"I can't be told by anyone how to live. If I went to the minister and said, 'Move from your place', he would think I was mad." 'Bushman' elder, Botswana

southern Africa

Who are they? The 'Bushmen' are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20,000 years. Their home is in the vast expanse of the Kalahari desert. There are many different Bushman peoples – they have no collective name for themselves, and the terms 'Bushman', 'San', 'Basarwa' (in Botswana) and so on are used variously. Most of those which are widely understood are imposed by outsiders and have some pejorative sense; many now use and accept the term 'Bushmen'. They speak a variety of languages, all of which incorporate 'click' sounds represented in writing by symbols such as ! or /.

How do they live? The Bushmen are hunter-gatherers, who for thousands of years supported themselves in the desert through these skills. They hunt – mainly various kinds of antelope – but their daily diet has always consisted more of the fruits, nuts and roots which they seek out in the desert. They make their own temporary homes from wood that they gather. Many Bushmen who have been forced off their lands now live in settlements in areas that are unsuitable for hunting and gathering – they support themselves by growing some food, or by working on ranches.

What problems do they face? The Bushmen had their homelands invaded by cattle herding Bantu tribes from around 1,500 years ago, and by white colonists over the last few hundred years. From that time they faced discrimination, eviction from their ancestral lands, murder and oppression amounting to a massive though unspoken genocide, which reduced them in numbers from several million to 100,000. Today, although all suffer from a perception that their lifestyle is 'primitive' and that they need to be made to live like the majority cattle-herding tribes, specific problems vary according to where they live. In South Africa, for example, the !Khomani now have most of their land rights recognised, but many other Bushman tribes have no land rights at all.

The Gana (G//ana) and Gwi (G/wi) tribes in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve are among the most persecuted. Far from recognising their ownership rights over the land they have lived on for thousands of years, the Botswana government has in fact forced almost all of them off it. The harassment began in 1986, and the first forced removals were in 1997. Those that remained faced torture, drastic restrictions in their hunting rights, and routine harassment. In early 2002, this harassment intensified, accompanied by the destruction of the Bushmen's water pump, the draining of their existing water supplies into the desert, and the banning of hunting and gathering. Almost all were forced out by these tactics, but a large number have since returned, with many more desperate to do so.


Early History and Colonial Rule

San (Bushmen) were the original inhabitants of what is now Botswana, but they constitute only a small portion of the population today. The Tswana supplanted the San, who remained as subjects. Beginning in the 1820s, the region was disrupted by the expansion of the Zulu and their offshoot, the Ndebele. However, Khama II, chief of the Ngwato (the largest Tswana nation), curbed the depredations of the Ndebele and established a fairly unified state.

A new threat arose in the late 19th century with the incursion of Boers (Afrikaners) from neighboring Transvaal. After gold was discovered in the region in 1867, the Transvaal government sought to annex parts of Botswana. Although the British forbade annexation, the Boers continued to encroach on native lands during the 1870s and 80s. German colonial expansion in South West Africa (Namibia) caused the British to reexamine their policies, and, urged on by Khama III, they established (1884-85) a protectorate called Bechuanaland. The southern part of the area was incorporated into the Cape Colony in 1895. Until 1961, Bechuanaland was administered by a resident commissioner at Mafikeng, in South Africa, who was responsible to the British High Commissioner for South Africa. 


Britain provided for the eventual transfer of Bechuanaland to the Union of South Africa; in succeeding years, however, South Africa's attempts at annexation were countered by British insistence that Bechuanaland's inhabitants first be consulted. The rise of the National party in South Africa in 1948 and its pursuit of apartheid turned British opinion against the incorporation of Bechuanaland into South Africa. Although Bechuanaland spawned no nationalist movement, Britain granted it internal self-government in 1965 and full independence as Botswana on 30 September, 1966. Shortly after, Botswana became a member of the United Nations. Seretse Khama, grandson of Khama III, was elected the first president.

In the period after independence, the country generally maintained close ties with its white-ruled neighbors and refused to let its territory harbor guerrilla operations against them. Prior to Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, however, Botswana became a refuge for guerrillas. In the years before a multiracial government was established in South Africa, Botswana was the target of South African reprisals.

