Interesting fact: it turns out that southern Africa’s indigenous San people are direct descendants of the first humans to walk the earth. So they are, in essence, our very first ancestors. Now that’s something for the CV.
As to where I found out this mind-boggling piece of information, it was at a superb museum in Johannesburg called the Origins Centre.
Based in downtown Braamfontein on the campus of the University of Witwatersrand, the Centre is the adult version of the more child-friendly Maropeng, which is the official visitor centre of Unesco World Heritage site, the Cradle of Humankind.
Only about an hour or so’s drive from the northern suburbs of Johannesberg, the Cradle is, in fact, the site of the University-discovered and owned Sterkfontein hominid fossil caves, which count among the most significant archaeological sites in the world.
Anyway, given this amazing find right on its doorstep, it is perhaps unsurprising that the University decided to set up the Origins Centre in order to explain the development and evolution of humankind, starting with our roots in Africa.
To illustrate the point, the museum houses everything from skull casts sitting in pull-out drawers to show the physiological changes that took place in early man over the course of millions of years to a video chat about hand-crafted tools from a professor who is activated by lifting up a holographic stone.
My favourite bit though had to be the extensive exhibition on the everyday life, culture and spiritual beliefs of the San, as they prefer to be known in South Africa – or Bushmen as they collectively opt to be called elsewhere.
Traditionally hunter-gatherers, they are perhaps best known for their superlative tracking skills and their beautiful, finely detailed rock art, the best examples in South Africa of which can be found in the Drakensberg Mountains of Kwa-Zulu Natal.
What I hadn’t realised though was that the San followed a shamanistic belief system and did things like hold ritual, healing trance-dances, a hypnotic film of which is displayed, thankfully with seating included, at the Centre too.
Dying of traditional ways
During these night ceremonies, the women sat in a circle around the campfire, clapping out rhythms and singing medicine songs, while the men danced around them until dawn.
After many hours, the shamans of the group would eventually leave their bodies and travel to the spirit world in order to perform various tasks for the greater good of the community.
But in very San fashion, it wasn’t about just having one, all-powerful shaman to mediate everything for everyone else. In much the same way as they lacked any concept of personal possessions or political hierarchy, it was possible for anyone with an aptitude for it, either male or female, to take up the role of shaman – and as many as two out of five in any given group did apparently.
So maybe there’s something that we could all learn from that.
But the old ways are, sadly, almost gone. While some 80,000 San live in mostly dreadful conditions in Botswana, Angola and northwest Namibia, there are only about 10,000 left of what was previously an extensive population across South Africa too.
Known as the Khomani San, they reside north of the Orange River near Upington, a town in the Northern Cape that acts as gateway to the southern Kalahari desert – and there’s evidence to suggest that they’ve been there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
But following 150 years or so of dispossession, displacement and even apparent genocide as a result of colonial settlement and wars not of their own making, the majority ended up having to give up the traditional life.
Many were forced to work on nearby farms as cheap labour to survive and the resulting diaspora, which shattered communities, meant that, over time, most young people had very little idea about their heritage – or even that they were San at all.
They likewise forgot how to speak their ancestral tongues and, under apartheid, mostly switched to Afrikaans, the official language of the regime and their employers.
But a fortuitous meeting in 1995 between human rights lawyer, Roger Chennells, and San elder !Gam!gaub Regopstaan Kruipe, eventually led to a high profile land claim.
On winning the case, the San were awarded 65,000 hectares of territory in and around their ancestral homeland of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, a site that has since merged with a similar reserve in Botswana. The newly-created Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is now a vast conservation area of more than 3.6 million hectares.
But with their traditional ways largely forgotten, the majority of San currently live in grinding poverty and continue to be routinely marginalised and discriminated against by South Africans of all ethnicities, living as second-class citizens in their own land despite being its first inhabitants.
Nonetheless, there are a number of on-going projects to help them try and piece together their history and traditional knowledge and to relearn and reapply old skills in a bid to create new livelihoods. So hopefully all is not lost.
The only other group of San remaining in South Africa aren’t really indigenous to the region at all though. Originally from different areas of Angola and Botswana, the !Xun and Khwe people were thrown together by the army during the brutal Angolan and Namibian wars of the 1970s.
The South African Defence Force recruited San men into its ranks, while their families took refuge in the relative safety of the army’s Alfa and Omega camps. And they ended up staying there until the end of the Namibian war in 1990, after which time some 3,000 of them came to South Africa with the army as refugees.
After being housed in appalling conditions in tents for a further 12 years at Schmidsdrift, near Kimberley, in 2003 they were finally given proper housing and land to create a communal farm at nearby Platfontein.
So, despite still suffering the usual awful dislocation of indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the world, leading to high levels of unemployment, substance abuse and suicide, at least they now have somewhere to call their own. Which is something, I suppose.