Fascinating Technologies Used by the San People of Southern Africa

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Origins Centre

Trance dance, redrawing (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

A hunter-gatherer way of life
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Introduction to San People

The names ‘San’ and ‘Bushman’ are used today by people descended from hunter-gatherers who lived in southern Africa before the arrival of herder and farmer groups. They lived a hunter-gatherer, nomadic lifestyle, only settling for small periods time. Today, Khoe and San descendants are fighting against their exploitation and asserting their presence in politics and among southern Africa's diverse societies.     

Eland, San rock painting by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

Introduction to southern African rock art
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1. Power in paint

Early hunter-gatherers developed paints made from yellow and red ochre and charcoal mixed with eland blood, animal fat or egg albumin. The art forms were intimately connected with the spiritual beliefs of the San. The earliest dated painted art in southern Africa is dated to 27,000 years ago.

San arrow heads (1970) by San and KhoeOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute

The San tri-sectional arrow
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2. An arrow with a difference

Early hunters developed a complex tri-sectional, poisoned arrow. The poisoned tip pierces an animal’s skin and the link shaft breaks off. This prevents the animal from rubbing the arrow out against a tree, leaving the tip in the skin as the poison takes effect.

San arrow heads (1970) by San and KhoeOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Poisons in San Arrows
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3. Poison

The San used an extremely deadly poison on their arrows. The hunters would track a wounded animal for hours, as the poison took effect.

Yellowwood (2006) by Origins Centre. Garden planned and designed by Patrick WatsonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

4. A sticky situation

The San created an adhesive to glue their arrowheads to the shafts or handles. These adhesives are prepared by heating them, resulting in a strong but brittle glue that breaks under pressure, leaving a poisoned arrow-tip in the wounded animal.

replica engraved ostrich eggshell (2021) by Replica by Cedric PoggenpoelOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand and The French Institute of South Africa

Ostrich eggshell water containers
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5. The most precious resource

Some San groups lived in some of the driest regions of the world - where water was a scarce resource. In order to store and save the precious water when available the San used ostrich egg shells. These were carefully engraved, and the holes plugged shut to keep the water fresh. 

Digging Stick (1970) by San Hunter-GatherersOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute

Gathering and the material culture of the San
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6. The digging stick and bored stone

Digging sticks were reported to have been used by San and Khoe women to excavate the ground in search of precious roots and bulbs. The stick, sharpened at one end, was used to probe the soil. Sometimes the stick was weighted with a bored stone to give it  extra impact to loosen the soil.

On special occasions, it is said that women banged the bored stones on the ground in order to call the spirits of the dead.

Threads of Knowing: The Future (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

7. Nature's remedy

The San used many different indigenous plants to create medicines and treat illnesses. Perhaps most famous is their use of the Buchu plant which is used to treat digestive issues and is also a powerful anti-inflammatory.  

Credits: Story

The San and Khoe people of southern Africa
The Rock Art Research Institute
French Research Institute of South Africa
Tamar Mason
Narrator: Gcina Mhlophe
Online Exhibition Curator: Tammy Hodgskiss

Credits: All media
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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