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hunter-gatherers in southern Africa


As recently as 3 000 years ago all the inhabitants of southern Africa depended on hunting game and gathering wild plant foods for their survival. By the middle of the 20th century A.D., however, hunter-gatherers were to be found only in and around the near-desert Kalahari basin. With the emergence of pastoral, agricultural and industrial societies in southern Africa hunter-gatherers elsewhere had through time been assimilated into new ways of life, or had been exterminated as a result of their vulnerability to the more effective weapons of their opponents in conflict over land and their susceptibility to new diseases. The remaining hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari were not, as is often alleged, the descendants of fugitives driven from other parts of the sub-continent. Evidence drawn from archaeology and linguistics, as well as the fine adjustment of these people to desert life, has demonstrated that their forebears had been living in the Kalahari region for thousands of years.

People in southern Africa who lived by hunting and gathering have been given many names by outsiders, such as 'Bushmen', 'San' or 'Sonqua', 'Soaqua', 'Sarwa' or 'Basarwa', and 'Twa'. They were called 'San' by northern Khoekhoen herders, 'Sarwa' or 'Twa' by Ntu-speaking (formerly termed Bantu-speaking) cultivators and pastoralists, and 'Bushmen' by European colonists, terms which in common usage meant little more than those without domestic livestock.

Photograph of section of Linton panel (10734 bytes)

In time 'Bushmen' acquired derogatory connotations through its association with banditry and race, and in consequence the Nama term 'San', of which the meaning is by no means clear, has been widely adopted as a general term of reference. Terms of convenience such as these do not denote a historic ethnic identity, for hunter-gatherers identified themselves in other ways by means of locality and family names and had no collective name for themselves, and as shown below tend to obscure more than they reveal about the nature of these people and their way of life. The inclusive term 'Khoisan' has been used as a broad indicator of cultural and biological origins, since it is often difficult to distinguish clearly between both the past and present 'San' and their 'Khoekhoen' neighbors after substantial changes have occurred in their ways of life. It would be useful to think of 'Khoisan' as covering a spectrum of people in which the divisions have shifted through time and space according to historical circumstances.

It was formerly thought that hunter-gatherers could be readily identified as a single entity by a combination of physical features, language and culture, but such assertions no longer find scientific support. In the first instance, studies have shown that supposedly distinctive characteristics in external features such as physique, skin colour and hair type were not exclusive to 'San' hunter-gatherers. Furthermore, in other indirectly observable features such as blood-groups 'San' hunter-gatherers were together with the 'Khoekhoen' herders part of a broader Khoisan biological grouping, which itself was genetically linked to Negroid Africans. Secondly, there was great linguistic diversity among the hunter-gatherers, though nearly all spoke languages characterised by 'clicks'. Three major language groups have been identified, and some idea of the complexity which can arise when language is used as a means of classification can be seen among just the Kalahari hunter-gatherers themselves, for groups along the western and southern fringes spoke Nama, while those on the north, east and south-east tended to use Ntu languages. Finally, all hunter-gatherers did not necessarily have other cultural attributes in common. Though the relationships among the major groups have not been fully established, late nineteenth and early twentieth accounts suggest that the north-western groups such as the !Kung, Nharo (//aikwe) and Auen had certain well-defined features of social organization and religion not found among the southern groups. Cultural differences were also observed between those groups of the north-east and east who had been significantly influenced by neighboring Ntu-speaking farmers and those of the west and south-west who were associated with Nama and other 'Khoekhoen' stock-keepers. Though one should regard the artificial dichotomy Bushmen/San/hunter-gatherer versus Hottentot/Khoekhoen/herder as an outdated scientific and popular idea, it is nonetheless possible to make some generalizations about southern African hunter-gatherers as practitioners of a particular way of life while recognizing that the various groups may have different customs and beliefs about the world around them.

on display in the museum

The exhibitions in the African Studies gallery show the general features of hunting and gathering as a way of life in different environments; the Western Cape coast, the semi-arid Karoo, and the semi-desert Kalahari.

coastal hunter-gatherers

This exhibition is a reconstruction of a hunter-gatherer shelter in the Cape Peninsula before the time of colonial contact. Hunter-gatherers living in the coastal region of the Western Cape frequently occupied caves which provided protection from the weather and a commanding view of the surrounding country. These people were known as 'Soaqua' to the Khoekhoen and the early Dutch settlers. Their diet included shellfish, fish, marine and land mammals, tortoises, ostrich eggs, and edible plants. Some archaeological evidence suggests that these people moved seasonally within their hunting territories. This enabled them to make use of the available food and water resources at the coast or in the nearby mountains.

