The San are believed to have inhabited the entire south of the African continent, dating back to before the migration of the Bantu. They were later displaced by the southward movement of the Zulu, Nguni, Sotho, Khoi Khoi, Nama, and other African groups. As they did not keep livestock, they did not appear to have any use for pasture. They retreated north, where they adapted to permanently occupy the drier regions.
In fact, the San people's successful adaptation to the arid Kalahari, which means "Great Thirst," has earned them the title of ultimate survivors. Dominating the indomitable, the San have not only adapted but also thrived in the Kalahari Basin, a challenging desert of semi-arid and arid landscapes. The parched basin covers 965,255 square miles (2,500,000 square kms), with a desert core that spreads over 347,492 square miles (900,000 square kms). Where others would have fled, the San have flourished.
The San have always lived a distinctly aboriginal lifestyle. Through the generations, these nomads have told their story through song and folklore, immortalizing their memories in rock paintings found across large areas of southern Africa. They are generally light skinned, with distinct yellow-brown colouring and premature wrinkles. They have a body structure slightly smaller than that of the average person, and they appear to have bulging foreheads, ears without lobes, and taut tufts of flimsy hair. San women tend to have ponderous posteriors – an excellent method of storing fat reserves to tap into during lean seasons.
Traditional San wear hide slings to cover their essentials. On the move, they always carry their animal-skin blankets, a small hide bag, and a cloak called a "kaross." The kaross is a multipurpose carrier pouch in which they store their very modest material belongings, veld goodies, babies and tools.
The San speak Khoisan, a language characterized by numerous clicks and many idiosyncratic sounds. Their phonetics are complex, such that in writing, symbols rather than letters are frequently employed. Various click sounds are expressed differently, for example, a slash (/) for the dental click, an alveolar (!) for the palatal click, and a double slash (//) for the lateral click. The San have influenced the languages of many southern African tribes that have interacted with them.
The San have no centralised political system or social hierarchy, and decisions touching on community affairs are decided through consensus of both male and female adults; at times, even the children are consulted. When consensus fails, the opinion of the older members of the band is granted more weight. And when a tie develops among the elders or among age-mates, the name rule is invoked: the controversy is resolved in favour of the individual named after a more elderly member of the clan.
The San practice a division of labour based on gender: the men hunt while the women gather. The children usually just trail along, helping where they can as they assimilate the adult experience. The band's elderly members mostly remain at camp to watch over the children when their parents are out hunting and gathering. In addition to serving a practical purpose, this arrangement is an opportunity for the elders to pass on their extensive knowledge to the children, in the form of stories and song. The San are excellent mimics, and fun is had all round as they mimic various animals and ask the children to name the animal in play.
The tribe's oldest members are also the pillars of San spiritual life. This is an important role, as the San are a spiritual people, believing in the supernatural world and the existence of a supreme God. This belief permeates everyday life, and nearly every aspect of their simple lives has a spiritual dimension. For example, they believe that to hunt is to dance in the spirit.
A further sign of the San's spirituality is their view of death: The spot where a San dies is avoided and camp must be shifted after the event. The family immediately buries its dead, and never intentionally returns or crosses the place of burial. If accident or necessity forces them back, they throw small stones at the grave and mumble under their breath, as they seek peace with the spirit of the departed.
Animals and their interaction with man, especially during the hunt, have a significant role in San society. The men hunt with simple but very effective weapons – bows and arrows. Their hunting and tracking skills are second to none. They tip their arrows with poison obtained from beetles, snakes, scorpions, tree gum and other sources, all passed down through their catalogue of poisonous animals and plants.
In everyday life, the principle manifestation of the San's spiritual life is a ritual known as the trance dance. To prepare for a trance dance, the women and children sit around the fire, while singing and clapping in rhythm. The men encircle the fire in front of the singers and chant frantically, while thumping the ground with their feet. The resident shaman, or spiritual healer, runs around the fire in circles as he communicates with the spirit world.
When the dance mood strikes a sweet spot, the shaman enters into a trance. In this state, he is said to have entered the spirit world, where he is able to consult with the spirits of long departed ancestors and those causing illness and pain. If the consultation goes well, the sick are cured; if not, they depart in death. The dance is usually performed at the time of the full moon.
Perpetuating the role of the San's elders, the shaman is always an older man who, in addition to the usual leather sling, is adorned in a beaded headband to which an ostrich feather is attached. The shaman's gift is deployed in healing, hunting, rain-making, and negating ill-winds in society.
The San have been under great pressure to abandon their itinerant lifestyle. Beginning in the 1950's, many San have converted from nomadic to agriculturalist lifestyle. For example, today in Botswana – the country with the largest San population – out of a population of 50,000 San, only about 3,000 follow the ancient way of life.
Those who remain traditional, live in small groups called bands. Each band is comprised of 15 to 25 related individuals who form a close-knit clan unit. As nomads, they have no need for permanent shelters. At times they live in rough and ready accommodation, such as caves, or erect tent-like structures. These makeshift shelters are made with stick frames and are thatched with grass and twigs.
In unfavourable weather, animal hides may be used in place of grass. The band clusters their shelters together to form a ring, with each family living in a single tent. Each tent has its own campfire, but there is a central fireplace where the clan gathers to bond and unwind as nightly stories are told. The fires are kept alive at all times. Here, stories of hunting experiences, gathering jaunts, daily goings-on, ancient legends, past music and dance, and religious beliefs are exchanged and passed on.