San (săn) [key], people of SW Africa (mainly Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and South Africa), consisting of several groups and numbering about 100,000 in all. They are generally short in stature; their skin is yellowish brown in color; and they have broad noses, flat ears, bulging foreheads, and prominent cheekbones. The San have been called Bushmen, but the term is considered derogatory.
Once nomadic hunters and gatherers of wild food in desolate areas like the Kalahari desert of SW Africa, most of the San now live in settlements and work on cattle ranches or farms. This transition sometimes has been forced by government policies; legal and physical obstacles in Botswana, including the setting aside of San ancestral land in reserves, have frustrated San who wish seek to live traditionally and led to court cases. San life historically centered on the small hunting band as the main social unit, with larger organizations being loose and temporary. Caves and rock shelters were used as dwellings, and they possessed only what they can carry, using poisoned arrowheads to fell game and transporting water in ostrich-egg shells. The San have a rich folklore, are skilled in drawing, and have a remarkably complex language characterized by the use of click sounds, related to that of the Khoikhoi.
For thousands of years the San lived in S and central Africa; genetic evidence suggests that they and the Khoikhoi were isolated from others humans from c.100,000 years ago until c.3,000 years ago. At the time of the Portuguese arrival in the 15th cent., however, they had been forced into the interior of S Africa. In the 18th and 19th cent., they resisted the encroachment on their lands of Dutch settlers, but by 1862 that resistance had been crushed.
See E. M. Thomas, The Harmless People (1959, repr. 1969) and The Old Way (2006); J. B. Wright, Bushmen Raiders of the Dakensberg, 1840–1870 (1971); L. J. Marshall, !Kung of Nyae Nyae (1975) and Nyae Nyae !Kung Belief and Rites (1999); R. B. Lee and I. DeVore, Hunter-Gatherers (1976).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.