Collection Description

Brief Culture Description

Culture Name


Culture Description

The term "San" has largely replaced "Buchman" (Bushmen) as an ethnographic term designating both the contemporary and the precolonial southern African peoples who live primarily in northwestern Botswana (Ngamiland), adjacent parts of Namibia, and southern Angola. The San languages are usually classified as being in the Khoisan language family and are distinct in containing a number of click consonants. Settlements are generally composed of anywhere from one to a dozen dispersed, extended family homesteads, with residence being based on bilateral kinship. The San are frequently described as hunter-gatherers or foragers, but in the twentieth century fewer than five percent depend on foraging for their bulk of subsistence, depending instead on herding and limited agriculture, supplemented with some limited hunting and gathering.


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Africa --Southern Africa




South Africa


OWC Code


Collection Information

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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in the eHRAF collection and are referenced by author, date of publication, and eHRAF document number.

The San file consists of 80 documents, three of which are translations from the German (Kaufman, 1910, no. 2; Lebzelter, 1934, no. 3; and Werner, 1906, no. 4): the remainder are in English. The time span for this file ranges from prehistory, to the early San-European contact period (ca. 1650s-1850s), to the late twentieth century. Most of the works in this file deal with various !Kung San groups in Namibia, and Botswana (e.g., in the Dobe, Nyae Nyae, G|wi, and Heikum areas), although there is also some limited data on the San of southern Angola and the Republic of South Africa. The wide diversity of ethnographic coverage in this file dealing with various San subgroups makes it difficult to single out any particular document or documents as representative of the entire San region. The following works, however, when used in combination with one another, do provide a reasonably good outline of San ethnography: Kaufman, 1910, no. 2, on the Auen; Lebzelter, 1934, no. 3, on several San groups; Fourie, 1928, no. 8; Marshall, 1961, 1965, 1976, nos. 12, 15, and 17; Lee, 1979, 1972, nos. 18 and 40; Tobias, 1978, 1978, nos. 53, and 54; and Thomas, 1959, no. 9. Some of the other major topics of special note in this file are: kinship in Marshall, 1957, no. 5, Bleek, 1924, no. 65; infant behavior and child development in Konner, 1972, 1976, nos. 33 and 50, Draper, 1988, 1976, nos. 43 and 49, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1978, no. 60; San-European contacts and cultural change, in Osaki, 1984, no. 24, Guenther, 1979, no. 29, Tanaka, 1987, no. 44, Willcox, 1978, no. 57, Jeffreys, 1978, no. 58, Draper, 1990, no. 69, Silberbauer, l996, no. 87, and Hitchcock, 1992, no. 74; trade and the HXARO trading partnerships, in Cashdan, 1980 [1988], no. 21, Kent, 1993, No. 78, Wiessner, 1994, no. 88, Wilmsen, 1991, no. 89; and San knowledge about nature and man in Marshall, 1957, no. 6, Story, 1958, no. 7, Heinz, 1978, no. 62, Blurton-Jones and Konner, 1978, no. 52.

For further information on individual works in this file, see the abstract in the citations preceding each document.

This culture summary is from the article "San-Speaking Peoples" by Edwin N. Wilmsen in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, vol. 9, 1995. John Middleton and Amal Rassam, Eds. Boston, Mass.: G.K.Hall & Co. The synopsis and indexing notes were written by John Beierle in October 2003.

Overview by

John Beierle

Collection Indexing Notes

!AIA -- to fall into a trance -- category 787

HXARO (XARO) -- ritual gift giving --431

K"XAUN!A -- headman -- category 622

!KIA -- trance states -- category 787

!KUI G!OQ -- bad luck -- category 777

N!AO -- an abstract term, generally referred to as being lucky or unlucky -- category 777

N|OMKXAOSI -- curers -- category 756

N|UM (N|OM) -- the supernatural energy or power that invades a medicine man during the healing trance state -- category 778

Indexing Notes by

John Beierle

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