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The term “Sann” has a long vowel and is spelled Sān (in Khoekhoegowab orthography). It is a Khoekhoe exonym with the meaning of “foragers” and was often used in a derogatory manner to describe nomadic, foraging people. Based on observation of lifestyle, this term has been applied to speakers of three distinct language families living between the Okavango River in Botswana and Etosha National Park in northwestern Namibia, extending up into southern Angola; central peoples of most of Namibia and Botswana, extending into Zambia and Zimbabwe; and the southern people in the central Kalahari towards the Molopo River, who are the last remnant of the previously extensive indigenous “San” of South Africa.[4]


Bush-Men Hottentots armed for an Expedition, 1804

The hunter-gatherer San are among the oldest cultures on Earth,[5] and are thought to be descended from the first inhabitants of what is now Botswana and South Africa. The historical presence of the San in Botswana is particularly evident in northern Botswana’s Tsodilo Hills region. San were traditionally semi-nomadic, moving seasonally within certain defined areas based on the availability of resources such as water, game animals, and edible plants.[6] Peoples related to or similar to the San occupied the southern shores throughout the eastern shrubland and may have formed a Sangoan continuum from the Red Sea to the Cape of Good Hope.[7]

From the 1950s through to the 1990s, San communities switched to farming because of government-mandated modernisation programs. Despite the lifestyle changes, they have provided a wealth of information in anthropology and genetics. One broad study of African genetic diversity completed in 2009 found that San people were among the five populations with the highest measured levels of genetic diversity among the 121 distinct African populations sampled.[8][9][10] Certain San groups are one of 14 known extant “ancestral population clusters”; that is, “groups of populations with common genetic ancestry, who share ethnicity and similarities in both their culture and the properties of their languages”.[9]

Despite some positive aspects of government development programs reported by members of San and Bakgalagadi communities in Botswana, many have spoken of a consistent sense of exclusion from government decision-making processes, and many San and Bakgalagadi have alleged experiencing ethnic discrimination on the part of the government.[6]: 8–9  The United States Department of State described ongoing discrimination against San, or Basarwa, people in Botswana in 2013 as the “principal human rights concern” of that country.[11]: 1 


Portrait of a bushman. Alfred Duggan-Cronin. South Africa, early 20th century. The Wellcome Collection, London

The endonyms used by San themselves refer to their individual nations, including the ǃKung (ǃXuun) (subdivisions ǂKxʼaoǁʼae (Auen)Juǀʼhoan, etc.) the Tuu (subdivisions ǀXamNusan (Nǀu), ǂKhomani, etc.) and Tshu–Khwe groups such as the Khwe (Khoi, Kxoe)HaiǁomNaroTsoaGǁana (Gana) and Gǀui (ǀGwi).[12][13][14][15][16] Representatives of San peoples in 2003 stated their preference of the use of such individual group names where possible over the use of the collective term San.[17]

Both designations “Bushmen” and “San” are exonyms in origin, but San had been widely adopted as an endonym by the late 1990s. “San” originates as a pejorative Khoekhoe appellation for foragers without cattle or other wealth, from a root saa “picking up from the ground” + plural -n in the Haiǁom dialect.[18][19] The term Bushmen, from 17th-century Dutch Bosjesmans, is still widely used by others and to self-identify, but in some instances the term has also been described as pejorative.[14][20][21][22]

Adoption of the Khoekhoe term San in Western anthropology dates to the 1970s, and this remains the standard term in English-language ethnographic literature, although some authors have later switched back to Bushmen.[4][23] The compound Khoisan, used to refer to the pastoralist Khoi and the foraging San collectively, was coined by Leonhard Schulze in the 1920s and popularised by Isaac Schapera in 1930, and anthropological use of San was detached from the compound Khoisan,[24] as it has been reported that the exonym San is perceived as a pejorative in parts of the central Kalahari.[20] By the late 1990s, the term San was in general use by the people themselves.[25] The adoption of the term was preceded by a number of meetings held in the 1990s where delegates debated on the adoption of a collective term.[26] These meetings included the Common Access to Development Conference organised by the Government of Botswana held in Gaborone in 1993,[15] the 1996 inaugural Annual General Meeting of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) held in Namibia,[27] and a 1997 conference in Cape Town on “Khoisan Identities and Cultural Heritage” organised by the University of the Western Cape.[28] The term San is now standard in South African, and used officially in the blazon of the national coat-of-arms. The “South African San Council” representing San communities in South Africa was established as part of WIMSA in 2001.[29][30] “Bushmen” is now considered derogatory by many South Africans,[20][22][31] to the point where, in 2008, use of boesman (the modern Afrikaans equivalent of “Bushman”) in the Die Burger newspaper was brought before the Equality Court, which however ruled that the mere use of the term cannot be taken as derogatory, after the San Council had testified that it had no objection to its use in a positive context.[32]

