Initially most San referred to themselves as Bushmen, and although this term is still widely used, it is viewed as pejorative. Historically the term meant outsider and was used by their ethnic and historic rivals, the Khoikhoi, who called themselves the First People. The ‘Bushmen’ were first encountered by the Dutch settlers in the 1660s and they considered them to be of a lower class. In the 18th century, the settlers expanded their own land and took territory that had been owned by the ‘Bushman’, the San and the Koi.
The ‘Bushman’ reportedly collected food off the lands and had no domestic animals whereas the Khoi and the San were traditionally hunter-gatherers, but switched to livestock farming as a result of government-mandated modernization programmes and the increased risks of their hunting and gathering lifestyle. Eventually the Khoi and the San amalgamated and the word now extensively used is San.
Traditionally, the San were an egalitarian society. Although they had hereditary chiefs, their authority was limited. They made decisions among themselves by consensus, with women treated as equal. Women have a high status in San society, are greatly respected, and may be leaders of their own family groups. They make important family and group decisions and claim ownership of water holes and foraging areas. Women are mainly involved in the gathering of food, but may also take part in hunting. The San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts regularly rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services.
‘Khoisan religion’ is a term used to consider an overview of an indigenous Southern African spiritual belief. Strictly speaking, there is no Khoisan religion. Although this term is a unifying name, the Khoi and the San are entirely distinct peoples. There is a vast linguistic and cultural diversity within each group and they do not share any of the principal mythological figures, or ritual culture.
Mythical figures and symbols:
Cagn (also known as Kaang or Kaggen) is the supreme god of the Bushment of southern Africa. He is the first being and the creator of the world, He is a trickster god who can shape-shift, most often into the praying mantis, but also take the form of a bull eland, a mouse, a snake, and a caterpillar. Cagn receives so much opposition in the world they he moves his abode from the earth to the top of the sky.
The Moon: the Khoi attach special significance to the moon. The new and full moons were important times for rainmaking rituals and dancing, and the moon was viewed as the physical manifestation of a supreme being associated with heaven, earth, and especially rain which was of key significance to people in drier regions, whose existence was so dependent upon rainfall.
The Eland: The eland serves as a power animal. The fat of the eland is used symbolically in many rituals including initiations and rites of assage as does the diraffe, kudu and hartebeest.
Rock Art: Pictorial symbols can be found across southern Africa such as images of conflict and war-making. There are also often images that combine human and animal forms but the most commonly portrayed are animals such as the eland. Some paintings are believed to be some 3,000 years old which depict humans and animals that are thought to have religious significance.