived near and in the vast expanse of the Kalahari Desert, covering parts of what is now known as Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. The Kalahari is a hot, large semi-arid savanna with lots of sand. This area of thirst, where the sun burns relentlessly, has harsh living conditions. Only adapted survival experts who know their environment inside out will survive here. This unforgiving rule of life applies to humans and animals.

Domesticating animals, as the Khoi did, or crop cultivation, is not an option in this sandy area. This reason made the Kalahari Desert a natural frontier for peoples who relied on cattle and crops. During the further course of the European settlement, the San tribes were forced further into the northern depths of the desert. The San were clearly overmatched in the fight against the Europeans equipped with firearms. During this period, the number of San was significantly reduced. Trapped San were forced into slavery.

The San people’s way of life

African San people are migratory people. That means they do not stay in one place for long. Small mobile family groups, comprising up to 25 men, women and children, carried their simple shelter with them. Whenever available, the nomadic people made use of caves for protection.

What do bushmen eat?

The San’s diet includes meat, collected eggs, wild berries, roots, nuts and other plant materials. Among the gatherers and hunters, the roles are divided. The San women are responsible for gathering. And the San men perform the hunting. The vegetables harvested by the women make up about 75% of their intake. They rely on their extensive knowledge of edible, medicinal and poisonous plants. This indigenous knowledge has been passed down for generations. That San women supply three times as much food as San men is one of the reasons why San women are treated as relatively equal.

San hunting methods

The African San are excellent hunters and make use of a wide variety of methods. Antelopes and giraffes are just two examples of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects considered huntable. Depending on the animal being tracked, the hunt can last between a few hours and several days — a physically demanding challenge.


When setting traps, the San use, among other things, pitfall traps or snares. For pitfall traps, they dig a hole, for example at a waterhole that is frequently used by the hunted species, and cover it with branches. If an animal accidentally falls into the trap, it cannot escape this large, deep hole and becomes easy prey.

Snare traps are intended to catch smaller species, such as hares. For this trapping method, a deadly snare is formed from plant fibres that tightens when an animal walks into the trap.


Poisonous bow and arrow

The San often go hunting with bow and arrow. However, bows and arrows alone usually do not kill the animal. Only in combination with poison does the arrow become a deadly weapon. The San utilise a special kind of beetle to poison their arrows. This poison is strong enough to kill the hunted animal. However, it also has the characteristic of not poisoning all the meat.

Endurance hunt

Endurance hunting, the oldest form of human hunting, focuses on chasing animals until they collapse exhausted. With cooling sweat pores and an upright walk on two legs, humans have a significant advantage when it comes to perseverance. On the other hand, predators such as lions depend on reaching their prey in one go. Otherwise, they would overheat, and the target would escape. The San are sophisticated trackers who know the game and habitat very well, which helps them to lead their way on a persistence hunt.

Thirst quencher in the Kalahari Desert

Due to the San’s harsh environment, water is a rare resource. To get water in the Kalahari Desert, they use the root of the “bi! bulb”. If it is squeezed, it provides water. Scooping out the morning dew also serves as a source of water. To store water, the San utilise ostrich eggshells.

The San Culture

The San people in Africa have a rich traditional culture - with a habit of gift-giving, the creation of eggshell jewellery, drawings, music, spirituality and wisdom.


Using different coloured stones, the San made rock paintings and carvings to record things that happened. The San rock paintings show non-human beings, humans and hybrid creatures that are half human, half animal. They, for instance, illustrate the speed of a hunt with a galloping movement or the dedicated communal dances around the fire. Later, San rock art began to show contact with European settlers by depicting sailing ships, European-style clothing, guns and cannons.

Another central element of San culture is music and dance. Particularly noteworthy here is the nightly, long-lasting medicine trance dance, which is considered a central healing remedy. During this trance experience, the supernatural power n/um is awakened, which cures diseases and benefits the group. Additionally, medicinal plants known by the San are used to treat illnesses.

The San belief systems differ among the various groups. Generalised, there is the predominance of a powerful god alongside the presence of less powerful gods in the San religion. Respect is also paid to the spirits of the deceased.

San survival skills and tracking course

Nowadays, the modern San are no longer isolated. If you want to be part of a progressive example of bush tourism, you should attend Natucate's San survival and tracking course.

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