Khoesan hunter-gatherers (popularly called ‘Bushmen’ or ‘San’) lived in the Kalahari desert in Southern African for many thousands of years. Their way of life was shaped extensively by the seasonal variation of the Kalahari environment, and various bands of people moved according to the changing availability of water and sources of food within territories defined by natural landmarks. The need for mobility meant that they had to keep their household goods to minimum, and they used a variety of skin and net bags to carry their belongings.

Khoesan Hunter-gatherers
For most of the 20th-century Khoesan hunter-gatherers (popularly called ‘Bushmen’ or ‘San’) lived only in the semi-arid Kalahari region in Botswana and the neighbouring parts of South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Archaeological studies have shown that hunter-gatherers have lived in the Kalahari for at least 11 000 years, and that for the last 2 000 years they were in contact with other African herders and farmers. By the 1990s, however, very few Khoesan people in the Kalahari were still living as hunter-gatherers. During the 19th and 20th centuries, contact with European traders, hunters, farmers, government officials and missionaries, and the loss of their control over vital natural resources completely changed their way of life.

Ju, Khoe and Southern

There were three major language groupings: Ju, Khoe and Southern. These each included smaller groups within themselves. Despite their differences, they shared many common features in kinship, ritual, cosmology, and material culture.

Need for Mobility

Their way of life was shaped extensively by the seasonal variation of the Kalahari environment, so that the various bands of people moved according to the changing availability of water and sources of food within territories defined by natural landmarks.

The need for mobility meant that they had to keep their household goods to minimum, and they used a variety of skin and net bags to carry their belongings.

The Man Thing

As with clothing, bags were made from dressed animal skins. The skin was pegged out, the hair scraped off and then softened by rubbing between the hands. It was cut into the desired shape and then sewn with sinew thread.

Bone awls were used to pierce the holes, but metal awls and needles were also used. Skinwork was done by men because of the association with hunting, but women often assisted with the softening, sewing and decoration.

Decoration
Bags came in many forms and sizes, including small pouches, larger U-shaped bags which were often decorated with beads and tassels, and large bags made out of the whole skin of a small antelope or other animal. Some bags shown here are elaborately designed and decorated, showing the skilled craftsmanship of their makers. 

Small purse decorated with beads.

Small Bags and Pouches
The small bags carried by men and women were used to hold all sorts of small goods, such as pipes, tobacco, charms and other items. Though seemingly insignificant in themselves, such bags were believed to embody the properties of the animals whose skin had been used to make them and that their owners took on these properties as well. Together with similar properties embedded in clothing and ornaments, they helped to shape how people related to one another through their dress.

The Kalahari

The bags shown here were used by people from different groups in the Kalahari, but mainly from the Auni and Khatia in the south and the Nharo in the central areas, and were collected at various times during the 20th century, many by Dorothea Bleek, an accomplished San linguist and ethnologist, and H.P. Steyn, an anthropologist at the South African Museum in the late 1960s.

Iziko
The Iziko Museums of South Africa’s Social History Collection comprise unique, precious, very rare and culturally significant collection(s) of artefacts. These include furniture, art, textiles, ceramics, anthropological items, historical objects, maritime archaeology and paper collections. They are historically and culturally significant in terms of representing South Africa’s cultural diversity as well as with regard to their value, aesthetics and rareness. They range from artefacts from the early Stone Age, slavery and the colonial period to the struggle against apartheid and the achievement of democracy. In addition, some of these collections, from antiquities to the present, are from around the globe, linking South Africa with other countries.

The Iziko Social History Centre

The Iziko Social History Centre is situated in Church Square, Cape Town. It is housed in the magnificent former National Mutual Life Association of Australasia building, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Francis Masey in 1905.

The Iziko Anthropology Collection

The collection focuses mainly on African material culture, with special emphasis on southern Africa. With over 15 000 accessions, the collection illustrates indigenous African technologies, as well as ways of life and processes of cultural change among hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and farmers (and their descendants) in southern Africa during the colonial and post-colonial periods.

A small but representative sample of artefacts from similar types of societies elsewhere in Africa and the rest of the world is held for comparative purposes.

Basketry, ceramics, clothing and ornaments are especially well-represented, and there are objects of ethnographic and historical value associated with significant historical personalities. Material contributed by early South African anthropologists, notably Winifred Hoernlé, Dorothea Bleek, Isaac Schapera and Eileen Krige are important complements to their published work.

Other sections of the collection, such as clothing, toys and political material document selected aspects of contemporary urban society.

Due to the nature of these anthropological collections in Iziko, the names of the makers of these artefacts were often not recorded.

Credits: Story

Created by Gerald Klinghardt, Lindsay Callaghan and Sarah Schäfer.

© All rights belong to Iziko Museums of South Africa unless otherwise stated.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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