Despite the increased importance of mining in the Botswanan economy, unemployment has been a problem since the 1970s, as subsistence farming has become less profitable and migrant workers have returned from the South African mines in search of work. By 1997, Botswana also had one of the highest rates of HIV infection (25%). On the political scene, the Botswana National Front, an organization acting on behalf of labor, has been growing in popularity, although elections in 1989 and 1994 gave the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) a majority in the national assembly. Dr. Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, who had been president since 1980, resigned in 1998 and was succeeded by his vice president, Festus Mogae. Mogae won election to the presidency in October 1999, and the BDP retained its hold on the national assembly.


San spirituality and western commerce

Andre Croucamp
14 August 2002

Who are the people we call “San” or “Bushmen”? For decades we have used the rock art of their ancestors to decorate brochures, tourist trinkets and the walls of exclusive game lodges. Along with Ndebele borders and stereotyped African masks, the painted figures of hunter-gatherers chasing eland have become standardised African kitsch. Coffee table book photographs and documentary film footage often represent the hunter-gatherers of southern Africa as isolated, autonomous, and affluent in the riches of nature, but their communities have been oppressed, exploited and even hunted for hundreds of years. Tourists can buy factory produced versions of their decorated ostrich egg shells, traditionally used to carry water, while they themselves fight for basic services like water to be made available in the barren places they have been forcibly removed to. Their laughing wrinkled faces appear on television, selling consumer goods they themselves cannot afford. New Age eclecticism appropriates the icons of their spirituality with a consumer zeal that mirrors colonial plunder. Their artefacts, once the prestigious collection of museum monuments to Imperialism, can now be bought as trendy up-market interior decorating curiosities. Popular New Age psychology books offer overly-simplistic models of their lives as routes to personal transformation – bringing their profound perspectives on life into your home and office so you can heal yourself and deal with the stress of being faced with so many confusing consumer choices. We even sample their exotic rhythms and chants, and then mix them into ambient dance tracks calling it World Music – promoting globalisation and the blurring of boundaries where all voices are valid. But how do we hear their voices? How do we separate them out from the heady drone of that post-modern-all-is-valid ambient noise?

Contemporary southern African hunter-gatherer communities rarely benefit from the marketing of their images, artefacts, metaphors and sounds. For the most part, they have been left out of the democratic processes that are empowering other previously disadvantaged groups. The threat of their “extinction” has ironically added market value to their exotic “culture.” Contrary to TV ads, coffee table books and do-it-yourself New Age shamanism, the people we call “San” and “Bushmen” do not live in some idyllic past. They are contemporary people battling with extreme forms of social deterioration and economic devastation. We frame them as pristine hunter-gatherers, representatives of some previous human utopia, living close to nature, rejecting the concept of ownership, and needing nothing more than the land. In so doing we effectively remove them, and their issues, from the economics and the politics of the present. The names we use to refer to them are not even names they themselves have chosen, but are the derogatory terms Bantu herders and white colonialists used to describe the people they cruelly marginalized. To this day their communities fight to be treated with respect and dignity, and to participate in the economic and political processes that will determine their future.

Their place in southern Africa’s past is acknowledged in the motto on the South African coat of arms. It is written in language of the /Xam people and declares: /!ke e: /xarra //ke/, or “unity in diversity.” But, when will the speakers of this language and the other so-called Khoisan languages find their place in the unity of the present?

We need to challenge the images and myths we so readily consume and move beyond our own sentimentality. As we move to the stolen rhythms of our decadent urban trance dance culture, let us reflect on what we are really doing. In the process of trying to revive the humanity of our spiritually bankrupt consumer society, let us allow the trance to extend our awareness beyond the dance floor, beyond our designer drugs and fashion statements, beyond a weekend of escapism, beyond our privileged consumer choices … and let us become truly vulnerable to those voices and rhythms that cry out for the healing of our world.



From: Gustafson

Computer researchers have apparently found a major flaw in the notorious "Eve" hypothesis which purported to find a woman who was in the family tree of every living human being, and who by a "biological clock" had been estimated to have lived around 200,000 years ago.

This theory was proposed by computer analysis of "mitochondrial DNA." Mitochondria are cell organelles that are -always- inherited from your mother; by contrast, your nuclear DNA is half yours and half your mother's. (Well, maybe in Kentucky. I meant, half your father's.)

