In this weekly EXTREME NAMIBIA blog series we explore some of our country's extremes, and share with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.
The San people – also known as bushmen – are southern Africa’s only truly indigenous people. But more than that – genetic testing has proved that they are one of the groups from which all known modern humans evolved.
Today, around 35,000 San live in Namibia, forming six tribes, each with its own language and customs. Though many San have been displaced and are abandoning their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to become farmers and laborers, there is much we can still learn from them. Their ancient culture, customs, art and hunting techniques have taught us much about extinct cultures, and allowed us to interpret what millennia-old cave paintings and rock engravings might have represented, for example. But perhaps more importantly, at a time when many species are threatened with extinction and resources are not enough to support a growing population, the San’s truly sustainable traditional lifestyle may be able to teach us how to live in harmony with nature once again.
One of the things that amazes visitors to Namibia is nature’s ability to survive – thrive, even – in the harshest of climates. In a vast land which is starved of water for most of year, where temperatures soar during the day and drop below freezing at night, it is astonishing to discover that plant and animal life flourish here. But for thousands of years, humans, too, have made this land their home.
The San are greatly admired for their hunting and tracking skills, for their incredible endurance and their profound knowledge of the inhospitable environment they inhabit. They read the environment as we would a book; each track or blade of grass telling a whole story. How long does a spider take to re-spin his web after a springbok has snagged it? How long does it take termites to reconstruct their mounds after a warthog has trampled it? How long does it take for damp earth to dry, for a branch to spring back into place? That’s how long ago the prey passed.
The composition of an animal’s dung belies its age and health; tracks indicate an injured individual. The San can run for hours after a herd of antelope, covering any terrain. Once they have targeted their prey with a poison arrow, they will have to track it for more hours or even days until it finally perishes – so knowing exactly which gemsbok or giraffe to follow is essential. Snares, traps and staking out burrows are other hunting techniques – honed to perfection over hundreds of generations.
In this land of scarce water, the San know which roots can be scraped or squeezed to quench their thirst. They dig deep holes in damp sand to create “sip wells”, where water is sucked up through hollow grass and then stored in an ostrich egg. A fire is all that’s needed to set up camp for a night; a few simple huts are a temporary village.
Of course, as they are moved from their ancestral lands and have to adopt new lifestyles to adapt to modern culture, these life-saving skills and knowledge are in danger of being lost forever. Namibia’s Living Culture Museums are one way in which the San culture is being preserved – shared with tourists and even more importantly, passed on to the next generation. Visitors learn about hunting and trapping techniques, making fire, building a shelter and identifying medicinal plants. The entrance fees and proceeds from craft sales support the community. And the San are able to continue using their desert skills to survive.
A visitor learns to hunt with the San at the Living Hunters Museum
“San” means “outsider.” It was the word that neighboring, pastoral communities used to describe this nomadic people
There are around 90,000 San in southern Africa today. The majority live in Botswana, with the rest in Namibia, South Africa and Angola.
See rock engravings left by the San up to 6000 years ago at Twyfelfontein, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
See ancient San rock paintings, including the famous White Lady, painted 2000 years ago on the Brandberg Mountain.
Watch “The Gods Must be Crazy” – a humorous film about a San man who comes into contact with the modern world – in the form of a Coke bottle.
Read “Born in Etosha, Homage to the Cultural Heritage of the Hai||om”, a book about the the forgotten history of the Hai||om, a San tribe who lived in what is now Etosha National Park.