/xam hunter-gatherers in the karoo

This diorama reconstructs a hunter-gatherer camp in the Karoo, using as a documentary basis descriptions of hunter-gatherers given in the journals of travellers in the Upper Karoo at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the early nineteenth century /Xam hunter-gatherers living in the semi-desert Karoo were already merely a remnant population which had survived almost thirty years of unrelenting conflict with Dutch colonists and displaced Khoekhoen. From hill-top camps such as that represented here they could watch the movements of game on the plains and spot the approach of enemies. Their way of life was shaped by the seasonal availability of edible plants, water and the movements of game. To avoid overusing food and water supplies /Xam bands ranged widely within hunting territories which were defined by recognized landmarks. By the mid-nineteenth century most hunter-gatherers in the Karoo had been killed in fighting with advancing colonists and Khoekhoen, and the survivors drawn into colonial society as labourers and servants. In the late 1860s and early 1870s some /Xam from the northern Karoo and Great Bushmanland captured during the Koranna Wars were brought to Cape Town and imprisoned in the Breakwater Prison. There they were seen by the Prussian linguist, Dr. Wilhelm Bleek, and some served as his informants in his studies of Khoisan languages. The data collected by Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd is today the only reliable ethnographic record available of the cultural patterns of any of the many groups of Cape hunter-gatherers.

about the diorama

Photograph of 'Bushman' diorama - Photo : A. Byron (14337 bytes)

These two exhibitions about the Karoo Diorama and the production of the figures provide background information on the academic and technical processes which have given the diorama its present form. The 'Bushman' diorama was constructed in 1959 and has become one of the major attractions of the South African Museum. Though the diorama depicts an encampment of 19th century hunter-gatherers in the Karoo, the figures were made at a time when it was thought that the 'Bushmen' were becoming extinct. In 1906, when there was considerable scientific interest in the physical anthropology of the indigenous populations of southern Africa, a project to preserve a record of the physical attributes of people identified as 'Bushman' was initiated by the Director of the South African Museum, Dr. Louis Peringuey, and the Museum has become widely known for the resulting unique collection of naturalistic figures cast from living people. In making a cast the physical form of a person was preserved in three dimensions, allowing measurements to be made from the figure which would not have been possible from photographs alone. By 1911, when the casts in the diorama were made for the Museum, those people in the Cape who had formerly lived by hunting and gathering had become shepherds and labourers on farms, or were working as servants in villages, but some who were living in Prieska were identified as 'pure Cape Bushmen' on the basis of their language and physical features. Several of them were cast by the Museum modeller, Mr. James Drury, in poses which enabled the casts to be displayed later as examples of 'pure Bushmen' pursuing their ancient way of life, rather than in those which would have been suitable for a reconstruction of the actual ethnographic situation of these people.

The techniques of casting were perfected by J. Drury, modeller at the Museum from 1902 to 1942, and to the present his work has remained unsurpassed. The method of casting a figure involved first making plaster moulds of sections of the body, using the natural heat generated by the plaster to harden the moulds swiftly and safely. The casts produced from these 'two-piece waste-moulds' were cut and jointed for assembly into a complete figure, which was then painted according to the detailed records left by Drury to give a realistic representation of a person.

Over the years the casts which were made for the Museum between 1908 and 1911 have been displayed in different ways, and the various displays have parallelled prevailing academic perceptions of people called "Bushmen" as well as changes in popular attitudes. The earliest studies of 'Bushmen' in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were based mostly on travellers' reports and a limited amount of fieldwork. They put forward the view that 'Bushmen' were living examples of primitive people and thus 'ancestral' to modern civilization. During the period between 1950 and 1970 intensive field studies of small groups of Kalahari hunter-gatherers were undertaken. From these generalizations were made about hunting and gathering as a way of life once shared by all people. A romantic vision of 'Bushmen' as children of nature emerged in both academic and literary works. During the past two decades, however, these earlier views have been rethought and set in historical context. It is now recognized that the hunting and gathering way of life was never static but has always been part of wider ongoing social and political processes.

Thus in the earliest exhibitions the casts were used to illustrate the typical physical characteristics of "Bushmen" as a primitive anthropological type occupying a low position on the evolutionary scale. Later the figures were grouped according to geographical region and language, in an attempt to demonstrate theoretical links between physical type, language and culture. In the early 1930s the casts were moved to a new gallery where they were displayed prominently in large cases. With the construction of the diorama in 1959/60 the figures were placed in a natural setting in a scene representing the way of life of 'Cape Bushmen' in the early 19th century.

