Khoisan, Bushman & San Information. Basic introduction to the Kalahari Bushmen, "First People" of Africa

Ancient History
Families & Clans
Recorded History
Recent History
email Mike Bibliography
News & Links
Bushman  photos by Mike Elliott - Samples from an extensive collection of African studies Typical Bushman Huts. From Mike Elliott's photo archive A Ju/wasi hunter setting a 'Small game snare trap'
Link to Sponsor - Artist, Mike Elliott specialising in African Ethnic Studies
Artist, Mike Elliott has spent 15 years visiting and painting the Ethnic peoples of Southern Africa, particularly the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Here he has put together an information starter pack to encourage greater understanding of these special people. Check out the Links Page for much more information.

This Website is long overdue for an update & revamp. A lot has happened since 2004 & new technology allows for expanded applications, so look forward to a New Better Site!
(p.s. I have updated the Links Page!!!)

Introduction to the Bushmen

Tainted Victory in Botswana

The Situation in Botswana may not yet be resolved with the Botswana Government taking obstructive action against Bushmen trying to return to the Central Kalahari Reserve. This is despite the landslide legal victory allowing them access to the lands they were evicted from.

The latest episode in the Saga is a legal restriction on them using Borehole water in the CKGR. There is no logical reason for this except to obstruct the peoples legitimate rights. This is being appealed by the Bushmen so the Court battles continue.

Botswana still basks in the glory of World applause as the "Most Successful Democracy in Africa". The trouble is these accolades shelter them from International scrutiny in their many human rights abuses. Not as extreme as some of our African Basket cases but they are very guilty of grinding down the resolve of a people that have limited power to fight back.

Your involvement is important, as was the Worldwide campaign to educate people on the Bloody Legacy of Diamonds. Check out the "Organisations" listed. They all work on different levels, from fairly radical to a more philanthropic/humanitarian approach.
If you feel strongly about the rights of the Indigenous Peoples of the World, this is a good place to start - You are bound to find one that suits your personal belief system.

You could also Subscribe to the Survival International' newsletter to get a minute by minute update on developments Worldwide. (They are completely safe - you do not get any other Junk Mail or unsolicited pleas for donations etc.)

My memories are touched with sadness as I have watched these people catapulted into the modern world at a pace too fast for successful assimilation. Inevitable changes have been forced upon them, sometimes in the name of modernisation or for purely political and commercial objectives. Rarely were they given the opportunity to adjust and adapt at a more organic pace that may well have resulted in successful transitions. A pace where they can adapt without a total breakdown of their social & cultural foundations.

Argument and debate about these changes continue to rage, while the very subject of that discussion disintegrates around them. These people really are in their twilight years, as the last cohesive bands of Bushmen dissolve and fade into the African dust. Although I am angered by many activities, this Website is not intended as a critical assessment of the different opinions and strategies applied, but merely as a beginners introduction to a culture worthy of greater respect and to encourage active dialogue and a better understanding of the few remaining old world cultures.

I am not a preservationist that is intent, at all costs, on them being preserved as some kind of romantic legacy but I do believe that, where circumstances allow, they should be left to determine their own course of action. Where that is impossible, I want them to be offered genuine opportunities and the right to determine what, if any changes they wish to make with dignity & respect. I am certain that I would upset a few 'Social Scientists' but I also believe that, in the face of rabid change, they need shielding or protecting from the more predatory elements of our amoral and greedy culture.

Another very important objective of this Website is to change the Modern World perception of a 'Nobel Primitive' to one of Respect. One that fully appreciates their unique environmental knowledge and to understand the inherent strengths of a socio/economic system that has lasted 10,000+ years relatively unchanged. Not a weakness but a strength we may yearn for sometime in the near future.

Who are the Bushmen?

Woven within a tapestry of mystique and legend, the Bushmen have been known by many names throughout recorded history. This is an attempt to strip away some of the romantic notions and show them as a real people facing outside pressures in a very real and often harsh world. Although the most studied anthropological group in the world, there are still many misconceptions concerning them, not least of them the beliefs that they are just another African Tribe, that they are truly Nomadic (in the same manner as the Bedouin), that they all speak a common tongue and that those living in the deserts were driven there by white settlers. Many of these beliefs can be rooted in ignorance, prejudice & inaccurate observations by early settlers and explorers while many other misconceptions, although having some small underlying element of truth, are fundamentally misleading and inaccurate.

The Bushmen, often referred to as the San or the generic term Khoisan, are the remnants of world's oldest cultural group, genetically the closest surviving people to the original Homo-Sapien apex from which we all emerged. The 'So called' African Eve & Adam. They formed the branch that remained in Africa and, despite their light skin, the Negroid branches emerged. They are small in stature generally with light yellowish skin, which wrinkles very early in life. Despite the later massive expansion of the pastoral and agrarian tribal cultures, those Bushman groups that utilised environments that were unsuitable for farming, survived until fairly recently with a high level of genetic purity.

