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The San
Bushmen Village, Namibia, 2005
Total population
90,000 +
Regions with significant populations
Botswana (55,000), Namibia (27,000), South Africa (10,000)

various Khoisan languages


San Religion

Related ethnic groups

Khoikhoi, Xhosa, Basters, Griqua

The indigenous people of southern Africa, whose territory spans most areas of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola, are variously referred to as Bushmen, San, Sho, Basarwa, Kung, or Khwe. These people were traditionally hunter-gatherers, part of the Khoisan group and are related to the traditionally pastoral Khoikhoi. Starting in the 1950s, through the 1990s, they switched to farming as a result of government-mandated modernization programs as well as the increased risks of a hunting and gathering lifestyle in the face of technological development.

The Bushmen have provided a wealth of information for the fields of anthropology and genetics, even as their lifestyles change. One broad study of African genetic diversity completed in 2009 found the San people were among the five populations with the highest measured levels of genetic diversity among the 121 distinct African populations sampled.[1][2] The San people can be considered the most basal branch of the phylogenetic tree comprising all living humans; its divergence node with other humans is the deepest ancestral state that can ever be reconstructed using DNA from living humans.



The terms "San", "Khwe", "Sho", "Bushmen", and "Basarwa" have all been used to refer to hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa. Each of these terms has a problematic history, as they have been used by outsiders to refer to them, often with pejorative connotations. The individual groups identify by names[1]such as Ju/'hoansi and !Kung (the punctuation characters representing different click consonants), and most call themselves by the pejorative Bushmen when referring to themselves collectively.[3]

The different San language groups of Namibia met in late 1996 and agreed to allow the general term "San" to designate them externally.[4] This term was historically applied by their ethnic relatives and historic rivals, the Khoikhoi. This term means "outsider" in the Nama language and was derogatory because it distinguished the Bushmen from what the Khoikhoi called themselves, namely the "First People".[3] Western anthropologists adopted "San" extensively in the 1970s, where it remains preferred in academic circles. The term Bushmen is widely used, but opinions vary on whether it is appropriate because it is sometimes viewed as pejorative.[5][6]

In South Africa, the term "San" has become favored in official contexts, and is included in the blazon of the new national coat-of-arms; "Bushman" is considered derogatory by some groups. Angola does not have an official term for the San, but they are sometimes referred to as Bushmen, "Kwankhala", or "Bosquímanos" (the Portuguese term for "Bushmen"). In Lesotho they're referred to as "Baroa", which is where the Sesotho name for "South", "Boroa", comes from. Neither Zambia nor Zimbabwe have official terms, although in the latter case the terms "Amasili" and "Batwa" are sometimes used.[7] In Botswana, the officially used term is "Basarwa",[8] where it is partially acceptable to some Bushmen groups, although Basarwa, a Tswana language label, also has negative connotations. The term is a class 2 noun (as indicated by the "ba-" class marker), while an older class 6 variant, "Masarwa," is now almost universally considered offensive.[7]

Ancestral land conflict with Botswana government

1000- to 2000-year-old San paintings near Murewa, Zimbabwe.

Since the mid-1990s the central government of Botswana has implemented a relocation policy, aiming to move the Bushmen out of their ancestral land on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve into newly created settlements. Although the government has categorically denied that relocation has been forced[9], a recent court ruling confirmed that the removal was unconstitutional and residents were forcibly removed.[10]

The government's official reasons for adopting the policy is: ""Over time it has become clear that many residents of the CKGR already were or wished to become settled agriculturists, raising crops and tending livestock as opposed to hunting-gathering when the reserve was established in 1961."

"In fact, hunting-gathering had become obsolete to sustain their living conditions. These agricultural land uses are not compatible with preserving wildlife resources and not sustainable to be practiced in the Game Reserve."

"This is the fundamental reason for government to relocate the CKGR residents.""[9]

Opponents to the relocation policy claim that the government's intent is to clear the area – an area the size of Denmark – for the lucrative tourist trade and for diamond mining. This is strenuously denied on the government's official web site, stating that although exploration had taken place, it concluded that mining activity would not be viable and that the issue was not related to the relocation policy.

It has been suggested that hydrogeologists who were officially hired to find water in bushmen territory were actually ordered not to find any, for this would make the original inhabitants far too independent to be relocated to any army bases.[citation needed]

It is further claimed that the group as a whole has little voice in the national political process and is not one of the tribal groups recognized in the constitution of Botswana. Over the generations, the Bushmen of Southern Africa have continued to be absorbed into the African population, particularly the Griqua sub-group, which is an Afrikaans-speaking people of predominantly Khoisan that has certain unique cultural markers that set them apart from the rest of the Africans.