See Also: Bushman Diorama - Questions and Answers

kalahari hunter-gatherers

This exhibition provides a generalised overview of the material dimensions of the way of life of hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari. A survey of the ethnographic information available on these people is given below. Hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari can be classified on linguistic grounds into three major groups, viz. Northern, Central and Southern. Each of these language groups includes several groups of people distinguished according to their own names for themselves, to variations in their basic pattern of life, and to significant cultural features. A comparative study of these groups to develop a more sensitive system of classification based on cultural relationships has yet to be undertaken. Owing to the absence of census data and the nature of the acculturation process which has being experienced by Khoisan hunter-gatherers in the mid- and late-twentieth centuries, it is practically impossible to give statistics covering the numbers of people in these groups and how many still practice hunting and gathering.


The Kalahari stretches from the Zambesi River in the north to near the Orange River in the south, and is for the most part a vast sand-covered plain with occasional calcareous, granitic and doleritic outcrops. The annual rainfall ranges from 100 to 750 mm or more, but it is unpredictable and years of drought are frequent. The rainy season is from November to April, the hottest time of the year, with the falls coming from sporadic local thundershowers. Over the past 11 000 years there have been both wetter and drier periods, of which sand-choked rivers in the southern Kalahari are impressive reminders, but today there is very little surface water. Though hot and dry, the Kalahari is not a true desert, for the porous sand absorbs moisture which can be tapped by the drought-resistant vegetation, a mixture of varied grasses, thorny bushes and trees. The flora includes many edible plants and fruits and supports a large animal population, including numerous antelope of several species.

historical background

Until very recently it was assumed that hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari had lived in comparative isolation, and that their way of life was essentially the same as that of the Later Stone Age. Most anthropological studies of Kalahari hunter-gatherers were undertaken before anything was known about the prehistory and early history of the region, so that they presented a static picture of hunter-gatherers living in a timeless world with no social or cultural change until recent times.

Archaeological and historical studies of the region made during the l980s appear to have revealed a very different picture. Archaeological studies have shown that hunter-gatherers have been present in the Kalahari for at least 11 000 years, and that there is some evidence that over the past 2 000 years all groups in the region, even those in the remotest parts, have probably been in contact with herders and farmers. The interaction between hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers over these millennia would have been complex, for although hunting and gathering formed the primary basis for subsistence for those people in areas unsuitable for herding and farming, the social and economic life of all Kalahari-dwellers was in fact interconnected. For example, the same ecological processes which in the early 20th century promoted a rapid recovery of herders' stock depleted by rinderpest and drought in the 1890's also drew hunter-gatherers into the service of stock-keepers as herdsmen and at the same time enabled others to form the larger bands seen by early visitors. By the middle of the 20th century, however, this situation was being reversed due to prolonged drought; hunting and gathering was again becoming more important and band sizes were declining as the people dispersed to make the best use of the available scattered plant and water resources.

Contact with stock-keepers and agriculturalists took many forms. Conflict often arose when farmers entered areas where hunter-gatherers regarded the food and water resources as their own, or when hunter-gatherers stole livestock from the newcomers. Since stock-keepers and farmers lived in larger groups and possessed superior weapons, they were often able to gain control of the areas they required. Sometimes a compromise was reached whereby the hunter-gatherers served the new people as hunters or herdsmen, receiving in return food and protection. In these instances assimilation was hastened by intermarriage and subsequent changes in value systems which made it possible for the descendants of such people to become herders or farmers themselves. Processes such as these operated widely across the Kalahari, and were enhanced through a network of trade links in which hunter-gatherers were often important 'middlemen'.

During the 19th and 20th centuries contact with European traders, hunters, farmers and missionaries produced significant changes in the ways of life of all the indigenous Kalahari-dwellers. Hunter-gatherers were introduced to firearms and were hired to hunt game, and they were later drawn into new networks of exchange involving European-manufactured goods. Parts of the Kalahari, notably in the north-west around Grootfontein and in the centre between Gobabis and Ghanzi, were occupied by European farmers who required labourers, and before long large numbers of hunter-gatherers had become servants and squatters on farms, wholly dependent on the farmers for food, clothing and shelter, things which they had previously been able to provide for themselves. In those areas where hunter-gatherers offered resistance to European settlement, the colonial administrations gave protection to the farmers and traders, either by allowing them to exterminate 'irreconcilable' bands or by undertaking military campaigns of 'pacification'. Historical studies have shown that by the mid-20th century the numbers of hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari had been significantly reduced through both assimilation and conflict, and that the extension of government services and administration had already had profound effects on the viability of hunting and gathering as an ongoing way of life.