Before anyone shouts about my racial stereotyping let us remember that from the African branches that went North & East, emerged all the other traditional racial classifications like Oriental, Indo-European etc. The world is made up of a Myriad dispersion and fusion of peoples but we all originate from that same African Apex.

They were hunter/gatherers, with traditionally about 70/80% of their diet consisting of plant food, including berries, nuts, roots and melons gathered primarily by the women. The remaining 20/30% was meat, hunted by the men, using poisoned arrows and spears. Their hunting & gathering economy and social structure had remained virtually unchanged for tens of thousands of years until very recently, a socio-economic culture that has sustained mankind universally during their evolution until the advent of agriculture. The Bushmen did not farm or keep livestock, having no concept of the ownership of land or animal.

Their social structure is not Tribal because they have no overt leadership and their ties of kinship are fairly relaxed. They are a loosely knit family culture where decisions are made by universal discussion and agreement by consensus. An individual's opinion is naturally weighted according to their level of skill and experience in the particular field of discussion but everyone has the right to enter discussion & negotiation.

Families within a clan would speak a common language but neighboring clans would often speak a different tongue, although there would normally be a fair degree of similarity & understanding between them. As you will appreciate, the further afield the clans, the less commonality in language and vocabulary. Get a better idea from the Families & Clans Page, which explains the broad Khoisan language family groups.

Bushmen are generally nomadic within fairly limited boundaries, governed by the proximity of other families & clans and the availability of food. As a very loose guideline, the territory of a family may stretch to a 25-mile circle. Obviously, if there are no other bordering clans or other people these areas may stretch further, as far as is needed to ensure adequate food and water sources.

The roles of men & women were very distinct and rarely overlap, which is a characteristic almost universal amongst hunter/gatherers the world over. It based on survival needs encouraging the most efficient utilisation of available skills and resources. Despite what is often perceived as a very sexist society, the importance of women is very high within the group and their opinions often take precedence, particularly where food is concerned.

It is very difficult today to find genetically pure lines, but in some areas groups can be found which appear to have little or no interbreeding with other peoples and cultures. One would hope that the Genome (DNA) crowd are targeting these for studies before the interbreeding destroys too much evidence. It is even more difficult to find Bushmen who still totally reliant on traditional methods of survival. The reasons for this are very varied and often the cause of much academic, ideological, economic and political conflict. Without pointing fingers I will try to explain the different forces that have impacted most heavily on these "First People" of Africa.


Bushmen - A term first applied by white explorers and settlers over 200 years ago. It was in those days a derogatory term applied to people held in very low esteem by the whites, the Bantu & the Khoi khoi. The Bantu tribes used various names including BaSarwa (a Tswana term). In more recent years the derogatory nature of the name has declined to the level where many prefer to be refered to by this.

San - The term used by the Khoi khoi. Although it is difficult to get a literal translation, the word was far from complimentary as these people despised the Bushmen as scavengers. In the 1960's it was first used by the Harvard Kalahari Research Group, although there is apparently some evidence of a German professor first coining the word in the 1950's in place of the term "Bushman" which he deemed offensive. Ironic that he replaced it with a word that was even more derogatory. Anyone disputing this should visit the Ju/wasi Bushmen in Hereroland, eastern Namibia, and call them "San". Their response will be colorful to say the least. Although I would much rather an actual Bushman term be adopted such as Khwe (Variations of this name, generally meaning "The People", can be found throughout Botswana) various Bushmen groups in Namibia seemed to have accepted "San" as a suitable name. The situation is currently very convoluted but a you can get a pretty good idea from the people themselves - See -

Khoikhoi - A people found scattered throughout southern Africa who were genetically similar to the Bushmen and speak a language akin to the Bushman tongue using the click consonants. They keep sheep, goats and latterly cattle, unlike the Bushmen who traditionally kept no livestock. Various theories exist as to the origins of this socio-economic transition. My best guess is that their roots lay in at least 2 major interactions with Arabs or other peoples of the Middle East. Khoi is their own name for themselves and is now used by most people because the Dutch term "Hottentot" was considered derogatory. During the white expansion there was significant interbreeding, first with whites and later with Bantu. From this interaction specific clans emerged bearing names such as Witboois and Afrikaner (not to be confused with the white Afrikaaners), with pride. Many of these groups moved to the North to escape persecution.

Khoisan - The term most applied by academia today, referring to the Bushman/Khoi gene pool or, as is often stated, applying to all those people sharing related languages that use the Click Consonants. Still, I feel, not a respectful term as in incorporates the Khoikhoi term San.

Bantu - A generic term applied to African Negroid tribal people who migrated down from central Africa over millennia.

Where do they live?

They can be found in Southern Africa in the following countries, although I stress that virtually none live purely by hunting and gathering today.

Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola, with loosely related groups in Tanzania. Recorded history also placed them in Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique.

Rock art & archaeological evidence can place the Culture as far north as Libya, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, with the evidence of legend & physical racial type suggesting some traces remain in Kenya.

Copyright © Mike Elliott 2004 email Mike Elliott