Court decision

On December 13, 2006, the Bushmen won a historic ruling in their long-running court case against the government.[11] By a 2-1 majority, the court ruled the refusal to allow the Basarwa into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) without a permit, and the refusal to issue special game licenses to allow the Bushmen to hunt was "unlawful and unconstitutional". It also found that the Bushmen were "forcibly and wrongly deprived of their possessions" by the government. However, the court did not compel the government to provide services such as water to any Bushmen who returned to the reserve. As of 2006, more than 1,000 Bushmen intended to return to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of Africa's largest protected nature reserves.[10] However, only limited numbers of Bushmen have been allowed to return to this land. In April 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) criticised Botswana's government for not allowing certain Bushmen to return.[12]

Hoodia traditional knowledge agreement

Hoodia gordonii, used by the San Bushmen, was patented by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1998. Without the knowledge of the San, the CSIR patented this plant for its appetite suppressing quality. A license was granted to Phytopharm, for development of the active ingredient in the Hoodia plant, p57 (glycoside), to be used as a pharmaceutical drug for dieting. Once this patent was brought to the attention of the San, a benefit-sharing agreement was reached between them and the CSIR in 2003. This would award royalties to the San for the benefits of their indigenous knowledge.[13] The San were represented by a regional organisation formed under San leadership, the Working group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA).[14]

This benefit-sharing agreement is of great significance as it is one of the first to give royalties to the holders of traditional knowledge used for drug sales. The terms of the agreement are contentious, however, because of their apparent lack of adherence to the Bonn Guidelines on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing, as outlined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).[15] The San have yet to profit from this agreement, as P57 has still not yet been legally developed and marketed.


Rock paintings from the Western Cape

The Bushman kinship system reflects their interdependence as traditionally small mobile foraging bands. The kinship system is also comparable to the Eskimo kinship system, with the same set of terms as in Western countries, but also employing a name rule and an age rule. The age rule resolves any confusion arising from kinship terms, as the older of two people always decides what to call the younger. Relatively few names circulate (approximately only 35 names per gender), and each child is named after a grandparent or another relative. Children have no social duties besides playing, and leisure is very important to Bushmen of all ages. Large amounts of time are spent in conversation, joking, music, and sacred dances.

Because of their low-fat diet, women typically have late first menstruations and do not begin bearing children until about 18 or 19 years of age.[16] Births are generally spaced four years apart due to lack of breast milk[17] and requirements of mobility that make feeding and carrying more than one child at a time difficult.

Traditionally the San were an egalitarian society.[18] Although they did have hereditary chiefs, the chiefs' authority was limited, the bushmen instead making decisions among themselves by consensus,[19], and the status of women was relatively equal[20]. In addition, the San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts on a regular basis rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services.[21]


Starting fire by hand

Villages range in sturdiness from nightly rain shelters in the warm spring (when people move constantly in search of budding greens), to formalized rings, wherein people congregate in the dry season around permanent waterholes. Early spring is the hardest season - a hot dry period following the cool, dry winter. Most plants are still dead or dormant, and supplies of autumn nuts are exhausted. Meat is particularly important in the dry months when wildlife can't range far from the receding waters.

Bushmen women gather fruit, berries, tubers, bush onions and other plant materials for the band's consumption. The eggs of ostriches are gathered and the empty shells used as water containers. In addition to plants, insects furnish perhaps ten percent of animal proteins consumed, most often during the dry season.[22] Depending on location, the Bushmen consume 18 to 104 species including grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and termites.[23]

Preparing poison arrows

The women's traditional gathering gear is simple and effective: a hide sling, a blanket, a cloak called a kaross to carry foodstuffs, firewood, smaller bags, a digging stick and perhaps a smaller version of the kaross to carry a baby.

Bushmen men traditionally hunted using poison arrows and spears in laborious, long excursions. Kudu, antelope, deer, dikdik, and buffalo were important game animals. The Bushmen offer thanks to the animal's spirit after it has been killed. The liver is eaten only by men and hunters because it is thought to contain a poison unsafe for women.

In the 1990s, a portion of the population switched to livestock farming as a result of government-mandated modernization programs as well as the increased risks of a hunting and gathering lifestyle in the face of technological development.

Early history

1000- to 2000-year-old San-paintings near Murewa Zimbabwe

Bushman (San) peoples are not necessarily from any particular place as they are descendants of the aboriginal human populations of the African continent. There have been some Bushman migrations - especially due to the influx of food producers such as the Khoe pastoralists and Bantu-speaking farmers, but it is a myth that they were 'pushed' into the Kalahari. San have ocupied the Kalahari for tens of thousands of years. The 'pushing' myth seems to stem from the reluctance of modern southern Africans - of all cultures - to acknowledge that the San were sysematically wiped out and made both physically and culturally extinct in South Africa. The surviving San in the Kalahari desert are likely descendants of people who were always there. Although scholars such as Frans Prins argue that there are some San descendents still in parts of South Africa - they are now members of Bantu-speaking farmer society and do not subsist by foraging.