living in the kalahari

The hunter with his bow and poisoned arrows is a popular image of the Kalahari hunter-gatherers. Hunting was not, however, as vital for the survival of these people as is often believed, for studies have shown that meat constituted only a small part of their diet. The importance of hunting lay in its significance as a source of prestige for men and in the provision of sought-after delicacies in the sharing of which social ties within the band were emphasised and reinforced. Only men hunted, and their skills in tracking and knowledge of the environment and animal behaviour have become almost legendary. They hunted in small groups of between two and six, and often spent two or three days away from camp following wounded quarry. Large antelope were hunted for both their meat and skins, but smaller animals such as hares, small antelope, porcupines, ostriches and guinea fowl were the more important sources of meat. Larger animals were shot with poisoned arrows; smaller ones were caught in snares, or hunted with dogs and clubbed. Birds eggs, tortoises, certain types of snakes, locusts and the larvae of termites and ants were also sought by the hunters in certain areas. Hunter-gatherers of the Okavango swamps in the northern Kalahari, in contrast, lived to a great extent by fishing. The equipment used by the hunters included weapons such as the bow and arrow, clubs and metal-bladed spears, as well as snares and hooks, and more recently steel traps and firearms. The hunting bow was about a metre long, made of Grewia wood, and strung with twined kudu or oryx sinew. The unfeathered arrow consisted of a reed shaft and a complex head so designed that the shaft could fall away when the point was lodged in an animal's body. The poison-bearing head consisted of a tapering bone or tanged iron point mounted on a spindle-shaped link-shaft. Several types of poison were known, but the most commonly used came from the larvae of the Diamphidium beetle. When not in use the arrows were carried with the points reversed in a quiver made of acacia-root bark. Together with spears and clubs, bows and arrows were also used in warfare, but there is some evidence that war arrows were larger and of less complex construction. Ingenious snares were made from cords of Sanseveria fibres and were used to catch small buck and birds. Springhares were pinned in their burrows with a hook mounted on a long flexible stick until they could be dug out and killed.

Large animals were slaughtered and cut up at the kill site, so that the meat could be conveniently transported back to camp. The animal belonged to the hunter or person whose arrow first struck it (arrows were marked to identify the owner), and he was responsible for the division of the meat. The small living groups of the Kalahari hunter-gatherers were networks of relatives of whom all were entitled to a share, though precedence was given to the successful hunter's parents-in-law. No-one ate alone, and the meat was distributed to close kin and others according to strict rules. In this way the less fortunate hunters and their families and other dependents were assured of receiving meat from the hunt. The women were responsible for cooking the meat, of which some might be dried for later use. Skins and hides were dried and cured by the men, but the women were responsible for cooking the meat.

While hunting was men's work, the task of food-gathering was primarily women's work. This was the most important subsistence activity, for in some groups such as the !Kung up to 80% of the diet consisted of plant foods. Though plant foods are seasonal, they are a more substantial and dependable food resource than game. The women, who had a detailed knowledge of the location and seasonable availability of edible plants in the territory of their band, went out collecting every day, or every few days depending on circumstances.

The inventory of utilised edible plants ranged widely from group to group, but was highest among the larger northern groups in the relatively densely wooded but near-waterless parts of the northern Kalahari. The distribution, abundance, palatability and seasonal availability of plant foods were key factors in determining movement and camp patterns, and had to be balanced against the availability of water and game. The !Kung, who of all the Kalahari hunter-gatherers have been the most intensively studied, were relatively fortunate compared with other groups, for they lived in an area where there are mongongo trees which bear a very nutritious nut. In season the !Kung gathered and ate the nuts immediately, occasionally storing some for later use. The nuts could be eaten raw, but most !Kung preferred to roast them in a fire. Plant foods used by most groups included baobab fruit, the fruit and nuts of the sour plum, the seeds and roots of Bauhinia and Boscia species, vegetable ivory fruit, Grewia berries and various tubers, as well as water-bearing melons and tubers.

Among the central and southern groups water-bearing tsama melons and Fockea roots were important for supplementing the scanty water supplies in those parts. During the rainy season as much water as possible was stored in empty ostrich egg-shells and calabashes, which were buried in the ground or hung in trees, but the early summer months before the coming of the rains were often times of severe privation. When the pans had dried up and underground water could no longer be reached even with sucking reeds, the people either had to move long distances to a few known permanent springs or depend entirely on water-bearing plants - which were then still in their relatively dry winter state.
Small groups of women, sometimes accompanied by children, went out collecting in the mornings, though if resources were scanty they would spend most of the day searching for what they needed. Their principal equipment consisted of digging sticks and skin bags, though the cloaks worn by the women were also used for transporting items. The digging stick was about a metre long with a sharpened point. In the early twentieth century some people in the far south of the Kalahari were seen using digging sticks weighted with bored stones, but this does not appear to have been a general practice. Nets were used to carry tubers and melons, as well as ostrich eggs and flasks of water, and smaller skin bags were used for berries. In addition to collecting plant foods, the women also collected thatching grass for their shelters and firewood on their excursions.

