Term 1: Hunter-gatherers and herders in Southern Africa

Who are the hunter gatherers of Southern Africa?

You may be under the impression that there are no more hunter gatherers living today. But there are! All over the world, in every country from Brazil to Australia, you will still find people living as hunter gatherers. This way of living is hundreds of thousands of years old. Imagine that! Living the exact same way as someone did during the time when fire was first discovered.

The hunter gatherers of Southern Africa are people known as the San and Khoi-Khoi. Archeologists have estimated that hunter-gatherers have been around in Southern Africa for approximately 11 000 years. The name ‘San’ comes from the Khoi-Khoi word ‘Saan’, which means 'people who gather wild food' or 'people without any cattle'. In South Africa we use the name ‘San’ to describe the indigenous people of Southern Africa who live or used to live by hunting and gathering.

Did you know that the European settlers had many names for the hunter gatherers? These included Bosjesman, Soaqua, Bushmen, `Sarwa' or `Basarwa', and `Twa'.

Hunter gatherers from around the world

Aborigines Image source

Yanomami South America Image source

Through archaeological research and San oral history or storytelling we know that there were a lot of San groups living in the Southern Kalahari. Archaeologists believe that the San were the descendants of the original homo sapiens who had lived in South Africa for at least 150 000 years. That must be one very long and big family tree!

Today we still see evidence of cultural practices that are being used by Southern African hunter-gatherers. Examples are the making of ostrich eggshell beads, shell ornaments, the bow and arrow and rock art.

Life of the San changes forever: The arrival of the Europeans

When the Europeans arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, they brought advanced weapons and new diseases. The European diseases, such as Smallpox, caused thousands of San and Khoi people to die during the 18th and 19th centuries. With their advanced weaponry, the Europeans were also able to force the Khoi and San off their land. Because of this, many South African San people either died of disease or were forced to join other clans for survival.

Khoikhoi tribe man from South Africa Image source

The San

In this section we will learn all about the life of the San. We will look at the following:

  1. Who are the San?
  2. San community and beliefs
  3. San customs and religion
  4. San food
  5. San clothing
  6. San medicine
  7. San rock art.

Who are the San?

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When the Europeans came to Africa, they thought that the indigenous people were very primitive. How wrong they were! Little did the Europeans know how clever the San were! Even though the San were using Stone-Age technology, these hunter-gatherers were very skilled.

The San were able to follow the seasons and know where the plants for food would grow, making sure not to pick too many plants and damage the environment. They also had to follow the migration of the antelope for hunting to ensure that they would never go hungry, and know 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.

In the San society, the women would go out and pick the plants and herbs for food, and the men would hunt and go fishing. They would only hunt what they could eat, never hunting for sport. When an antelope was killed, they would use every part of the animal, so that nothing went to waste. This was because they respected the animal for sacrificing its life so that they could eat it. Because the San were always moving, they lived either in caves, camped out in the open or made their homes out of materials that were easily available such as long grass, thin branches and rocks.

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San old man Image source

The women were in charge of building the hut-like structures and were able to do so in under an hour. They were also very skilled toolmakers and crafters. The women would make decorative ostrich egg-shell beads and the men would make bows and poisoned arrows for hunting, as well as sharpened rocks for cutting things and harvesting. The San were using Stone Age technology. This means that their tools were made from stones, animal bones and wood.


The San were a society without hierarchy. This meant that everyone was treated equally and that all big decisions were made by the group or band. There were no chiefs or leaders and no one was given special treatment. San men were also allowed to marry more than one wife, but few men did so. Often the first marriage of a young person was arranged by their parents. The bridegroom would be only 15 years old and the bride only 9 years old. Imagine getting married that young!

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 hut.

Once the bride and groom had been married, the husband had to perform something called a bride service for his parents-in-law, which meant that he needed to join their band. He also had to hunt, prepare skins and do other things around the home for them for a certain amount of time, usually until his wife had had three children.

The San moved around in bands of three or four families ranging between 15 and 40 people. Often bands would meet together and in times of drought, these networks would join together and share in the available food and water resources.

San customs and religion

The San had initiation ceremonies to show the change from childhood into adulthood. There were different ceremonies for the boys and the girls. The initiation ceremonies were different from band to band. At the conclusion of these rituals young people were considered eligible for marriage. For boys the initiation was linked to being a hunter as well as being taught different hunting techniques and religious secrets. Often boys would leave the camp site for about a month to be initiated into adulthood. For girls, the initiation was linked to puberty and was celebrated by ceremonial dances and scarring. Girls were also taught about their role in the community and of food preparation and gathering techniques.