The authors of this hypothesis, which was originally proposed by Allan Wilson of Berkeley, had examined human mitochondrial DNA for random mutations and concluded that the earliest differences could be found between San Bushmen and everybody else. From this they concluded that a common ancestor of everybody lived in Africa, and that she lived 200,000 years ago.

Bone and fossil types had been hostile to this hypothesis, because Wilson made some statements that implied that a superior group of humans arising at that time had -replaced- all previously existing humans. On the other hand, they didn't have the skills in probability or genetics to attack his research directly.

Unfortunately for Wilson, it appears that a flaw in the computer analysis he used dooms his original findings. Mathematically, you cannot deduce how many intermediate forms of mitochondrial DNA may have existed between one set and an ancestral set, merely by counting the different forms that appear -now-. The greatest divergence in the genetic sequence (which Wilson found between the Bushmen and the rest of us) does -not- imply that the Bushmen are closer to the ancestral stock.

Wilson's theory may still be true. More research will need to be done. I don't have a problem with a single human ancestor existing 200,000 years ago.

That would put the "common ancestor" beyond even the point where Neanderthals become identifiable as a separate group.

Mitochondrial DNA is like a family name. It is transferred by only one sex - in this case, the woman. A father may have seven children, and all of them are daughters. These daughters can marry and have children of their own. Yet, under the traditional naming system, the father's name has been lost. All of his children were daughters. In the stream of "family name" inheritance, his is a dead branch; in the stream of genetic inheritance it is not. Mitochondrial DNA will also be lost, not only by those who beget no children, but by all women who have only sons. Those sons may pass their mother's genes. But they cannot pass their mother's mitochondrial DNA.

So the wilder speculation that has come out of the "Eve" hypothesis - that there was a group of early humans who managed to -replace- all others, and that all genetic material not traceable to this group has been lost - just doesn't follow from it even if you accept it at face value.


The San rock paintings and the trance dance

The San Bushmen rock paintings which depict conflict are not uncommon in southern Africa. They are distributed from Cape Province in the west to Mozambique in the east. Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:204) have looked at societies in which shamanism plays an integral part, but they have not looked at the whole area surrounding shamanism. Instead, they concentrate merely on the altered states of consciousness. They did not wish to overburden the study with talk of the medicinal effects, and the healing and bewitching elements, of shamanism.

The San shaman artists depict the trance dance itself, symbols of supernatural potency, hallucinations experienced by shamans, and entoptic phenomena. Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:205) do not suggest that these depictions were executed by people actually in trance. They point out that it is more likely that the shaman recalled and depicted their powerful experiences in relative tranquillity. They further note, that the San today listen attentively to the "shaman's recollections of trance experience and that in the past, depiction may have been a parallel (but not identical) activity" (Lewis-Williams and Dowson, 1988:205).

The features of numerous paintings, suggest that the art is essentially shamanic, as opposed to a narrative of daily life as was originally suggested. This shamanistic element would have been associated with the activities of medicine men; being essentially hallucinatory and portraying the world of trance experience (Campbell 1986:256).

"In an early stage of trance, medicine men experience a neurological phenomenon in which they 'see' geometric shapes, or phosphenes, such as zig-zags, dots, nested U-shapes and vortexes" (Campbell 1986:259).

One further point to consider, is that "nasal bleeding is one of the most characteristic and common features of medicine men in the art and this feature alone indicates that the painting is linked to trance experience" (Campbell 1986:263).
Definition: A 'shaman' - "a man or a woman who is in direct contact with the spirit world through a trance state and has one or more spirits at his command to carry out his bidding for good or evil" (Harner 1973:xi).

Harner (1973) points out that the use of hallucinogens is only one method which can be employed to induce the "trance-like states conducive to a sense of seeing and contacting the supernatural. In many cultures other methods are used: fasting (water and food); flagellation and self-torture; sensory deprivation; breathing exercises and yogic meditation; and ritual dancing and drumming. A common psycho-physiological basis for the similarity of effects produced by all of these methods may exist, but the use of hallucinogens appears to be the easiest and fastest technique for reaching a believed supernatural experience and visions" (Harner 1973:xii).

Source: Suzanne Carr


Two types of division of labour in two different hunting-gathering societies.

The division of labour in these hunter-gatherer societies is well balanced, and is organised to suit the needs of all of the members of the society. Every member of these societies plays a contributes in some way to the community throughout their life.

