They live in Southern Africa and experts say there is evidence that they are one of the oldest peoples in the world; archeologists can record their history for up to 20,000 years.
They have no names for themselves; they just call themselves “the People” in their own language. They have been named, by nearby tribes, as San and, by European settlers who invaded, as Bushmen. Both names were meant as insults to start with. Some people who study their history, use San today, but it seems that many of the People themselves prefer Bushmen. They are proud of its original Boer meaning of ‘outlaw’, that was given to them in their long fight against the colonists.
They now live in and around the area of the Kalahari desert, and less than 100,000 are believed to remain. They were once thought, along with the Khoi, who come from the same ethnic background, to have roamed throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa before the Bantu people of western Africa, who were farmers and warriors, moved south about 1500 years ago.
How did they live?
The Bushmen were, and many have tried to remain, hunter-gatherers. They have an incredible knowledge of the wild life and plant life of their area, enabling them to exist in quite a difficult environment. Their powers of tracking animals are legendary.
They have a deep respect for all life - plants or animals. They believe that all living things, humans, animals and plants, are connected to one another. They believe that everything that is taken from nature must meet a need and should be no more than is required for the community.
Every part of an animal that is hunted and killed is used. They have an in-depth knowledge of plants and their properties, not only for food but also for medicinal use.
Traditionally, they lived in small kinship (family) groups of about 25 and moved around their lands as the different plants they eat and use ripen. They made their temporary homes in caves, rocky overhangs or shelters of branches and leaves. In the dry times of early spring, when there was little plant life, they would gather near a water hole - to which animals would also come to drink. A number of related groups would come together now and then, to exchange news and gifts (very important), for marriages and social occasions.
Decisions were made with the whole group being involved, along with the chief or ‘shaman’. These leaders were not rulers – they had no direct control over the lives of others. However, they did possess the authority which their reputation for wisdom or spiritual power gave them. Between the sexes, men and women’s roles were traditionally different, but their status was fairly equal and they were not afraid of sharing in each others’ roles. Women sometimes joined a hunt, and men would sometimes help with the gathering of plants. Children are very important to the San and get plenty of time to play, as well as to learn.
To relax, they would sit, often around a central fire, and chat, joke, sing and sometimes engage in the sacred dancing. The ritual medicine or healing dance and the rain dance were very important to the group and everyone would take part.
What do they believe?
An eland has powerful spiritual significance
Bushmen believe in one creator god and a number of lesser deities. They also believe that every living thing has a spirit. Their ‘shaman’ are able to break the thin veil between the physical world and the spiritual world, through their ritual dances and their rock art. They also pay respect to the spirits of the dead.
They believe that when the world was first created, people and animals were all one and lived together in harmony and mutual understanding.
The eland (a large type of antelope) has strong spiritual importance for many Bushmen groups and is used in rituals such as boys’ coming of age.
Bushmen have long story telling traditions and, like many cultures, use the stories of the gods to teach about what is good and moral behaviour.
San rock art is to be found over a wide area of Sub-Saharan Africa and spans a period from ten, maybe twenty, thousand years ago right up to modern times.
It is nowadays realised that the Bushman rock art has a much deeper spiritual meaning than just showing everyday life, or trying to influence events, eg in hunting.
The rock itself is seen as a veil between this world and the spiritual world and the painting helps the veil to be broken and the powers used by the shaman.
Who is Kaang?
Rock Art from Zimbabwe
Kaang is the creator god, who made every form of life on earth and is the god of all natural things and beings. For a while he lived with his creations, before taking himself to his realm in the sky with the secret of immortality. However, through his descendants and his messengers, his wisdom can still be accessed by those who know how to look.
Kaang married the sorceress Coti and had 2 sons, Cogaz and Gewi. There are many myths and stories about Kaang, including some where he defeats death. In one of the myths, he is eaten by an ogre and then vomited back up alive. In another, he is killed by the spiky thorns of an enemy and his bones are picked clean by ants. He then reassembles his skeleton and comes back to life.
This death and return has some similarity with gods of other early religions. For example Osiris, god of the dead in Egypt, the Babylonian fertility deity Tammuz and Adonis in Greek mythology. Is it possible that any of them had some beginnings in Africa?
And it is interesting to compare the fall of mankind from a state of harmony with all the world, through his own disobedience, with many other creation stories in many other religions worldwide.