In contrast to the position concerning meat, there was no obligation to share plant foods outside the immediate family. There was rarely a shortage of plant foods and anyone could collect them. Each woman prepared the food which she had collected for her family at her shelter. Nearly all plant foods could be eaten raw, though many were roasted for greater palatability, either in the embers of a fire or in the hot sand under it.

Owing to the need for mobility, possessions had to be limited to what could be carried by the people of the group and there were few manufactured items. Apart from their dwellings, which were abandoned when the group moved camp, people had only the clothes which they wore, some personal belongings which were kept in skin bags, their weapons, implements for gathering, and equipment for processing food. Nearly all the raw materials required for the production of these items were obtained from the local environment. Arrow-shafts, bows, sticks, fire drills, mortars, dishes, spear-shafts and musical instruments were made from wood. Arrowheads, spear-blades, pipes and knives used to be made from bone, but most of these were later made from metal obtained through trade. Stone was used to sharpen the edges of arrows and spears, for grinding or cracking various kinds of food, and for polishing ostrich eggshell beads. Tortoise shells were used as ladles, water containers and cosmetic boxes, while ostrich eggshells were used for carrying and storing water. Cordage was obtained from shredded bark twisted on the thigh.

Clothing was made from animal skins, for hunting ensured a fairly abundant supply of hides. Adult clothing patterns were similar over much of the Kalahari. A man wore a triangular loin-cloth with the point drawn back between the legs and fastened on behind; a woman wore an ornamented front apron hanging from a belt with a smaller plain one underneath, while older women sometimes also wore a rear apron. The cloak worn by most women served both as garment and hold-all, for when tied at the shoulder and at the waist it enabled a woman to carry a baby as well as the food and firewood she would have collected on her daily round. Men also wore a light cloak in cold weather. In some groups skin caps and tough hide sandals were worn. Children's clothing patterns varied according to age and to group, but were generally a simpler version of the adult pattern. In general, babies were first clothed with small front aprons when about a year old, boys with a small belt and flap of leather in front, and girls with an ornamented and fringed front apron. In the northern groups, after having been weaned when about three or four, girls added a small cloak, and boys were given a small loin-cloth similar to that of the men though they did not wear cloaks until they were taken out to learn hunting. In the central groups girls followed a similar pattern, but boys continued to wear a front apron until close to puberty. The pattern for the southern groups resembled that for the central groups, though in some boys wore a triangular loin-cloth like that of the men while in others nudity was common.

Ornamentation formed an important part of the clothing patterns of both sexes at all ages. Natural objects such as bits of root or reed, seeds and horns were used as ornaments, but the most important were the strings of small discs made from the shells of ostrich eggs that were made in great quantities by the women. These discs were strung as necklaces or girdles, threaded into a narrow fabric for head-ornaments, or sewn onto items of clothing. Glass beads, as well as metal and plastic objects, came into use during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while metal bangles and beads were obtained through trade from neighbouring metal-working people. The ornamented shell of a small tortoise was hung around the neck or attached to the cloak as a container for a powder of sweet-smelling herbs. Young women frequently painted their faces and coated their hair with powdered red ochre or powdered red wood mixed with animal fat. Both sexes, but especially women, had tattoo marks made by rubbing ash into cuts. For women they were ornamental and were made on the face, thighs and buttocks. Men had cicatrization marks made on the forehead at the time of their initiation into manhood, tattoo marks on the face to indicate success in hunting, and ornamental tattoo marks on the thighs and buttocks.

groups and territories

For most of their recorded history Kalahari hunter-gatherers were found living in small independent bands. The band was the largest possible residential unit and consisted of several families linked by blood or marriage, though members were also accepted on grounds of friendship. Bands varied considerably in size and membership from group to group and through time in the same area; they were generally larger with between sixty and a hundred members in the rainy season and in the better-watered areas, while in the dry season and in arid parts there were as few as ten to twenty individuals. In times of plenty a band camped together, usually near a reliable source of water, but at other times the constituent families dispersed to different areas of the band territory.

The land was not regarded as an asset which could be owned. Each band was recognised as having certain rights, such as access to the waterholes, within a defined territory marked out by natural features which apparently had sacred associations. Band members had a precise knowledge of all the available resources, including the location of plant foods and the movements of game, within these territories. Outsiders required permission to make use of these resources, particularly water. Leadership in the band was poorly defined. Generally there was a principal person, an old experienced man or a skilled hunter, who acted as spokesman for the band and who was held to embody its rights within its territory, but decisions affecting the band were taken by all the adults together and the principal person had no direct authority.

