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The Khoisan Southern Africa’s First Humans

The Khoisan Southern Africa’s First Humans

Khoisan Southern Africa's First Humans
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The Khoisan were Southern Africa’s first inhabitants; the term was coined when two tribes merged. One was the cow-herding Khoikhoi, and the other was the San, who were hunter-gatherers. The San were also known as Xun, Khwe, and Basarwa tribes, and the Khoisan are sometimes referred to as Bushmen, a derogatory term that is best avoided. Unrestrained by borders, they lived in what we know today as Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe in the Later Stone Age, over twenty thousand years ago. They were nomadic tribes, traveling from place to place in search of new hunting grounds and plants to eat. With this lifestyle, the Khoisan consciously chose to give the natural environment time to recuperate. Rather than exhaust resources in a given area, they would move on to their next home, allowing regeneration.


One lesson history teaches is that productivity is not correlated to four walls, a prescribed dress code, or back-to-back meetings. While we clamor for workplace flexibility, indigenous people may have mastered working smart, fulfilling their daily needs, and being content—all in a fifteen-hour work week. This was the life of the Khoisan, a sub-Saharan indigenous tribe once the largest group of humans on earth. But who were the Khoisan, and how did they live?

Once the planet’s most significant population group, the Khoisan, like many indigenous communities, have dwindled in numbers and would be unheard of if not for their DNA dating to the first humans. Although few in numbers, those who hold on to their traditional way of life today mostly live in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. They are a distinct genetic group with physical features, including high cheekbones and a yellowish complexion, not found among their fellow Africans. Besides their unique physical attributes, they speak a singularly complex language characterized by clicks instead of consonants, which many mistake for isiXhosa. ‘!Ke e:/Xarra //ke’ is the motto on South Africa’s coat of arms today, written in Xam, the language of the Khoisan. The motto translates to Diverse People Unite, summing up San philosophy.

 

Prospering Together

Today, we’re susceptible to individualism in our mission to secure the future. This involves full calendars where hustle culture leaves little room for nurturing kinship, relationships, and relaxation. This ethos was unknown to the Khoisan, who thrived on taking sustenance together and did not fixate on the future at the expense of the present. Their community spirit was at the heart of everything. They lived like an extended family in small groups and traveled together when it was time to move. Food security was also a group endeavor, with food collectively obtained and equally shared. The group would perform chores and look for food together. Like any society, conflicts arose, but their disputes were settled within a court-like system in a measured and methodical way.

After acquiring food, they would share it equally, leaving no one hungry. Duties were clearly defined, with men responsible for hunting and preparing the hunting equipment, including manufacturing and poisoning the arrows. They were also skilled trappers using traps built entirely from natural materials. Women went out foraging for edible plants and berries that would also be shared equally. Those who did not go out foraging stayed at their temporary homestead, doing chores and caring for the children. Not only did everyone play an active role in securing the community’s well-being, but the system worked without having distinct leadership structures or social hierarchies. Although wisdom and knowledge were valued and learned from elders, the Khoisan didn’t have a ruler.


Natural Harmony

The colonialization of Africa, which started in the mid-17th century, was the beginning of the end for the Khoisan. Because they continued to depend entirely on the natural environment for their daily living, they were in conflict with settlers who claimed and fenced in land. They didn’t require much, but their everyday needs derived from the natural environment, including food, clothes, shelter, and healthcare. A people with a lean physical appearance, the Khoisan enjoyed a diet of game, birds, honey, nuts, berries, and other edible wild plants. Although lean in appearance, the Khoisan were reasonably healthy, agile, and robust, as shown by their hunting ability.

They were skilled and intelligent, tracking over fifty animals through all types of terrain. They understood weather patterns and seasonal migration, necessary factors for successful hunting. Their survival skills enabled them to extract nutrients from unlikely-looking plants and survive the rough arid terrain where water scarcity was a permanent danger. They learned to store water in ostrich eggs, plugged with grass to keep the water clean; when water couldn’t be found, they hydrated by drinking plant juices. They lived sustainably, maintaining ecosystems balanced by not taking more than they needed. That included not killing pregnant animals or eating fertile eggs. Their nomadic lifestyle allowed plants to regrow, as they didn’t deplete everything before finding a new home.


