The San: The Indigenous Hunter-Gatherers of Southern Africa

 Joy Molapo
Joy Molapo


For millennia, Southern Africa was habited by small groups of aboriginal hunters who lived off the land and left behind beautifully decorated rock paintings, for which they are most infamous. Then, around 2000 years ago, pastoralists arrived and introduced a new way of life that included herding and farming, disrupting the San's hunter-gatherer way of life.


More than 20,000 years ago, when the continent was still in the grip of the last Ice Age, the southernmost tip of the African continent was much colder than it is today. Nonetheless, it was teeming with life, from insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals—including Homo sapiens, who had long since split off from their hominid ancestor, who was present through much of sub-Saharan Africa. The descendants of those who live in what is now known as South Africa and who are believed to be the original human inhabitants of the area are known as the San

The San were hunter-gatherers whose last remnants, called "Bushmen," still survive today in small numbers in the Kalahari Desert. They are small in stature, speak a unique "click" language, and have relatively lighter pigmentation than the Bantu people. This is probably due to their having evolved for thousands of years in isolation in the southernmost part of the African continent. The San are closely related to the Khoikhoi (believed to mean "men of men"), who were for a long time assumed to be the same group of people.

In comparison to other tribes, the San had a distinct way of livelihood. The San people lived off the land and made use of what was readily available to them. They did not use metals; they made weapons from wood, bones, and stone but did not participate in animal husbandry or herdin nor did they cultivate crops. Furthermore, they did not make any pottery. However, they made use of ostrich eggshells for storing and holding liquids. For this reason, the San were a completely nomadic people, migrating through their territory in search of game and plant foods. This meant they did not build any permanent settlements. 

As a nomadic tribe during the times the San lived near the coast, they would eat mussels, perlemoen, alikreukel, crayfish, and seals, as evidenced by the large number of bones found where they would inhabit caves, implying that they were accomplished fishermen.

About 2000 years ago, pastoralists from the North arrived in San territory and slowly started to change the former undisrupted hunter-gatherer way of life into one that focused on livestock acquisition and rearing. The pastoralists, or Khoikhoi, perceived themselves as superior to those who did not own domestic stock. This introduced the concept of personal ownership to the San, who were entirely egalitarian in that all the resources—plants, water, and animals—were the property of the community. 

As territorial requirements increased, the Khoikhoi decided to move further south, towards the coast, in search of new pastures. On their journey south, they settled temporarily near the Orange and Vaal Rivers. 

According to Khoikhoi oral tradition, the settlement split into three groups following a major quarrel. The group split into the Korana, who remained settled; the Namaqua, who travelled southwest into the Cape Peninsula; and the Einiqua, who followed the Orange River westward.

Naturally, given that the Khoikhoi were invading San territory and overthrowing them by somewhat influencing a new way of life and, furthermore, the competition for land and game was increasing, this caused major friction. The San had three options: some fled the continual fighting and retreated to less hospitable mountain areas where they would not be found; others developed into robber bands and preyed on the herds of the Khoikhoi; while others gave in and made peace with the Khoikhoi and settled for working for them as servants, hunters, and even warriors. Of those that made peace, they ultimately became accepted into the Khoikhoi community, even going on to marry within the community. 

The San were hunter-gatherers whose final survivors, known as "Bushmen," may still be found in tiny numbers in the Kalahari Desert today.