The !Kung San Bushmen, Kalahari Desert, South Africa- Although a large group, it is divided into small bands, with each band being made up of between twenty and sixty people and having its own territory, within which the members of that band have rights to gather wild vegetable foods. However, hunters of larger animals may step into the territories of other bands quite freely if they are in the pursuit of game. The !Kung are almost entirely dependant upon hunting and gathering for their food supply. These people hunt and gather daily, and return in the evening to distribute all the food that has been collected equally among every single member of the band.

The labour division of the !Kung San is by gender and age. The people in the 20-60 age group provide the food, while the younger children and adolescents are not expected to provide regular food until they are married (most commonly between the ages of fifteen and twenty for the females, and about five years later for the males years later), and instead have their older relatives provide food for them. The older members of the band are well respected and have a high position in this society, and their role is to be the leaders of the camps, and to carry out activities such as ritual curing and making decisions. For many years after they stop hunting and gathering, the aged are fed and cared for by their children and grandchildren.

The women between the ages of 20-60 are responsible for the gathering, and work for two to three days a week each, whereas the men devote about twelve to nineteen hours a week to getting food. The food gathered by these women provides the bulk of the total !Kung San diet by weight. A woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family, i.e. her elderly and younger relatives for three days, and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps, or entertaining visitors from other camps.

The men of these bands also collect plants and smaller animals, but their main contribution is the hunting of wild animals. The hunters work is not regular; men can often hunt regularly for a week and then do nothing at all for even longer than a month if times are bad. During these periods, visiting, entertaining and especially dancing are the primary activities of men.

The Aborigines, Australia- were divided into two main groups. Ninety per cent of these people lived on the coast, the northern tropical forests, and the southern and eastern woodlands, while the remaining ten per cent lived in the interior desert. Also egalitarian, they shared equally the tasks of daily living, especially the collecting of food. In this society, labour was divided by gender; all men were hunters, on land or sea, and the women"s role was to collect plant foods, shellfish, small animals and insects.

Although meat was an important part of their diet, the foods gathered by the women provided the majority of their food supply. These women were very well educated about the local area, and knew how to find and use an enormous number of different plants, both for food and for other things such as medicine or making bags. They also had other skills; such as in the desert, they would collect the seeds of grasses and ground them into the floor to made a kind of bread. Their skills even extended to the making of tools for particular purposes, such as bark dishes for everything from seeds to babies, and grinding stones for grass seeds

The men"s role was to hunt game. They too made their own tools and weapons; the spear was the weapon most frequently used, but axes, clubs and various kinds of throwing sticks were also implemented. Their methods of hunting were few but often worked well. One was for the men to surround the animals together, or to scare them toward other hunters who lay in hiding. The most common way, however, was for one or two men to stalk an animal. The Aborigine men also had good tracking skills. Hunters used disguises to get close to their prey; for instance, some men disguised themselves as trees by holding up branches, and some smeared themselves with earth to stop the animal from being able to catch his scent.

The hunters were also very patient, as they often had to sit and wait motionlessly in intense heat in order to capture their prey. They also were familiar with the behaviour and "the ways" of their prey. An example of this was in the way they used to trap emus. Hunters would lie on their backs and wave their legs in the air to catch an inquisitive emu"s attention and lure it towards them. They also used dogs to hunt animals such as the wallaby, or other methods, such as smoking out wombats from their holes in the ground.



Religion and Nature

The Khoikhoi attached special significance to the moon. The new and full moons were important times for rainmaking rites and dancing, and it seems that the moon was viewed as the physical manifestation of a supreme being associated with heaven, earth and especially rain (of key significance to people in drier regions, whose existence was so dependent upon rainfall). 

Amongst the Nama two prominent figures stand out in their religious mythology. The first is Tsui-//goab, the deity who was sometimes seen as the founding ancestor of the Khoikhoi. He was 'the creator, the guardian of health, the source of prosperity and abundance, and above al the controller of the rain and its associated phenomena of clouds, thunder and lightening.' By contrast, //Gaunab was 'primarily an evil being, who causes sickness or death.' The other major figure is Haitsi-aibib, a folk hero and magician of great repute who could change his form. Haitsi-aibib died many times in different places, but had the ability to come to life again - often being reborn in a different form. His 'graves' are widely distributed, and it was seen as good luck for passers-by to add to the piles of stones already there, or to leave branches, pieces 

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