Who were the hunter-gatherers?

Many societies all over the world survived by hunting and gathering for most of the last 100 000 years. In southern Africa the San people, who arrived thousands of years ago, are an example of hunter-gatherers. They used stone tools to cut up the animals they hunted and did not use iron.

In the past 50 years these people's lives have changed a great deal under the pressure of modern and foreign ways of living. Many have lost their way of life and livelihoods like other indigenous groups all over the world. There are still very small groups that have managed to keep some ancient traditions alive. Many indigenous tribes have drawn attention to the danger of extinction for many cultures and special ways of living and surviving. The San are an important example of these communities in danger.

Where did they come from?

Some of the earliest people to arrive in southern Africa were the San. They came from further north in Africa and are also known as Bushmen. This word is now considered an insult. The San arrived thousands of years before the arrival of European people. It is difficult to find out where exactly they came from and how they got here because there is no recorded history. They have a rich oral history and the stories that have been passed on along with culture and traditions from generation to generation tell us what is known of this group.

Finding out about hunter-gatherers and herders


We can learn quite a lot about the way hunter gatherers and herders lived from their stories. Their storytelling has passed on their  customs and values.


Archaeologist study the objects that were left behind by the hunter-gatherers. These objects tell us about the way they used to live.

Rock paintings

The San, and the Khoikhoi, who arrived in southern Africa after the hunter-gatherers, created many rock paintings at thousands of different sites all over South Africa. They used natural ingredients to make paints and brushes and painted animals and people inside caves and on rocks.

It is hard to say why they created these works of art, but today the paintings tell us more about these ancient ancestors and their lives.


There are many books in libraries that explain the life of the San:

  • Klein, R. G. (1989). The Human Career:Human Biological and Cultural Origins. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.
  • Marneweck, L., Sieborger, R., Torr, L. (1996). Making History 3. Johannesburg: Heineman.
  • Nasson, B. (ed) (2004). Turning Points in History Book 1: Ancient Civilisations and Global Trade. Johannesburg: STE.
  • Potenza, E. (1992). The Broken String: An integrated approach to southern African History. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman.

Online resources

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