Who are the Bushmen?

O. Wallace

The Bushmen are a people indigenous to the Kalahari Desert in Africa, with a territory covering parts of South Africa, Namibia, Angola and Botswana. Historically, they are a hunting-gathering society, but with western colonization, many have been forced from their traditions.

A Bushman's arrow might contain scorpion venom.
A Bushman's arrow might contain scorpion venom.

It is commonly believed that these people have inhabited the African continent for more than 22,000 years, and some archaeologists believe that they are the oldest group on earth. Bushmen are descended from the Khoisan ethnic group, related to the Khoikhoi. They are well known for their unique language that includes clicking sounds, characterized by the ! or / symbols in written language.

Bushmen live in Africa's Kalahari Desert.
Bushmen live in Africa's Kalahari Desert.

Bushmen, which denotes them as a general group and includes many sub-groups, are also referred to as the Basarwa, San, !Kung, and Khwe, all of which, excluding !Kung, were given to them by outsiders. This has been problematic, because many of these names are slurs or derogatory. The term Bushmen itself has negative connotations in some countries even though some members of the group refer to themselves as a group by that name.

There is archaeological evidence that the Bushmen were a particularly advanced culture, early on in their history. Rock paintings in the Lapala Wilderness region record their society and animals in the region in great detail. Before Europeans came to Africa, the society changed very little from their hunting-gathering, and most of their traditions are still practiced today.

In Botswana, their name means “people who have nothing,” which to outsiders, may be true. In reality, Bushmen have only what they need to survive. Traditionally, small bands would move camp to where the food could be gathered in the rainy season, and set up villages around waterholes during the dry season. All the women needed to gather food was a sling made from animal hide, a blanket and a kaross, a multipurpose cloak-like tool used to carry wood, food or children. Their main diet includes nuts, fruits and roots as well as game meat.

Men would hunt on extended hunting trips using spears or poison arrows. The poison for the arrows varies from tribe to tribe, but the main ingredients used may be snake venom, cactus juice, poison from scorpions or spiders, or ground up beetle grubs. This is a highly effective method for killing large game, typically antelope.

Among a Bushmen tribe, there is no main leader or chief — the group is governed by consensus. Generally, there is gender equality, and children are valued and treated well. Childbearing typically begins after 18, and women only have as many children as they are able to carry and feed at one time.

As with many other indigenous people, the Bushmen have suffered at the hands of outsiders. When the British arrived in Africa, they wanted to bring “civilization” to the indigenous people, and encouraged them to lead a more agricultural life. In many areas, their “wildness” prompted exterminations, often at the bidding of the government. Bushmen of the Cape (of Good Hope) were killed to extinction by the 1870s, and a count in 2001 in Botswana put their numbers at fewer than 2,000. Continent-wide, there are fewer than 100,000 Bushmen left. As late as 1936, the government of Namibia was still issuing licenses to hunt and kill them.

One of the most controversial injustices the Bushmen have suffered began in Botswana in 1997 when they began to be moved by the government off their ancestral land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The government believed that their hunting and gathering on the reserve was detrimental to the reserve and the tourism trade and tried to relocate them. They also required special hunting permits for them to hunt on the reserve. On 13 December 2006, the Bushmen were successful in a suit against the government, allowing them to return to the reserve that has been home for millennia.

Today, Bushmen inhabit parts of South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Botswana.
Today, Bushmen inhabit parts of South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Botswana.

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"Bushmen of the Cape (of Good Hope) were killed to extinction by the 1870s..." Life is so unfair.

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