The history of the Khoisan (San & Khoikhoi) (Bushman & Hottentot) is written in Legend & the ancient dust of Africa

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Old San woman outside Tsumkwe, Namibia.  Visit the extensive photo archives of Mike Elliott. Ju/wa throwing the bones to foretell the future Lilies in Nyae Nyae pans. The bulbs are a favorite food of the Bushmen there. San hunter climbing a Baobab tree to get Honey. The tree also provides a tasty fruit
Sponsor - Mike Elliott.  Artwork depicts Bushmen and the Wildlife of South Africa & Scotland
That mankind in his earliest days lived by hunting and gathering is not disputed. It would seem that tool making abilities, the ability to develop observation skills & hunting strategies and the formation of sophisticated social structures were all factors central to the emergence of true mankind from his primitive roots.

The Bushmen in Ancient History


Hunting & gathering as a survival economy has been the longest lasting of all, when one considers that this can still be found today amongst many scattered people around South America, Indonesian Islands and Africa.

DNA examination confirms that they were genetically the closest to the same African core stock from which Homo Sapien (All of us) emerged. Of those that did not migrate North into Arabia, some moved south and from those the Negroid emerged, possibly splitting initially between 15 - 25 millenia ago. It has generally been accepted that there was then a parallel development of both, in isolation from each other. Early Blood Group studies found there were groups of unusually pure Bushmen which had a much smaller range of variations in blood type, skull shapes and features which suggested a people who kept very much to themselves or maintained a high level of isolation from the other groups who were expanding out from central Africa. The The Ju/'hoansi of Namibia still exhibit a strong social resistance to intermarriage and procreation with outsiders, with distinctive features dominant throughout the group, showing little variation.

This would indicate that the Bushmen emerged from a single focal point possibly from northeast or east Africa and expanding out from there to populate most of the continent. It has been generally accepted that they occupied the Late Stone Age Period but were physically very different from the preceeding Homonoid types that dominated the Middle Stone Age. This reinforces the belief that they emerged from and migrated out of a specific region replacing any pre-existing hominoids during their expansion.They would have been at that time the most sophisticated and technologically advanced form of mankind, giving them a massive advantage over Homo Habilis or some other, as yet undefined, predecessor. An alternative theory, that is losing popularity, is that they emerged spontaneously in several different locations at around the same time. The tight nature of their genetic characteristics would however suggest otherwise and, I am sure, subsequent DNA studies have disproved this belief.


Earliest evidence of Bushman (or Bushman-like) activity can be found in Egypt, Sudan & Ethiopia. Digs have produced many artefacts, evidence of technology and physiology almost identical to the Bushmen of today in Southern Africa. Rock engravings in Tibesti Mountains in Libya were undoubtedly Hunter/Gatherers and illustrate a time when the Sahara was a well-watered and lush environment. There is a rumour of Egyptian mummies of Bushmen having been discovered, which would indicate that either Egypt's trading reach went far down into Africa or, more likely , that the Bushmen were not too far away. I am currently trying to verify this.

Shell middens and other heaps of coastal artefacts in Southern Africa show that Bushman-like people were populating much of that region, suggesting that at some stage they were very wide spread.

Anecdotal evidence in the form of stories, legend and the occasional emergence of children bearing striking Bushman-like features can be found throughout East and southern Africa. Pockets of people can be found like the Sandawe & Hadza of Tanzania, which although having little physical similarities have in the past had a hunter/gatherer economy and a similar language using click consonants.

Absorption & Assimilation

There is a general assumption that the later classical Negroid type spread out from central Africa at a later stage, adopting a pastoral economy and spreading east and south, absorbing the indigenous Hunter/Gatherers. This was not necessarily a massive military type sweep wiping out large numbers of people. While not suggesting that there wasn't some conflict, the Bantu in southeast Africa of pre-Zulu days did not seem unduly violent. However, the Hunter/gatherers initially would have perceived the cattle as rather docile wild animals (having no concept of ownership of animals or land) and helped themselves, with inevitable response from the Bantu. Similar patterns were evident during early white settler days, which then resulted in frequent Commando raids to wipe them out.