The term Basarwa (singular Mosarwa) is used for the San collectively in Botswana.[33][34][35] The term is a Bantu (Tswana) word meaning “those who do not rear cattle”.[36] Use of the mo/ba- noun class indicates “people who are accepted”, as opposed to the use of Masarwa, an older variant which is now considered offensive.[28][37]

In Angola they are sometimes referred to as mucancalas,[38] or bosquímanos (a Portuguese adaptation of the Dutch term for “Bushmen”). The terms Amasili and Batwa are sometimes used for them in Zimbabwe.[28] The San are also referred to as Batwa by Xhosa people and Baroa by Sotho people.[39] The Bantu term Batwa ref

Further information: San healing practicesSan rock art, and San religion

Drinking water from the bi bulb plant

Starting a fire by hand

Preparing poison arrows

San man

The San kinship system reflects their interdependence as traditionally small mobile foraging bands. San kinship is comparable to Eskimo kinship, with the same set of terms as in European cultures, but also uses a name rule and an age rule. The age rule resolves any confusion arising from kinship terms, as the older of two people always decides what to call the younger. Relatively few names circulate (approximately 35 names per sex), and each child is named after a grandparent or another relative, but never their parents.

Children have no social duties besides playing, and leisure is very important to San of all ages. Large amounts of time are spent in conversation, joking, music, and sacred dances. Women have a high status in San society, are greatly respected, and may be leaders of their own family groups. They make important family and group decisions and claim ownership of water holes and foraging areas. Women are mainly involved in the gathering of food, but may also take part in hunting.

Water is important in San life. Droughts may last many months and waterholes may dry up. When this happens, they use sip wells. To get water this way, a San scrapes a deep hole where the sand is damp. Into this hole is inserted a long hollow grass stem. An empty ostrich egg is used to collect the water. Water is sucked into the straw from the sand, into the mouth, and then travels down another straw into the ostrich egg.

Traditionally, the San were an egalitarian society.[40] Although they had hereditary chiefs, their authority was limited. The San made decisions among themselves by consensus,[41] with women treated as relative equals.[42] San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts regularly rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services.[43]

Most San are monogamous, but if a hunter is skilled enough to get a lot of food, he can afford to have a second wife as well.[44]


Villages range in sturdiness from nightly rain shelters in the warm spring (when people move constantly in search of budding greens), to formalised rings, wherein people congregate in the dry season around permanent waterholes. Early spring is the hardest season: a hot dry period following the cool, dry winter. Most plants still are dead or dormant, and supplies of autumn nuts are exhausted. Meat is particularly important in the dry months when wildlife can not range far from the receding waters.

Women gather fruit, berries, tubers, bush onions, and other plant materials for the band’s consumption. Ostrich eggs are gathered, and the empty shells are used as water containers. Insects provide perhaps 10% of animal proteins consumed, most often during the dry season.[45] Depending on location, the San consume 18 to 104 species, including grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and termites.[46]

Women’s traditional gathering gear is simple and effective: a hide sling, a blanket, a cloak called a kaross to carry foodstuffs, firewood, smaller bags, a digging stick, and perhaps, a smaller version of the kaross to carry a baby.

Men hunt in long, laborious tracking excursions. They kill their game using bow and arrows and spears tipped in diamphotoxin, a slow-acting arrow poison produced by beetle larvae of the genus Diamphidia.[47]

Early history

Wandering hunters (Masarwa Bushmen), North Kalahari desert, published in 1892 (from H.A. Bryden photogr.)