The settlement patterns of the various hunter-gatherer groups differed according to local environment and custom. The !Kung of the northern bushy savanna lands, for example, congregated around natural seepages and springs and utilised nearby food resources during the dry winter season, and then moved to outlying areas when the pans had been filled during the wet season and they could hunt game which came to temporary waterholes. In the grasslands of the drier central Kalahari the G/wi and G//ana clustered in their bands around full pans during the short summer rainy season and then scattered during the long dry season. When there was no surface water available these people had to rely on water-bearing melons and tubers growing among the dunes, and each family exploited a different patch of melons and associated plant foods. The families of the bands came together again at the beginning of the rainy season. Among other groups such as the Nharo and !Xo there were less marked variations in settlement pattern. The western central Kalahari is relatively well-supplied with water, so that the Nharo did not have to live in small groups or move around as much as their neighbours. The !Xo of the arid southern Kalahari, on the other hand, were compelled by perennially sparse water and food resources to be highly mobile in small bands and came together only briefly in early autumn to hold the boys' puberty ceremonies.

The basic unit within the band was the nuclear family, composed of a husband, his wife and their dependent children, though it was occasionally expanded through polygynous marriage. There was considerable interaction between bands through trade, visiting and marriage. Families and individuals often made long visits to neighbouring bands, for frequent movement of people from band to band was made possible on account of the wide networks of both real and fictional kinship established through marriage relationships and name linkages. In times of drought these networks made it possible for people to join even distant bands and to share in the available food and water resources. A band might thus fluctuate considerably in composition through time, and consequently had no extended life as a fixed entity. Within a camp each family had its own shelter, a light semi-circular structure of branches and twigs thatched with grass, in front of which was a hearth where food was prepared and eaten. The campfire was the centre of social life in a camp, for this was where people congregated for warmth and dances, and it was the focus for many other domestic activities. During the day the women sat around the fires to cook, make beads and clothes, talk and mind the young children, while at night they were joined by the men for conversation and dances on ritual occasions. Families did not remain at their own fires but moved from fireplace to fireplace to visit one another for conversation and the exchange of gifts of food and tobacco. Each campfire was considered to be a separate social gathering, and formal greetings had to be exchanged between visitors and those already seated around it, emphasising the facts that every person had his or her own place and duties within the band and that personal status gained through age or prestige from success in hunting had to be accorded due respect.

cycle of life

Among all the Kalahari hunter-gatherers there were few formalities connected with marriage, and divorces could proceed with equally little ceremony. Marriages were very often arranged when the children were still quite young, but it was also possible for young people to meet when several bands had congregated together during a seasonal camp. Most groups had strict rules on the selection of partners. It was not usual for a spouse to be selected from the same band, nor did marriage as a rule take place between close relatives. The !Kung, for example, forbade marriage between cousins of all degrees, while the Nharo permitted marriage between cross-cousins but not parallel cousins. Polygyny was allowed, but owing to the shortage of women of marriagable age few men had more than one wife. In order to prevent discord within the family circle, a man seeking a second wife often took the younger sister of his first wife, because it was felt that sisters would be more tolerant of one another.
First marriages were usually undertaken when the bridegroom was about l5 and the bride about 9 years old. During the period of courtship the young man brought gifts to his future parents-in-law and proved his ability as a hunter. Immediately after marriage the husband was obliged to perform bride service for his parents-in-law and he thus joined their band. He had to hunt, prepare skins, and perform other domestic duties for them for a period which varied from group to group: among the !Kung this period continued until three children had been born to the couple. The relationship with parents-in-law was marked by respect and avoidance, varying in formality from group to group.

Little ceremony marked a marriage, which was sealed when the groom and his bride entered and shared the same shelter. Among all groups the family was closely-knit. Parents were devoted to their children, though there is evidence that infanticide was practised to provide an optimal spacing of children according to ecological constraints. Older children lived apart from their parents in shelters with others of the same sex, but they continued to congregate and eat around the fire in front of their parents' shelters. Children were always part of community life, but their economic role was limited. Only in later childhood, after the ages of 6 or 7, did they begin to learn the basic tasks of making a livelihood. Boys were given small bows and arrows with which to learn the skills of hunting by practising on insects and small birds, while girls imitated their mothers in preparing plant foods, collecting firewood, constructing play huts and taking care of younger children.

Children were given considerable freedom and spent much of their time playing many types of games in or close to the camp. One of the most commonly noted was the melon game, which was played only by women and girls. The players formed a circle, danced, clapped and sang as each in turn threw the melon behind her back to the next player. Favourite games of boys and men were throwing the 'bouncing stick', a smooth pliable branch which rebounded forwards when flung to the ground; and flipping the 'stick and feather', a short reed with a weight at one end and a feather at the other, which was hit up into the air with another stick and allowed to float down like a shuttlecock before being flipped up again. Other forms of recreation included the making of string figures, the playing of musical instruments such as the musical bow and thumb piano, and the relation of folklore.