As the Negro culture spread eastwards and southwards their skin progressively lightened, which suggests interbreeding with (absorption of) the much lighter skinned Bushmen. A study of blood types and skull shapes backs this up along with a significant amount of Arab or Middle Eastern interbreeding. The Arabs had by this time established coastal trading routes that eventually stretched as far south as Mozambique. By the time the Bantu reached the South Africa of today they were much lighter skinned and, interestingly, had adopted many of the click consonants, unique to the Khoisan languages. This is another indication that much of the interbreeding may have been consensual. You do not usually adopt the tongue of a vanquished enemy.

If one looks at more recent interaction between Tswana and Bushman, there has been a tendency of using Bushmen to look after their cattle, with Tswana often implying an ownership of these people. There were benefits to both sides with this arrangement and the opening of a channel, albeit one sided, to interbreed. There are many instances of Tswana taking BaSarwa (San) women as wives/concubines


By this time pockets of Bushmen, still retaining a high level of racial purity, could be found in areas less hospitable to cattle owners. Deserts and mountainous areas became their domain. Certainly some of those had taken to refuge in the mountains early on, but those in the desert regions, by and large, appeared to have been there for eons.

Central Botswana once had a freshwater super-lake covering much of the central & northern region, which would have been a magnet to all. However, as more recent evidence suggests, it would have been rife with Tsetse Fly, which would have made it less attractive to the cattle owners. Geological shifts later diverted the rivers that once fed this lake and it eventually dried up leaving the Okavango Delta and the Makgadikgadi Pans as the last remnants. Victoria Falls was formed in this geological upheaval, diverting the Zambezi from the super-lake.

Those Bushman in the area would have adapted to the changing conditions, becoming real desert survivors. There is some interesting clues that many of those in the Kalahari are in fact Khoikhoi who have somehow lost their sheep, goats and/or cattle and reverted to the traditional Bushman hunter/gatherer economy as a matter of survival. These people speak a Khoikhoi language, as opposed to a Bushman tongue and there is some oral evidence that some kept livestock in the distant past. Perhaps their sheep & goats fell prey to the ravages of the Tsetse Fly in eons past or died of thirst. It has also been noted that their hunting equipment is more crude than that of the pure !Kung Bushmen in Namibia and their use of poisons a little less sophisticated. All this suggests a devolution back to past patterns of survival.

Who are the Khoikhoi?

These were a people bearing strikingly similar physical characteristics to the Bushmen and speaking a related language with click consonants. They did however keep fat tailed sheep, goats and latterly cattle while subsidising their diet by hunting and gathering. They bore no similarity to the Bantu in anything other than the keeping livestock. There seemed to be quite a variety of physical type, with evidence of Arab blood and generally taller in stature.

These are all clues as to their origins. The Fat tailed sheep is a Middle Eastern type similar to the Arab "Sha". We know that there was an Arabic trading post in Mozambique near Maputo in the 12th century AD and contact with Bushmen, with records stating the existance there of strange, small, click speaking Wak Wak. It is reasonable to assume that there was interaction and perhaps slavery or some form of indentured service. Whether the Arabs brought down the fat tailed sheep to Beira is not known but there would have been some cross-pollination of ideas with respect to animal husbandry and a measure of interbreeding.

An interesting idea is that there may have been more than one instance of prolonged Bushman/Arab contact. Kenya has been long associated with Arab traders and it would be reasonable to assume that in earlier days this occurred when Hunter/gatherers were more common. But an interesting series of rock paintings in Ethiopia shows cattle and fat tailed sheep being attacked by lions. This evidence, coupled with archaeological finds of distinctly Bushman-like artefacts and physiology, would indicate that this was another point of contact, which specifically identifies these distinctive sheep and their protection against predators. (Remember the use of Bushmen by the Bantu to look after their cattle in southern Africa).

Multiple points of Arab interaction, interbreeding and acculturation may explain some of the variety of distinctive physical types found amongst the Khoikhoi. They may well have filtered down south (from their various origin points) predating, but in a similar manner to the Bantu with needs closely tied to their livestock. An interesting observation since recorded African history, is that the Khoi universally despised the Bushmen, a not uncommon behaviour pattern found amongst breakaway groups who have changed social structures, religion or patterns of economy (seemingly placing themselves in a superior position).


Copyright © Mike Elliott 2004 email Mike Elliott