The San were polytheistic in their beliefs. This means they believed in many gods. In their religion they worship a head god, with smaller gods who would be represented by elements of nature such as lightning, water, fire and animals. There were also gods of the sky and evil gods. The gods were only allowed to be addressed by the healers.

Healers gained their power through learning and trance dancing, which would allow them to heal illnesses. Men and women could both become healers and they served their community and acted as a connection to the spirit world. Healing dances were very important not only for religious purposes, but also social occasions that happened a few times a week.

Everyone in the band was allowed to attend these social occasions and they always started with the women and younger children singing and clapping while sitting around the fires in front of their shelters. A big bonfire in the middle of the camp was then built and the men danced around it while the women and children sang songs to cure those who were ill. Each song was named after an animal, for example gemsbok or eland. There was also a specific dance that went with each song. After a while of singing and dancing the men and healers would go into a trance-like state, which enabled them to heal the ill by taking away their illnesses. In some bands, it was believed that there was a specific god that possessed the healer and took away the evil of the illness. Other bands believed that the healing came from the main god.

San beauty Image source

San food

The San were very skilled hunters and made their own bows and arrows. Their arrows were poisoned using beetle larvae and made of sharpened bone and hollow reeds. Each hunter would mark his arrowheads in a special way (made by Mr. San) so that his arrow could be identified by the rest of the band. Once the arrow hit an animal, the poisoned head would become stuck in the animal and slowly poison the animal until it died. The arrows were kept in a quiver made of acacia root bark. This was to make transport of the arrows easier when hunting. The bow was approximately one metre long, made of flexible wood and the string was made using sinew from either a kudu or a gemsbok.

The hunters made snares from the sinew and certain plant fibres that would trap smaller animals. From a young age, boys would be given small bows and arrows to play with to practice shooting. They would learn to hunt small animals such as birds and spring hares. Hunters would not only hunt antelope, but also birds, tortoises, certain snakes, hares, porcupines, ostriches and guinea fowl. Other sources of protein or meat came from eggs, locusts, termite larvae and ants. If the San were living near the coast, they would also eat fish. The hunter whose arrow struck the animal first, would be in charge of dividing the meat up and sharing the meat with everyone in the band.

Most of the food consumed by the San came from plants. The women were responsible for gathering the food and the band always moved with the seasons so as to make the most of whatever food source was available. The women would gather nuts from the mongongo tree, fruit from the baobab trees, sour plums, other roots and seeds, berries as well as water-rich melons like tsama melons and tubers. These water-rich melons and tubers helped to supplement water supply when water was scarce. Plant resources were rarely shared as there would usually be enough available for each family. The women were also responsible for cooking the plants or preparing them as most were able to be eaten raw. The San are omnivores.

San clothing

Colourful:The women of the San tribe make their colourful beads from ostrich egg shells and make extra money by selling them to tourists Image source

Most members of the San tribe, this woman among them, live on the fringes of the inhospitable Kalahari Desert Image source

The San would use animal skins for clothing. The men would wear a triangular loin cloths made from animal skins. If the weather was cooler, they would wear a shawl of animal skin over their shoulders. The women would wear an apron made from animal skin and would often decorate this with ostrich egg-shell beads, pieces of bone or other natural materials, like shells. Older women would sometimes wear a shawl. Young children wore small aprons or loin cloth. The decorative beads, worn as jewellery, would be strung onto a string of sinew and worn in the hair as a hair band.

San medicine

Plants were very important in San culture, especially to use as medicine. Back in the day there were no hospitals or doctors or even yucky tasting medicine.The San used plants as their medicine! The San’s knowledge of nature helped them to survive in the most challenging environments; and to trade with European settlers. The Hoodai cactus plant was used by the San people as a medicine to suppress their appetites, so when the men went on long hunts they would not get hungry! The San also traditionally gathered stamina-building Sceletium tortuosum. During October, they dried and stored it in their huts and this was widely traded. It was chewed or used as a restorative tea.  Sceletium helped with abnormal stomach cramps, respiratory conditions and to combat addictions, specifically weaning people off alcohol.

Hoodia Gordonii Cactus Image source

The Buchu plant Image source

The Buchu plant, also known as boegoe plant, was used by the San for centuries. This is widely used to treat kidney and urinary tract diseases as well as minor digestive disturbances. The San introduced Buchu and its various medicinal benefits to the European Cape settlers in the 17th century. Historically the Khoisan used Buchu to anoint their bodies and chewed the leaves to relieve stomach complaints.  These practises were taken over by the Dutch colonists and "Boegoe” became a popular Cape medicine.  The leaves were steeped in brandy and the tincture ("Boegoebrandewyn”) was used for stomach problems.  "Boegoe-asyn” was highly regarded for the washing and cleansing of wounds.