Media presentation

The Bushmen of the Kalahari were first brought to the Western world's attention in the 1950s by South African author Laurens van der Post. In 1955, Van der Post was commissioned by the BBC to go the Kalahari desert with a film crew in search of the Bushmen. The filmed material was turned into a very popular six-part television documentary a year later. Driven by a lifelong fascination with this 'vanished tribe', Van der Post published a 1958 book about the same expedition, entitled The Lost World of the Kalahari. It was to be his most famous book. In 1961 he published The Heart of the Hunter, a narrative derived from 19th-century Bushmen stories by Wilhelm Bleek. Van der Post's work is largely discredited as it is the subjective view of a European in the 1950s/60s. His opinions branded the San as simple 'children of Nature' or even 'mystical ecologists'. Even in the 1970s some South African writers such as R.O. Pearse stated that the Bushmen were somewhere between animals and mankind.

John Marshall documented the lives of Bushmen in the Nyae Nyae region of Namibia over more than a 50-year period. His early film The Hunters, released in 1957, shows a giraffe hunt during the 1950s. N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman (1980) is the account of a woman who grew up while the Bushmen were living as autonomous hunter-gatherers but was later forced into a dependent life in the government-created community at Tsumkwe. A Kalahari Family (2002) is a five-part, six-hour series documenting 50 years in the lives of the JuǀʼHoansi of Southern Africa, from 1951 to 2000. Marshall was a fierce and vocal proponent of the Bushman cause throughout his life, which was, in part, due to strong kinship ties, and his marriage to a Bushman wife in his early 20s.[24] He was the brother of the famous Harvard anthropologist Lorna Marshall.

The BBC series How Art Made the World compares San cave painting 200 years ago to Paleolithic European painting 14,000 years old. Because of their similarities, the San can help us understand the reasons for ancient cave paintings. In this programme Nigel Spivey draws largely on the world-famous work of Professor David Lewis-Williams. Drawing parallels between modern hunter-gatherers in southern Africa (Bushmen) and the Americas, Lewis-Williams shows that healers, or ritual specialists, deliberately force themselves into trance (altered states of consciousness) in which they believe they travel to the spirit world. The visions they experience on these journeys of the mind are terrifying and complex, and the activity itself is undertaken for the good of the community. The Kalahari Bushmen go to the spirit world to entreat with their god for the lives of the sick, to make rain, and to control the movements of the game animals. In the lightest stages of trance states, ALL humans have the capacity to see geometric shapes known as form constants. They are hard-wired in the brain. As the trance deepens and the subject tries to make sense of the shapes, so they change into things which are governed by that person's particular culture. The geometrics are found all over the world, and arguably, back in time. Coupled to this are experiences such as changing into animals: the rock art traditions of hunter-gatherers the worl over - including Ice Age Europe - contain images of half human/half animal figures. Going into deep caves is likened to going into deep trance. Some images in France and Spain are over 1km into the caves. Native Americans would cal this 'Vision Questing' - going to barely accessible places such as mountain tops to perform rock art making, the images likely derived from visions they had experienced at special ceremonies.

Spencer Wells' 2003 book The Journey of Man—in connection with National Geographic's Genographic Project—discusses a genetic analysis of the San and asserts their blood contains the oldest genetic markers found on Earth, describing the Bushmen as a type of "genetic Adam". While the Bushmen's Y-chromosomal DNA haplogroup (type A) is one of the oldest, it is different from the Y-chromosome haplogroup that is the least common denominator for the rest of humanity (type BT). Therefore, the Bushmen likely represents the oldest existing population, but it is one divergent from the rest of humanity and not a sole common ancestor. Genetic markers present on the y chromosome are passed down through thousands of generations in a relatively pure form. The documentary continues to trace these markers throughout the world, demonstrating that all of humankind can be traced back to the African continent and that the San are the oldest, most genetically unadulterated, remnant of humankind's ancient ancestors. More recent analysis suggests that the San may have been merely isolated from other original ancestral groups and then rejoined at a later date, re-mixing the human gene pool.[25]

Films and music

The 1980 comedy movie The Gods Must Be Crazy portrays a Kalahari Bushman tribe's first encounter with an artifact from the outside world (a Coke bottle). By the time this movie was made, the ǃKung had recently been forced into sedentary villages, and the Bushmen hired as actors were confused by the instructions to act out inaccurate exaggerations of their almost-abandoned hunting and gathering life.[26] The director of this movie, Jamie Uys, had also directed Lost in the Desert in 1969, in which a small boy, stranded in the desert, encounters a group of wandering Bushmen who help him and then abandon him as a result of a misunderstanding created by the lack of a common language and culture. Although funny to some, the film is a sad indictment of apartheid-era attitudes. By way of apology, Coca-Cola has recently sponsored a beautifully made and more accurate documentary of San hunting entitled 'The Great Dance: a hunter's story' (2000)directed by Craig and Damon Foster.

