SAN Information

Location: Botswana, northern South Africa
Population: n/a
Language: Khoisan languages
Neighbors: Tswana, Zulu, Swazi
Types of Art: San rock paintings are among the oldest forms of art found on the African continent.
History: The term San is commonly used by scholars to refer to a diverse group of foragers living in southern Africa who share historical and linguistic connections. This same group of people was formerly referred to as "Bushmen," but this term has since been abandoned because it is considered racist and sexist. However, unless properly defined, the term San may elicit the same responses. It is believed that San have lived in the area of the Kalahari desert for thousands of years and may be the first humans to have occupied this region. There are numerous subgroups of San who live in small groups among their sedentary Bantu neighbors. They speak numerous dialects of a group of languages known for the characteristic "clicks" that can be heard in their pronunciation.
Economy: San are generally defined as a hunter and gatherer society or as foragers. As such, they live in small family groups and move about the land in search of food sources. In recent years, many San have begun to settle into larger groups around water sources, and many have also settled into the communities of their neighbors. In a hunting and gathering society, the women are usually responsible for procuring most of the food. They collect nuts and berries and dig for roots. They also capture small animals, which provide most of the protein for the family. Men usually hunt in small groups, but the food they provide is minimal. Surviving for thousands of years in the Kalahari, San peoples have had to develop a keen awareness of their surroundings and have learned to benefit from a seemingly harsh environment.
Political Systems: Leadership among the San is reserved for those who have lived within that group for a considerable time, who have achieved a respectable age, and who have desirable personal qualities. San are largely egalitarian, sharing such things as meat and tobacco. Land is usually owned by a group, and rights to land are usually inherited bilaterally. Kinship bonds provide the basic framework for political models. Membership in a group is determined by residency. As long as a person lives on the land of his group he maintains his membership. It is possible to hunt on lands not owned by the group, but permission must first be obtained by the owners.
Religion: San religions generally observe the supremacy of one powerful god, while at the same time recognizing the presence of lesser gods along with their wives and children. Respect is also paid to the spirits of the dead. Among some San it is believed that tilling the soil is contrary to the world order established by the god. Some groups also reserve reverence for the moon. San peoples have extensive oral traditions, and many of their tales incorporate stories about the gods that serve to educate listeners about what is considered moral San behavior. Of prime importance in all San groups is a ritual dance that serves to heal the community. The dance is a communal enterprise that transforms spiritual power and energy into medicine for all those who dance. The power is harnessed in the stomachs of both men and women, many of whom go into trance. This power can be used to heal both physical and psychological illnesses.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,