Living Heritage: Language and Life of African People

Discover the rich and complex history and culture of the San and Khoe peoples of Southern Africa

Origins Centre

Double Vision (2006) by Pippa Skotnes and Malcolm PayneOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

A hunter-gatherer way of life

Southern Africa's First People

The names ‘San’ and ‘Bushman’ are used today by people who claim descent from the hunter-gatherers who lived in southern Africa for many thousands of years before the coming of groups who owned domestic cattle or planted crops. 

Trance dance, San rock painting (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.

Naming a People

'San' is a name derived from the Khoekhoen word sanqua or sonqua, which herders used to refer to poor people without cattle. It is very unlikely that hunter-gatherers in the deep past called themselves San.

Replica of the 'Train Shelter' in the Makgabeng (2006) by HananwaOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Khoe and San

European colonists to South Africa identified two types of indigenous people – the Khoe and San (although they used the derogatory terms ‘Hottentot’ and ‘Bushman’). A long-standing debate concerns the degree to which these two groups are similar and different  - one side argues that they are very different peoples, the other argues that they are very similar and that the differences are the product of colonial misconceptions.

Ovambo ostrich eggshell skirt from Namibia. (1950) by OvamboOriginal Source: Wits Art Museum and Standard Bank Art Collection.

In the twentieth century San groups took back possession of this name, and it is preferred by San organisations in the Cape, whereas their Kalahari counterparts have taken ownership of the name Bushman.

Detail of of Tamar Mason's embroidered panel "Threads of Knowing: Modern Life"Origins Centre


Descendants of the original hunter-gatherer and herding people of South Africa were victimized by the colonial forces and farmers moving into southern Africa. They were hunted, enslaved and jailed.  However, they also formed formidable pockets of resistance mastering colonial language, guns and horses.

Painted eland and rhebok (2006) by Origins CentreOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Traces of the past

The ancestors of present day San were the artists who produced the brush-painted rock art that is found in rock shelters across southern Africa. Hundreds of engraving sites are found across the country at open hill sites or on riverine rocks in water courses. 
There are more than 30 000 known rock art sites across southern Africa.  

Archeologists who study rock art have used San ethnography and mythology to interpret the rock art.

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

The bow and arrow

Sophisticated hunting technology

Hunter-gatherer groups survived by hunting game and gathering wild plant foods. Both the oral and archaeological records show that gathering plants and other edible materials produced the most food. Hunting was a precarious undertaking with sporadic results,  but it brought in much desired meat and fat, which were ritually as well as nutritionally significant.

Ju/'hoan women's back apron (2000) by San and KhoeOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute

San material culture - then and now

Flourishing art and adornment

An array of clothing and accessories were worn by nomadic hunter-gatherers, and a large amount of material items were produced. Often the items marked a persons’ status, age, or group affiliation. 

Painted stone depicting figures carrying digging sticks by San Hunter-GatherersOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute


Anthropological research suggests that hunter-gatherer societies tended towards social customs that discouraged hoarding food and displaying authority. Sharing of food and material goods was encouraged. There were divisions of labour based on gender, where women as gatherers contributed the daily subsistence, while men were responsible for providing meat through hunting.

Close up of ostrich eggshell beads in the Ovambo skirt made entirely of beads (1950) by OvamboOriginal Source: Wits Art Museum and Standard Bank Art Collection.

Gift Exchange

The Kalahari San traded objects in a complex gift-exchange system – a system known as hxaro in the Ju|’hoan (formerly !Kung) language. Items of material culture were exchanged over vast distances. Among the Ju|’hoansi, a person may have had gift-exchange partners across extensive areas of the Kalahari. 

[Placeholder] The ‡Khomani San (2020) by Julie GrantOrigins Centre

Letitia Pietersen on persecution of San and Khoe peoples

Who are the San and Khoe today?

The San and Khoe have been persecuted in the past and many remain politically marginalised in the present.
Today, many Khoe and San descendants are fighting against their exploitation and asserting their presence in politics and among southern Africa's diverse societies.
Pictured: Toppies and Steenie (‡Khomani San), now both decesased

Beautiful lands of the ‡Khomani San (2020) by Julie GrantOriginal Source: Julie Grant

Changing narratives in museums

Origins Centre continues to work with various San community groups to actively and sensitively reveal histories that have been hidden, ignored and unheard in the past. 

Image: The ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape is located at the border with Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The area is associated with the culture of the formerly nomadic ǂKhomani San/Bushmen people.

The South African Coat of Arms (2000) by South African GovernmentOriginal Source: South African Government

Honouring the San people

The symbol on South Africa's coat of arms depicts two San people and the motto is a phrase in the IXam language which reads ǃke e꞉ ǀxarra ǁke. This phrase means "diverse people unite".

The people were based on the figures from the famous 'Linton' rock art panel.

Credits: Story

The Khoe and San peoples of southern Africa
The ǂKhomani San
Julie Grant
Rock Art Research Institute
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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