All the Kalahari hunter-gatherer groups held various initiation rites to mark the transition to adulthood. The type of ceremony was different for boys and girls, and varied in form from group to group. The !Xo and certain of the !Kung and western Nharo had the most elaborate rituals for boys, which were linked not to physiological puberty but to induction into hunting fraternities with accompanying knowledge of hunting techniques and religious secrets aimed at ensuring fertility. Among these people the whole ceremony would last up to a month. For girls the ceremonies were much more elaborate and were directly connected to puberty. As with boys the ceremonies varied in form from group to group, but common to all was a period of seclusion immediately on the commencement of the first menstruation which was followed by ceremonial dances, scarification, and formal education in adult patterns of behaviour and responsibilities. At the conclusion of these rituals young people were considered eligible for marriage.

Aged people were accorded a respected position of leadership in camps and bands, since they were regarded as embodying the rights of a band within its territory. They were also active repositories of folklore and ritual-medical skills. Old people were usually supported by their families, but it is a well-authenticated fact that they were abandoned to their fate in times of scarcity and drought. Such decisions were not taken lightly, but were accepted by all as necessary for the survival of the band.

religious beliefs

The hunter-gatherer groups in the Kalahari had largely similar religious beliefs and practices, though regional differences appear to have developed through time. There was a clear conception of a high creator of the universe, who was known by several names - amongst others, N!adi, Goa!na or Hishe - and who was connected with fertility but had little other effect on daily life. Opposed to this supreme being was an evil god called G//aua, an agent of death and misfortune, but who was also sometimes conceived of as only the evil aspect of N!adi. These were gods of the sky, sublimely associated with the dawn and the twilight. Animals, celestial bodies and natural phenomena such as rain were personified as supernatural beings, whose origins and activities were related in a rich mythology. There was a general belief that nature and events were controlled by these supernatural beings, some good, some evil, and attempts to influence these spirits took the form less of propitiatory practices towards the good than of active steps to eradicate the evil by means of magic or medicine.

The supreme being was usually approached through the medium of a religious specialist. In some parts of southern Africa rock art attributed to San people has been associated with the activities and experiences of religious specialists or healers, but there is no historical record of painting by Kalahari San and there are only a few examples of ancient rock art on isolated hills in the northern parts of the region. The ability to heal was acquired through a process of education in which transcendent experiences were transformed into power to control a mysterious internal energy (called n/um) that could be used to combat illness. In some groups over half of the men and many of the women became healers, and were able to serve as intermediaries between the human community and the spirit world. Healing dances were important religious and social occasions which took place once or twice a week and were attended by all the members of a band as well as visitors. A dance usually began with women starting to clap and sing while sitting around the fires in front of their shelters, until after some time all gathered round a large fire built in the centre of the camp. While the women and children sat singing curing songs at the fire, the men danced round in a circle. There were formalised patterns of dance and music, each named for a species of animal such as the oryx or eland. Eventually some of the men would enter a state of trance (!kia), when the activation of their healing energy (n/um) made them capable of removing illnesses through contact with the bodies of the other participants, and of generally rendering evil harmless. In some groups it was believed that G//aua, in his own form or in that of a spirit of the dead fond of music and dancing, took possession of the healer, who was thus able to transfer the source of affliction away from the sufferer. In others it was believed that the healing power came directly from the supreme being. All recognised the dangers which faced the healer on entering a state of trance, but no special respect was accorded to healers and their transcendent power could not be translated into secular privileges in the band. Curing rituals for individuals were also performed by a healer, but with less formality. The major healing dances served not only for healing, but also in more recent times as a way of releasing the personal and social tensions generated by the ongoing transformation of the community as the hunting and gathering way of life came to an end, a process which was perceived by people as being beyond their control.