Nature’s Pharmacists

The Khoisan not only ate from the earth but also enjoyed wide-ranging botanical knowledge and could identify and classify over a hundred plants. Plants toxic to humans, such as the Bushman’s poison or Acokanthera oppositifolia, were ideal for hunting. The Khoisan knew how to calibrate the correct amount of poison to tip their arrows to kill their prey but keep the meat fit for human consumption. Besides toxic plant juices, poisonous beetles could also be used to poison arrows for hunting. The Khoisan knew how to manage toxicity, ensuring the hunters weren’t harmed or poisoned. One precaution they took was that any hunters with open wounds or cuts would not take part in the preparation of poison arrows.

Plant medicine provided the Khoisan with extracts and infusions to treat many ailments. One plant, buchu, is a plant used to relieve stomach aches. Headaches and toothaches were cured by eating the bark of the thorny sickle bush plant. The sap from the root of the same plant was used as an antidote for snake bites. A plant called hoodia was used as an appetite and thirst suppressant on long hunting days or to sustain their nomadic lifestyle when the going got tough. The herbs they used worked effectively, and until they came into contact with modern society, many diseases and medical conditions present today were unknown. With the stamina and agility to hunt down even the most ferocious animals, obesity wasn’t an issue for them. However, the plant medicine hoodia has gained popularity with a broader public as an appetite suppressant to promote weight loss. The Khoisan’s valuable knowledge of medicinal plants was passed down through the generations. Some age-old Khoisan herbal medicines are still used traditionally today, while mainstream pharmaceutical companies have also co-opted ingredients.

 

Rock Artists

Khoisan Painting on Rock

The Khoisan made natural paints using roots, leaves, animal blood and gall, egg whites, natural clay, and ochre. Their artistry extended to making paint brushes with reeds or sticks and hair or feathers as bristles. Their paints were used for rock art paintings giving us a vital chronicle of their era. San rock art paintings are scattered throughout Southern Africa, mostly in caves. These paintings, like hieroglyphs, can be viewed as documenting and archiving a way of life. Their art shows us their hunting tools and the animals they hunted. It is also believed that rock paintings have spiritual significance. The Khoisan worshipped a divine power Kaggen who had shapeshifting abilities and usually presented himself as an eland or a praying mantis. Tribal members communicated to Kaggen through a shamanic intermediary who interpreted Kaggen’s messages during a trance dance. It’s thought that Kaggen gave the shamans instructions about the images that should be painted. Sometimes, these drawings were hunting guidelines, like a how-to manual or a celebration of hunting prowess.

The Khoisan’s forever footprint, these rock art paintings are major tourist attractions in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg mountain range in South Africa and Lesotho. This natural gallery displays rock paintings older than 3000 years. The fantastic rock formations and images in the Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe are more than 10,000 years old.


What can we Learn?

We might learn a few things about living more balanced lives from the Khoisan.

Take only what you need; a possible solution to sustainability. Instead of acquiring more and more, symbiosis with nature will reward us by preserving an earth that will keep giving to future generations long after our time has passed.

Success doesn’t always mean fat bank accounts. Archaeologist Marshall Sahlins affectionately nicknamed the Khoisan the ‘original affluent society,’ describing them as people with lots of leisure time who aren’t weighed down by the burden of consumerism. Even today, the Khoisan believe in stewardship rather than ownership; all they want in the modern world is access to hunting grounds, freedom of movement, and no interference as they try to preserve their culture.

Work cleverly and efficiently. San hunter-gatherers spent an average of fifteen hours a week foraging and hunting. Working less gives us ample time to spend with loved ones and pursue personal interests outside work.

Collaboration is crucial to maximizing productivity. The Khoisan tribes gathered their supplies in the shortest possible time because community members worked together to achieve their goals, ultimately sharing and appreciating whatever they found.


Is There a Different Way Ahead?

The world has evolved through agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions since the first Khoisan left their footprints in the soil. Artificial intelligence is the latest challenge; some believe it threatens our existence.

Embracing technology often leads to abandoning our predecessors’ cultures and knowledge. Unbecoming what we have become may be far-fetched, but there is a lot we can emulate about the Khoisan to build a better society. Most surviving indigenous peoples find equilibrium by living through changes without losing the essence of what makes their culture unique.

In societies where a person’s value is not measured by net worth, there is no hoarding of wealth and no social classes. Self-sufficiency is the order of the day, and there are no threats of lay-offs or looming recessions. Societies where collective effort is everything and respect, extends to people and nature. In return, nature rewards us by ensuring that future generations have a clean earth that is abundant in their daily needs. Doesn’t that sound like pure bliss?

 

Edited by Michael Moss

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