A set of tools almost identical to that used by the modern San and dating to 42,000 BC was discovered at Border Cave in KwaZulu-Natal in 2012.[48]

Historical evidence shows that certain San communities have always lived in the desert regions of the Kalahari; however, eventually nearly all other San communities in southern Africa were forced into this region. The Kalahari San remained in poverty where their richer neighbours denied them rights to the land. Before long, in both Botswana and Namibia, they found their territory drastically reduced.[49]


Various Y chromosome studies show that the San carry some of the most divergent (oldest) human Y-chromosome haplogroups. These haplogroups are specific sub-groups of haplogroups A and B, the two earliest branches on the human Y-chromosome tree.[50][51][52]

Mitochondrial DNA studies also provide evidence that the San carry high frequencies of the earliest haplogroup branches in the human mitochondrial DNA tree. This DNA is inherited only from one’s mother. The most divergent (oldest) mitochondrial haplogroup, L0d, has been identified at its highest frequencies in the southern African San groups.[50][53][54][55]

In a study published in March 2011, Brenna Henn and colleagues found that the ǂKhomani San, as well as the Sandawe and Hadza peoples of Tanzania, were the most genetically diverse of any living humans studied. This high degree of genetic diversity hints at the origin of anatomically modern humans.[56][57]

A 2008 study suggested that the San may have been isolated from other original ancestral groups for as much as 100,000 years and later rejoined, re-integrating into the rest of the human gene pool.[58]

A DNA study of fully sequenced genomes, published in September 2016, showed that the ancestors of today’s San hunter-gatherers began to diverge from other human populations in Africa about 200,000 years ago and were fully isolated by 100,000 years ago.[59]

Ancestral land conflict in Botswana

Main article: Ancestral land conflict in Botswana

Much aboriginal people‘s land in Botswana, including land occupied by the San people (or Basarwa), was conquered during colonisation, and the pattern of loss of land and access to natural resources continued after Botswana’s independence.[6]: 2  The San have been particularly affected by encroachment by majority peoples and non-indigenous farmers onto land traditionally occupied by San people. Government policies from the 1970s transferred a significant area of traditionally San land to white settlers and majority agro-pastoralist tribes.[6]: 15  Much of the government’s policy regarding land tended to favor the dominant Tswana peoples over the minority San and Bakgalagadi.[6]: 2  Loss of land is a major contributor to the problems facing Botswana’s indigenous people, including especially the San’s eviction from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.[6]: 2  The government of Botswana decided to relocate all of those living within the reserve to settlements outside it. Harassment of residents, dismantling of infrastructure, and bans on hunting appear to have been used to induce residents to leave.[6]: 16  The government has denied that any of the relocation was forced.[60] A legal battle followed.[61] The relocation policy may have been intended to facilitate diamond mining by Gem Diamonds within the reserve.[6]: 18 

Hoodia traditional knowledge agreement

Hoodia gordonii, used by the San, was patented by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1998, for its presumed appetite suppressing quality. A licence was granted to Phytopharm, for development of the active ingredient in the Hoodia plant, p57 (glycoside), to be used as a pharmaceutical drug for dieting. Once this patent was brought to the attention of the San, a benefit-sharing agreement was reached between them and the CSIR in 2003. This would award royalties to the San for the benefits of their indigenous knowledge.[62] During the case, the San people were represented and assisted by the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), the South African San Council and the South African San Institute.[29][30]

This benefit-sharing agreement is one of the first to give royalties to the holders of traditional knowledge used for drug sales. The terms of the agreement are contentious, because of their apparent lack of adherence to the Bonn Guidelines on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing, as outlined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).[63] The San have yet to profit from this agreement, as P57 has still not yet been legally developed and marketed.

Representation in mass media

Rock paintings in the CederbergWestern Cape

San paintings near MurewaZimbabwe

San paintings near Murewa

Early representations

The San of the Kalahari were first brought to the globalized world’s attention in the 1950s by South African author Laurens van der Post. Van der Post grew up in South Africa, and had a respectful lifelong fascination with native African cultures. In 1955, he was commissioned by the BBC to go to the Kalahari desert with a film crew in search of the San. The filmed material was turned into a very popular six-part television documentary a year later. Driven by a lifelong fascination with this “vanished tribe”, Van der Post published a 1958 book about this expedition, entitled The Lost World of the Kalahari. It was t


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