trajectories of change

By the 1980s the transition from hunting and gathering to a more settled way of life had been completed among about 95% of the Khoisan people in the Kalahari. In Botswana, Namibia (South West Africa) and South Africa considerable numbers of San were herdsmen in the service of Tswana, Herero and Ovambo cattle-keepers and 'white' cattle ranchers on farms which covered much of the land formerly occupied by hunter-gatherers, while others had found other forms of employment, notably in the tourist industry. The sinking of wells had made it possible for Kgalagari stock-keepers to occupy even the lands of the !Xo in the arid south-western parts of the Kalahari near the Nosob River. By then a generation had grown up in the farming districts without first-hand knowledge of the way of life of their forebears, and numbers were themselves engaged in agricultural pursuits. Many of their children were attending school and becoming involved in migrant labour and other forms of making a living. In Botswana a few remaining hunter-gatherers have been protected against encroachments on their territories as a result of the proclamation of large game reserves, though for some the threat of losing this land remains. Most Khoisan people, however, have been treated as part of a general category of 'rural poor' rather than as an aboriginal cultural group. Education, health and social services have been extended to them along with other disadvantaged sections of the population. Their participation in ranching - beef production is the chief national industry - has been encouraged through the development of areas formerly unsuitable for farming, but the allocation of farms has not been made according to claims to land on the basis of prior occupation. In Namibia the former South African policy of creating 'homelands' for the various 'ethnic' groups in the territory led to the establishment of an area called 'Bushmanland' ('Boesmanland') in 1970. It was located in the north-western Omaheke-Omatako area and took in some of the land utilised by the Ju/wasi, one of the last groups of hunter-gatherers in those parts. Other 'Bushmen' were later resettled in 'Bushmanland', some after dispossession of their own land, others after having been displaced by the war in Angola. Since it had been realised that hunting and gathering would no longer be viable with an increased population on a reduced land area, permanent settlements such as that at Tsumkwe were set up, and education, health and other facilities were made available. There some people were persuaded to start cultivating basic crops and keeping domestic livestock while others were taken on as wage labourers. A few were expected to carry on a limited form of hunting and gathering as a tourist attraction in a proposed game reserve in the eastern portion of the 'homeland'. The conflict over the future of the territory inevitably affected the inhabitants of 'Bushmanland'. Military involvement began after l974, when the former South African Defence Force established military bases at strategic points in and around 'Bushmanland' and began building up the first of several 'Bushman' units for counter-insurgency operations. The high wages earned by soldiers created a seemingly stable local economy characterised by a high consumption of non-essential imported goods. Efforts were made by privately funded organisations to reduce this dependence on a temporary source of income through the introduction of schemes which encouraged cattle-keeping, but their success depended on private ownership of resources including land. After independence 'Bushmanland' reverted to State Land and the Namibian government began allocating small farms to 'Bushmen' owners, but their future is uncertain since it appears unlikely that the government will continue supporting them financially owing to the need for reconstruction and development elsewhere in the country. The pressure on the available land was alleviated to some extent by the fact that the former South African Defence Force transferred most of its volunteer 'Bushmen' soldiers to a base in South Africa as part of its withdrawal from Namibia, but the 'Bushmen' farmers face possible expropriation by Herero cattle-keepers who were evicted when the 'homeland' was established and have sought to reclaim the land. The 'Bushmen' soldiers in South Africa were subsequently demobilized, and efforts are currently under way to obtain land for the permanent settlement of the men and their dependents.


Throughout southern Africa the descendants of former hunter-gatherers have had to come to terms with the change from a mobile to a settled way of life. Contact and the consequences of changes in their way of life have exposed them to debilitating diseases such as tuberculosis, to rising social tensions deriving from changing value systems due to the need to accumulate wealth as opposed to sharing, and to poverty arising both from unemployment and from their inability to resume their past way of life in greatly changed ecological conditions. They have become minorities in the nation-states which have developed out of the former European colonies, and this has left them vulnerable to discrimination by their more powerful 'black' and 'white' neighbours. In attempting to deal with these problems some people, notably at Ghanzi in Botswana and at Tsumkwe in Namibia, have begun to develop new forms of social identity as a way of promoting their interests, but so far there has been little success in attracting the sympathy of decision-makers at national level. The descendants of the Khoisan hunter-gatherers are being forced to cope with the problems which have had to be faced by many small societies during their incorporation into modern states during the twentieth century, but for which there have been no easy solutions without the development of an effective local awareness of a shared historical cultural identity.

suggested reading

  • Barnard, A. 1992. Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa. A Comparative Ethnography of the Khoisan Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bicchieri, M. G. (ed.) 1972. Hunters and Gatherers Today. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston Inc.
  • Lee, R. B. 1979. The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lee, R. B. & De Vore, I. 1976. Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbours. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
  • Marks, S. 1972. Khoisan resistance to the Dutch in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Journal of African History 13(1), pp. 55-80.
  • Marshall, J. & Ritchie, C. 1984. Where are the JU/WASI of Nyae Nyae? Changes in a Bushman society: 1958 - 1981. Cape Town: University of Cape Town, Centre for African Studies, Communication No. 9.
  • Marshall, L. 1976. The !Kung of Nyae Nyae. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
  • Schapera, I. 1930. The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa: Bushmen and Hottentots. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
  • Schrire, C. (ed.) 1984. Past and Present in Hunter Gatherer Studies. London: Academic Press.
  • Thomas, E. M. 1959. The Harmless People. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Tobias, P. V. 1978. The Bushmen: San Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau.
  • Wilmsen, E. N. 1989. Land filled with Flies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gerald Klinghardt  
Human Sciences Division
August 1998

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