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In conjunction with our new iLecture film 'San Rock Art of South Africa' and the Africa Rock Art Archive, the Bradshaw Foundation presents a brief background to the San culture of southern Africa. The San, Bushmen, Basarwa, ?Kung or Khwe are indigenous people of southern Africa. The name 'San' comes from the Khoi word sonqua, meaning 'those without cattle'. The name ‘bushman’, or in Dutch, Boschjesmans, was first used as early as 1652 by Dutch settlers to describe the hunter-gatherers they met when they first arrived at the Cape.
According to Dr Ben Smith, genetic evidence suggests they are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world, going back to perhaps 60,000 years. They have genetic traces that no one else in the world has, that put them at the root of the human tree - we are related to them, but they are not as closely related to us. They have unique markers that we don’t have.
San Bushman Bushmen Tribe South Africa
Genetic evidence suggests the San Bushmen
are one of the oldest peoples in the world
San Bushman Bushmen Tribe South Africa
The San Bushmen are the indigenous
people of southern Africa
San Bushman Bushmen Tribe South Africa
Bushmen hunted various kinds of antelope
using poison arrows and spears
San Bushman Bushmen Tribe South Africa
The Bushmen were
traditionally hunter-gatherers
They were traditionally hunter-gatherers, and their kinship / tribe system reflects their interdependence as traditionally small, mobile foraging bands. Their gathering gear was simple yet highly effective: a hide sling, blanket, and cloak, called a kaross, to carry foodstuffs, firewood, smaller bags, a digging stick, and perhaps a smaller version of the kaross to carry a baby. Women would gather - fruits, nuts and roots - and men hunted, mainly various kinds of antelope, using poison arrows and spears in days-long excursions. Leisure was very important to the Bushmen. They spent large amounts of time with conversation, music, and sacred dances.
They speak a variety of languages, all of which incorporate 'click' sounds represented in writing by symbols such as ! or /. They make their own temporary homes from wood that they gather. Many Bushmen who have been forced off their lands now live in settlements in areas that are unsuitable for hunting and gathering - they support themselves by growing some food, or by working on ranches.
Apollo 11 Stones South Africa
The 'Apollo 11' Stones
In terms of archaeology we have a seemless stone tool tradition, and a seemless art tradition, going back 27,000 years with the 'Apollo 11' stones - indeed, the San have longest continuing art tradition in the world.
The general features of southern African San art are explained in terms of concepts that pervade the cognitive systems of San people from all areas. Amongst all San groups the most important ritual is the Great Dance. In this dance, through trance, the San say that they harness a kind of spiritual power that is like electricity.
They use this power for things such as healing, hunting, removing societal tensions and making rain. It is aspects relating to this dance that are pervasive in San rock art, partly because this dance was of such great significance to the San, but more importantly because the act of making rock art seems to have been part of the process by which San ritual specialists harnessed and shared the power of the dance.
In all areas, therefore, rock art images depict aspects of the dance, most often just fragments of the dance rather than entire dance scenes. We see individual or small groups of dancers bending forwards, wearing dancing rattles, holding wildebeest tails or dancing sticks and bleeding from the nose: these are all features particular to the dance.
San Bushman Bushmen Tribe South Africa
Animals and Dancers from the famous
Rock Art panel at Game Pass
San Bushman Bushmen Tribe South Africa
Rock Art images depict animals in relation
to aspects of the trance dance
Around these fragments of the dance are placed animals, but not just a random selection of animals. Those animals that have special supernatural potency are the ones particularly chosen and repeated often. It is from these animals that the San say they draw power in the dance and the rock art sometimes shows this. Lines of power connect animals to dancers in the art. More than this, dancers are regularly depicted taking on features of powerful animals such as their hooves or heads.
The art also shows the magical other-worldly things such as rain-animals (above left), monsters and spirit people that are encountered by dancers on their out-of-body vision journeys. We thus understand San art as a deeply spiritual art, one that harnesses and shares with others the power of successive generations of San spiritual experience and enlightenment.
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