San rock art

San artwork was painted by the shaman of the San and was only created after a very special experience: The trance dance. While in a trance, the shaman would see images of the spirit world. In the Kalahari today you still find San shamans who go into a trance-like state and do rock art. The images painted on the rock often show scenes of hunting animals that are special to the San, especially eland and other antelopes, and also of shamans doing their trance dance.

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To create their paintings the San used brushes and paint. Brushes were made using either feathers or animal hair and thin reeds. We can identify what they used by the brushstrokes that can be seen in the paint. The paint was made by mixing pigment with whatever was available, be it eggs, animal blood, water or saliva. Often they would use animal blood or special herbs to make the magic of the art more powerful. The most popular and common shade of paint used by rock artists was made of red ochre pigment, which was easy to obtain, being mined in Swaziland. Yellow ochre was also easy to find and was often used. White paint came in three different shades and researchers believe this was made from different shades of white clay or from bird poop. Black paint came from charcoal and manganese oxide.

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There are many different shades and colours but black, brown, red, yellow and white were more easily available to the average San rock artist. Etchings of images were also very common. 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 images. It is difficult for archaeologists to say exactly when any particular rock art was made because the art does not change very much with age and because most of the art is in caves, protected from being damaged by wind, rain or anything else.

The Linton Panel

The Linton Panel is one of the most famous pieces of rock art made by the San. This was found in a cave on a farm called Linton in the Eastern Cape, but has since been moved to the South African Museum in Cape Town. It is thought that the painting shows a San figure gaining great power from his main god. The San were said to use the power from the main god to benefit their community, for example, healing the sick and creating unity. The San believed that their art had special powers. When South Africa became a democracy in 1994, a new Coat of Arms was created. In the 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 'Linton panel', whose central figure was used on the South African coat of arms. Image source

The Khoi Khoi - Herders of Southern Africa

The San were not the only inhabitants of Southern Africa before the European settlers arrived. The Khoi-Khoi were a group of people who also inhabited Southern Africa. The name Khoi-Khoi means ‘people of people’ or ‘real people’ and they were also hunter gatherers, BUT there was one very big difference. They were herders too! They would herd livestock such as cattle. Having livestock was a symbol of wealth for the Khoi Khoi, especially cattle, as cattle were prized and would only be slaughtered for celebrations. Instead of having a bank account with money in it the Khoi Khoi had their cattle. The Khoi-Khoi also used their oxen to carry loads and to ride. Other livestock, such as goats and sheep, were more frequently slaughtered for their meat and fat, but would also provide milk for the tribe.

To ensure that the Khoi-Khoi livestock always had enough grazing land, the Khoi-Khoi would move from place to place to give the land a chance to regenerate.

They also gathered their food and needed to ensure that there was always enough to last for a long time. As the Khoi- Khoi were nomadic, their houses had to be easy to take down and put up, so they used young trees called saplings to build basic dome-like structures and covered them with woven reed mats. These mats were well-suited for covering the structures because in hot weather they would provide shade and allow air to flow in the gaps between the reeds. When it rained the reeds would swell up and prevent water from entering the structure. This meant that they were able to keep cool in hot weather and dry and warm in cold weather. For extra insulation in those cold winter months, the Khoi-Khoi would often put sheep and goat skins against the walls just as we use synthetic insulation in our houses today. In the Khoi- Khoi community, there were approximately 100 people in each village.

Khoi bartering © NLSA Image source

Unlike the San the Khoi Khoi had a hierarchical society structure. There was a chief, headman, elders, servants and other members in the village that had specific hierarchical positions based on how much cattle they owned. The wealthier members of the community would gain importance by donating cattle to be  slaughtered for community celebrations such as weddings and funerals. The chief would be responsible for maintaining harmony and making decisions in the community. He would own the most cattle and was the wealthiest man in the community. The role of chief would be passed on to his eldest son when he died, thus all the chiefs would be from the same family.

The Khoi-Khoi were very good at craftwork. They made clothing, bags and blankets from animal skins. They also made pottery with pointed bases and handles that strapped easily to the backs of oxen or to their shelters. They used the reeds for making mats for their houses and sleeping mats. The Khoi-Khoi were also very skilled at making weapons. They made spears with hardened points of iron that they gained from trading with neighbouring tribes or European settlers. After any celebration or successful hunt, the meat would be shared in the community.The best pieces of meat would go to the wealthiest members of the tribe. In this way, the Khoi- Khoi looked after one another.

Last updated : 23-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 27-May-2011