Bushwise Field Guides

Before I try and answer this question, we will firstly have a brief look at who the San people are. The question also implies that the San people existed somewhere before they went somewhere else right? Therefore we will also briefly look at where they used to exist.

Who is the San people?

The San people are also referred to as the Bushman people. They are in fact said to be the only indigenous or aboriginal people of South Africa and also of other Southern African areas. They were semi-nomadic hunter –gatherers that lived in small bands each with their own language,customs and traditions. Although they all use click sounds in their language, some of the different groups also have different dialects. The term Bushman comes from the Afrikaans word  Boesman or Bossiesman and it basically means, man of the bush. For some groups this is a derogatory term. Some sources state that Bushman means outlaw or bandit. Most of the San people prefer to be called according to their own group or tribe names and not to be called Bushman nor San people. Here is some examples of a couple of tribes that still exist : the !Kung , Nharo , Jul’hoan ,HAI //OM .

It is also important to note that the San and Khoisan or KhoiKhoi people are not related, well at least not according to some anthropologists. Although some do state that they indeed were related. It seems we do not have enough evidence and recorded history to confirm or deny their relation.

Also called Khoesan , Khoisan were cattle –herders or pastoralists and although the San and Khoisan physically looked very similar, many say they were not related, neither spoke the same language or had the same customs. The term San is believed to have originated from the Khoi – people who called the Bushman Sonqua or San which means, men without nothing. Another term known to Afrikaans people is Hottentot which also refers to the Khoisan people.Hottentot means stutterer due to the way they spoke and click sounds they made. The Hottentots that eventually became nomadic cattle herders around the area of Cape of Good Hope were encountered by the Dutch settlers in the 1600’s.It is said that at the beginning of the modern Christian era,these Khoisan people migrated southwards from more Northern African regions and eventually also filtered through into South Africa.In the early days after Dutch settlements, the Cape of good hope was also referred to as “ Hottentots-Holland”

So where did the San people exist?

Although there are a few opinions on this, it is generally accepted that they existed from around 10 000 -25 000 years ago in many parts of South Africa ,parts of Namibia, Southern Angola and large areas of Botswana. Some believe they have the oldest gene pattern of any existing humans. A 2011 study by Stanford university said that the Bushmen were genetical the most diverse human group known to exist in Southern Africa which is the cradle of modern humankind.

Finally, Where did the San people go ?

Where did they go and why did they leave?

These Bushman people, small in stature and peaceful were pushed out of most of their original areas in Southern Africa by a few other migrating groups.

BaNtu or African tribes migrated from Western and other Central parts of Africa Southwards. By 300-500 CE these pioneering groups reached modern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa along the coast, and the modern Limpopo Province (formerly Northern- Transvaal) These people eventually settled in South Africa from the 13th century onward. By the 19th century, these groups with no previous distinction gained political and economic prominence in the area..

Then came the Mfecane. This word is derived from Xhosa terms: ukufaca and means “to become thin from hunger” and fetcani “starving intruders.” In Zulu, the word means “crushing.” Mfecane refers to a period of political disruption and population migration in Southern Africa which occurred during the 1820s and 1830s. It is also known by the Sotho name Difaqane. One of the tyrants of this time was chief Mzilikaze Khumalo.

As if this mass BaNtu migration Southwards and the scattering from the Mfecane was not enough, the European sailors of the East Indian Trade Company established a refreshment centre at the Cape of Good Hope during 1652.They became known as the Afrikanes-Voortrekkers and later also known as Boers which means farmers. After British colonisation of the Cape during 1806, some of the Afrikaner- Voortrekkers then started to trek inland and moved Northward and Eastward. This was known as the Great Trek and took place between 1835 and 1854.

It is very clear that all these migrations in search of land, cultural and political stability, caused the poor Bushman to be forced out to other areas. The only alternative they had to fleeing was to give up their own traditions,heritage and customs only to be be incorporated into other groups ‘  customs,languages and lineages.

Here is one summary of where the remaining Bushman descendants find themselves today and after centuries they are still fighting for their own rights and land. Variable numbers on how many Bushman are still alive today indicate that only 55 000 to 100 000 remain. If we were to investigate on how many original or real full blood Bushman are still alive today I am sure we will all be shocked to realise that they are basically almost extinct. It is believed that most of these Bushman are not full blood Bushman but offspring of interracial relationships between other Africans, Khoikhoi or European pioneers.

  • Botswana 55,000
  • Namibia 27,000
  • South Africa 10,000
  • Angola               <5,000
  • Zimbabwe 1,200

Field Guide students with Bushwise touch on the History of South Africa and will cover this subject briefly. If you enjoy history and education your guests this is a fascinating topic to share with your guests.

Written by Gerhard van Niekerk, photos by Tara Raymond






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