"Eh Hee" by Dave Matthews Band was written as an evocation of the music and culture of the San. In a story told to the Radio City audience (an edited version of which appears on the DVD version of Live at Radio City), Matthews recalls hearing the music of the San and, upon asking his guide what the words to their songs were, being told that "there are no words to these songs, because these songs, we've been singing since before people had words". He goes on to describe the song as his "homage to meeting... the most advanced people on the planet".


James A. Michener's The Covenant (1980), is a work of historical fiction centered on South Africa. The first section of the book concerns a San tribe's journey set roughly in 13,000 B.C.E.

In Wilbur Smith's The Burning Shores, the San people are portrayed through two major characters, O'wa and H'ani, and the Bushmen's struggles, history, and beliefs are touched upon in great detail. The Burning Shores is a volume in the Courtneys of Africa series.

Tad Williams' epic "Otherland" series of novels features !Xabbu, a South African bushman and includes many references to their mythology and culture. He acknowledges that the character is highly fictionalised and apologises for any misrepresentation.

In 2007, author David Gilman published The Devil's Breath, a novel partly based on the Bushmen. One of the main characters, a small bushman boy named !Koga, uses traditional bushman methods to help the character Max Gordon travel across Namibia.

Notable Bushmen


  1. ^ Gill, Victoria (1 May 2009). "Africa's genetic secrets unlocked" (online edition). BBC World News. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2009-09-03. 
  2. ^ Tishkoff et al. 2009
  3. ^ a b [Elizabeth Marshall Thomas] (2006). "The Old Way". Chapter "About Words and Names". ISBN 0374225524.
  4. ^ " The San Peoples, Kalahari Peoples Fund", retrieved 2010-02-16.
  5. ^ Sailer, Steve (2002). "Name Game Inuit or Eskimo". Retrieved 2006-11-15. 
  6. ^ "Wrong Term for the Kalahari's People", "[Washington Post]", 7 June 2005
  7. ^ a b Hitchcock, Robert K., and Megan Biesele. "San, Khwe, Basarwa, or Bushmen? Terminology, Identity, and Empowerment in Southern Africa." Kalahari Peoples Fund. 28 December 2000
  8. ^ Botswana Gov. - Basarwa Relocation - Intro
  9. ^ a b Government of Botswana Web Site
  10. ^ a b "Botswana's bushmen get Kalahari lands back". CNN. Retrieved 2006-12-13. 
  11. ^ "Sesana and Others v Attorney General (52/2002)[2006 BWHC 1 (13 December 2006)"]. SAFLII. Retrieved 2009-05-10. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ Wynberg, R. (2004). Rhetoric, realism and benefit-sharing. Journal of World Intellectual Property, 7(6), 851-876. Retrieved September 23, 2008, from Wiley Interscience database.
  14. ^ Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa
  15. ^ Tully, S. (2003). The Bonn Guidelines on access to genetic resources and benefit sharing. Review of European Community & International Environmental Law 12(1), 84-98. Retrieved September 23, 2008 from Wiley Interscience database.
  16. ^ Shostak 1983: 15
  17. ^ Shostak 1983
  18. ^ Marjorie Shostak, 1983, Nisa: The Life and Words of a ǃKung Woman. New York: Vintage Books. Page 10.
  19. ^ The !Kung Bushmen
  20. ^ Shostak 1983: 13
  21. ^ Shostak 1983: 9, 25
  22. ^ Brian Morris (2005). Insects and Human Life, p57.
  23. ^ Brian Morris (2005). Insects and Human Life, pp39-40.See page 19: for insect use in medicine, poison for arrows etc. Also page 188 regarding Kaggen, the Praying Mantis trickster deity who created the moon More on Kaggen, who might sabatoge a hunt by transforming into a louse and biting the hunter: Mathias Georg Guenther (1999). Tricksters and trancers: bushman religion and society. p111.
  24. ^ Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (2006)
  25. ^ "Human line 'nearly split in two'". April 24, 2008. Retrieved 2009-12-31. 
  26. ^ N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman. Documentary Educational Resources and Public Broadcasting Associates, 1980.
  27. ^ Yániz, Juan Pedro. "Vitrina de la polémica" (in Spanish). Retrieved 2007-10-26. 


External links

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Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also bushmen




  1. Plural form of Bushman.


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