Term 1: Hunter-gatherers and herders in Southern Africa

The Hunter-Gatherers of Southern Africa: Summary

Hunter-gatherers is a term for people who survive, or used to survive, by hunting and gathering food.

QUICK INFO GUIDE: Southern Africa hunter gatherers learnt from oral history/storytelling and archaeological research.

    1. Have been around for 11 000 YEARS!
    2. Name: San (referred to by the European colonists as Bushmen or Bosjeman)
    3. Places found: Southern Kalahari

Archaeologists believe that the San people were the descendants of the original Homo sapiens who lived in South Africa for at least 150 000 years.

San cultural practices are still practised today!

SAN AND THE EUROPEAN SETTLERS:

Europeans arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 bringing:

  1. Advanced weapons – Khoi/San were forced off their land: NO FIREPOWER
  2. New diseases – with no natural immunity, small pox caused thousands of San and Khoi people to die during the 18th and 19th centuries. San people either died of disease or were forced to join other clans for survival. 

THE LIFE OF THE SAN:

What the Europeans saw: very primitive people.

Who the San were: People who used Stone-Age technology, were nomadic and very skilled! 

They followed the seasons and knew where the plants for food would grow, making sure not to damage the environment by picking too many plants. They followed the migration of the antelope for hunting to ensure that they would never go hungry and knew the different places to get water so that they would not go thirsty. If anyone became ill, they would also know which plants to use as medicine. 

SAN SOCIETY:

  1. Women: Pick the plants and herbs for food. Build homes (hut-like structures). Toolmakers and crafters (jewellery).
  2. Men: Hunt and go fishing. Make bows, poisoned arrows and sharpened rocks (hunting, cutting and harvesting)

FOOD: Take what you need and waste nothing. They used all parts of the animal as they respected the animal for sacrificing its life so that they could eat. 

HOME: San were nomadic – always moving. They lived in caves, camped out in the open or made their homes of materials that were easily available, such as long grass, thin branches and rocks. 

TOOLS: Stone Age technology- tools made from stones, animal bones and wood.

THE ROCK ART OF THE SAN PEOPLE:

Painted by the shaman after a very special experience: The trance dance. 

While in a trance, the shaman would see images of the spirit world. 

Scenes of hunting, animals (eland or other antelope) that are special to the San.

SAN ROCK ART:

Tools:

  1. Brushes: feathers or animal hair and thin reeds
  2. Paint: Mixed pigment with whatever was available, be it egg, animal blood, water or saliva. 

Favourite colours: Red ochre, Yellow ochre, White paint and black paint.

Etching of the images: The artist would scrape and chip out pieces of rock from the greater surface and create beautiful art. They would use pieces of rock and sharpened sticks to create the images.

THE LINTON PANEL:

The Linton Panel is one of the most famous pieces of rock art made by the San.

FOUND: Linton in the Eastern Cape.

IMAGE: San figure gaining great power from his main god.

MEANING: Power from the god to benefit their community (healing the sick and creating unity). The San believed that their art had special powers.

COAT OF ARMS: we see the San figure from the Linton Panel, which was used to assume the same power from the rock art to create ‘unity from diversity’. This is represented as two figures greeting one another.

THE COMMUNITY AND BELIEFS:

No hierarchy – Everyone was equal and decisions made together by the group.

LOVE: During their courtship the young man would bring gifts to his future parents-in-law to prove his ability as a hunter and to show that he could support his wife-to-be. On the day of the wedding, the bridegroom had to bring an animal he had killed to the parents of his bride. The bride’s mother would decorate her daughter’s face with the fat of an animal and mix it with red ochre. There was no big ceremony for weddings as a marriage was official when the bride and groom entered and shared the same shelter.

Once married the husband joins his wife’s band. It is common for three or four families to join together and form a band that can range from 15 and 40 people. 

THE CUSTOMS AND RELIGION OF THE SAN

All hunter-gatherers had initiations to show the change from childhood into adulthood. Initiation is the act of somebody becoming a member of a group, often with a special ceremony. It also indicated that young people were considered eligible for marriage.

GIRLS: Initiation was linked to puberty and was celebrated by ceremonial dances and scarring. They were taught about their role in the community and of food preparation and gathering techniques.

BOYS: Boys would leave the camp site for about a month to be initiated into adulthood.

The San were polytheistic, which means they believed in many gods. Both men and women could become healers. Healers served their community through their connection with the spirit world. Healing dances were very important, not only for religious purposes, but also social occasions that took place a few times a week.

THE FOOD OF THE SAN:

The San were very skilled hunters and developed specialised bows and arrows. The bow was approximately one metre long, made of flexible wood and the string was made by using sinew from either a kudu or a gemsbok. The arrows had pointed tips and were poisoned in order to ensure animals were killed once struck.

The majority of the San’s diet came from plants.

THE CLOTHING OF THE SAN:

The San used animal skins for clothing. Decorative beads would be strung onto a string of sinew and worn in the hair as a hair band.

MEDICINE OF THE SAN:

Plants were very important in San culture. The San’s knowledge of nature helped them to live in the most challenging environments as they always managed to find food and medicine, which they also used to trade with European settlers. The Hoodai cactus plant was used by the San people as medicine to suppress their appetites.

The Buchu plant, also known as boegoe plant, was used by the San to treat kidney and urinary tract diseases as well as minor digestive disturbances. 

THE HERDERS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA:

KHOI KHOI

    1. Hunter-gatherers + animal herders.
    2. Cattle were a symbol of wealth.
    3. Nomadic for grazing land.
    4. Hierarchical society based on cattle wealth.
    5. Made weapons (skilled).
    6. Traded with European settlers.

Last updated : 08-Feb-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 06-Jul-2016