South Africa Table of Contents

The Earliest South Africans

The oldest evidence in the world documenting the emergence of humankind has been found in South Africa; fossils of the earliest hominids (Australopithecus africanus ) date back at least 2.5 million years, and remains linked to modern Homo sapiens date back more than 50,000 years. Roughly 20,000 years ago, South Africa, still in the grip of the world's last Ice Age, was occupied by people now known as San. Remnants of San communities still survive today as so-called Bushmen (now considered a pejorative term) in the Kalahari Desert. The San, who developed their society over thousands of years in isolation, speak a language that includes unique "click" consonants, are smaller statured, and have lighter skin pigmentation than the Bantu (see Glossary) speakers who later moved into southern Africa. However, older notions that such differences indicate that San are a distinct "race" of people have now been discredited and replaced by arguments that all the black inhabitants of South Africa are closely related, sharing a common gene pool, and that any physical differences among them can be attributed to geographical distribution and extent of contact rather than to race.

San obtained a livelihood from often difficult environments by gathering edible plants, berries, and shellfish; by hunting game; and by fishing. Gathering was primarily the task of women, who provided approximately 80 percent of the foodstuffs consumed by the hunter-gatherer communities. Men hunted, made tools and weapons from wood and stone, produced clothing from animal hides, and fashioned a remarkable array of musical instruments. San also created vast numbers of rock paintings--South Africa contains the bulk of the world's prehistoric art still extant--which express an extraordinary esthetic sensibility and document San hunting techniques and religious beliefs. The rock paintings also demonstrate that considerable interaction took place among hunter-gatherer communities throughout southern Africa.

The primary social unit among the San was the nuclear family. Families joined together to form hunter-gatherer bands of about twenty to fifty people. Men and women had equal status in these groups and there was no development of a hereditary chiefship, although the male head of the main family usually took a leading role in decision making. Such bands moved about the countryside seeking foodstuffs, sometimes remaining for long periods in particularly productive environments, sometimes splitting apart and joining other groups when food was scarce. Because they made such limited demands on their environment, San managed to provide a living for themselves for thousands of years. Population numbers did remain small, however, and settlement was generally sparse.

Approximately 2,500 years ago, some San in the northern parts of present-day Botswana acquired fat-tailed sheep and long-horned cattle, perhaps through trade with people from the north and the east, and became pastoralists. Their descendants, called "Hottentots" by early Dutch settlers, are now more accurately termed Khoikhoi, "men of men," or Khoi, in their own language. Although Europeans often considered San and Khoikhoi distinct races culturally and physically, scholars now think they are essentially the same people, distinguished only by their occupations. Differences in size--Khoikhoi are generally taller than San--are now attributed to the greater protein intake of pastoralists. Moreover, occupational status could often change in an individual's lifetime: San hunter-gatherers who found a particularly well-watered and fertile area might well acquire livestock through trade, settle down, and become relatively sedentary Khoikhoi pastoralists; pastoralists in times of drought or other ecological disaster might turn to hunting and gathering to survive.

Because the southern Cape is fertile and well-watered, many Khoikhoi settled along the coast between the Orange River and the Great Fish River. With the greater and more regular supplies of food that they derived from their herds, Khoikhoi lived in larger settlements than those of the San, often numbering several hundred people in a single community. Still, as pastoralists, Khoikhoi moved with the seasons among coasts, valleys, and mountains in search of pastureland. Such movement contributed to the fissiparous nature of Khoikhoi society, in which groups of people, usually in patrilineally related clans, periodically broke away and formed their own communities. The larger size of Khoikhoi communities as compared with those of the San did, however, lead to the development of more hierarchical political structures. A Khoikhoi group was generally presided over by a khoeque (rich man). The khoeque was not an autocrat, but rather could only exercise power in consultation with other male elders.

The Khoikhoi engaged in extensive trade with other peoples in southern Africa. In exchange for their sheep and cattle, they acquired copper from the north and iron from Bantu-speaking Africans in the east and fashioned these metals into tools, weapons, and ornaments. They also acquired dagga (cannabis) from the coast of what is modern-day Mozambique, cultivated it themselves, and traded it for other goods. With San, too, they bartered sheep and cattle products for game and hides.

By 1600 most of the Khoikhoi, numbering perhaps 50,000 people, lived along the southwest coast of the Cape. Most San, their numbers practically impossible to determine, lived in drier areas west of the 400-millimeter rainfall line (the limit for cultivation), including present-day Northern Cape province, Botswana, Namibia, and southern Angola (see fig. 2).

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress