What Are San People

A milestone in the study of San people was Schapera’s (1930) comprehensive synthesis of the significant, but scattered, amounts of information available at that time about ‘Bushmen’ (San *hunter-gatherers) and ‘Hottentots’ (Khoekhoe cattle and sheepherders). The latter had been the subject of early studies by †Winifred Hoernlé, who was an early influence on Gluckman. The first major fieldwork on San-people in the modern era was conducted by †Lorna Marshall with the !Kung of Namibia in the 1950s (Marshall 1976). The closely-related !Kung on the Botswana side of the border were subsequently the object of a number of studies by anthropologists connected with the Harvard Kalahari Project (see Lee and De Vore 1976). This project was, according to one of its leaders, motivated by the idea that insights from contemporary hunter-gatherer groups could help to develop models of the evolution of human behaviour (Lee 1979:9). With its strong attachment to *evolutionism, special interest was taken in the cultural ecology of hunter-gatherer adaptation. Lee, for example, asserted that 65 per cent of the people were effective food producers who worked only a few hours a day, and the remaining 35 per cent did no work at all (1969).

A further theme running through this and other projects during the 1960s and 1970s was that of settlement patterns and spatial organization (e.g. Silberbauer 1981). In a major comparative study of the Khoisan peoples which in important respects updated Schapera’s work, Barnard (1992) synthesized ethnographic information currently available on various groups of Khoisan peoples. Analysing settlement patterns, for instance, he suggests a correlation between degree of nucleation and availability of water resources and between territoriality and access to resources. With overtones of romanticism, the notion of ‘egalitarianism’ has been widely applied to depict the essential character of ‘San culture’.

Thus, Lee portrays the !Kung as ‘fiercely egalitarian’ with an ideology of equality, allegedly responsible for their current immense problems in coping with the forces of the larger world which, over the past decades, have squeezed them out of their ‘aboriginal’ hunting-gathering habitat. However true this sad story is, a warning against this kind of essentialism is appropriate in view of recent reports on the establishment of authority figures and the shift to storing economies among sedentary groups (see Gulbrandsen 1991). By extension, emphasis is increasingly placed upon variation in San culture and adaptation (e.g. Kent 1992.

Adding another dimension, Barnard’s comprehensive cultural account (1992) qualifies Wilmsen’s largely materialist emphasis. Viewing culture as a hierarchical ‘structure of structures’ Barnard argues that production and exchange relations do not create his postulated deep structure, but more particularly that ‘surface structural’ elements are influenced by historical changes in modes of production. Accordingly he stresses the distinct and determinative character of Khoisan culture.

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