Economy and Socio-Political Structure
San were hunter/gatherers, with traditionally about 70/80% of their diet consisting of plant food, including berries, nuts, roots and melons gathered primarily by the women. The remaining 20/30% was meat (mostly antelopes), hunted by the men using poisoned arrows and spears on hunts that could last several days. They made their own temporary homes from wood that they gathered.
Their hunting & gathering economy and social structure had remained virtually unchanged for tens of thousands of years until very recently, a socio-economic culture that has sustained mankind universally during their evolution until the advent of agriculture.

 The San did not farm or keep livestock, having no concept of the ownership of land or animal.

Their social structure is not tribal because they have no paramount leader and their ties of kinship are fairly relaxed. They are a loosely knit family culture where decisions are made by universal discussion and agreement by consensus. An individual’s opinion is naturally weighted according to their level of skill and experience in the particular field of discussion.
Families within a clan would speak a common language but neighboring clans would usually speak a different tongue, although there would normally be a fair degree of similarity & understanding between them. Apart from family relations, bearing the same name (out of only about 35 names per gender) would also foster a “name kinship”.San are generally nomadic within fairly limited boundaries, governed by the proximity of other families and clans. As a very loose guideline, the territory of a family may stretch to a 25-mile circle. Obviously, if there are no other bordering clans or other people these areas may stretch further, as far as is needed to ensure adequate food and water sources.

The roles of men & women were very distinct and rarely overlapped, which is a characteristic almost universal amongst hunter/gatherers the world over. It based on survival needs encouraging the most efficient utilisation of available skills and resources. Despite what is often perceived as a very sexist society, the importance of women is very high within the group and their opinions often take precedence, particularly where food is concerned.

Traditionally, San women spent 3-4 days a week gathering veldkost (wild plants), often going out in groups to search for edible or medicinal plants. Furthermore, before the advent of trade with Bantu or European settlers, all tools, construction material, weapons or clothes were made of plants or animal products.
About 400-500 local plants and their uses were known to San, along with the places where they grew – not only providing a balanced nutrition, but also moisture from roots even in time of drought

Plants were used in ways similar to western phytomedicine to treat wounds and heal illnesses; other plants where rather part of healing ceremonies in which a healer would burn plants to make rain, trance to heal an ailment, or perform a charm to bring fertility. The range of ailments treated included wounds including snake bites, colds, stomach ache, tooth ache or headache, or diarrhea but also infections like malaria, tuberculosis, or syphilis.

One San’s plant, Hoodia gordonii, even made the worldwide news since it was patented by a pharma company as a diet support due to its traditional San usage to suppress appetite and hunger – a law case against “bio piracy” ensued, with the parties settling to royalties being paid to San’s organisations.

The San’s diet and relaxed lifestyle have prevented most of the stress-related diseases of the western world. San’s health, in general, is not good though: 50% of children die before the age of 15; 20% die within their first year (mostly of gastrointestinal infections). Average life expectancy is about 45-50 years; respiratory infections and malaria are the major reasons for death in adults. Only 10% become older than 60 years.

After the birth a San child will receive much love and attention from his parents and other adults and even older children. Their love of children, both their own and that of other people, is one of the most noticeable things about the San

If a child is born under very severe drought conditions, when the fertility of the San women are in any case low, perhaps to prevent such an occurrence. The mother will quietly relieve the just born baby of severe and certain future suffering by ending its life. This is most likely to happen in lean years, if she is still suckling another child and will obviously not be able to feed both of the children

This is accepted behaviour, and born out of necessity and not malice or any other consideration. It stems from the simple realiy of live in a harsh climate, and the realisation that the life of the child that a lot has already been invested in, and that might be put at risk by tender feelings for a new-born that are in any case likely to die soon, are not likely to have a good outcome.

Death is a very natural thing to the San as shown by the following lines from a San song, quoted by Coral Fourie in her book “Living Legends of a dying culture”. “The day we die a soft breeze will wipe out our footprints in the sand. When the wind dies down, who will tell the timelessness that once we walked this way in the dawn of time?”

If some-ones dies at a specific camp, the clan will move away and never camp at that spot again. San will never knowingly cross the place where some-one has been buried. If they have to pass near such a place, they will throw a pebble on the grave and mutter under their breath, to the spirits to ensure good luck. They never step on a grave and believe that the spirit remains active on that spot above ground, and they don’t want to offend it.

Most Kalahari Afrakans believe in a “Greater” and a “Lesser” Supreme being or God. There are other supernatural beings as well, and the spirits of the dead. The “God” or supreme being first created himself, then the land and its food, the water and air. He is generally a good power, that protects and wards of disease and teaches people skills. However, when he is angered, he can send bad fortune. The greater god, depending on his manifestation, is called different names by the same people at different times, and also have different names among the different language groups.

The lesser god is regarded as disagreeable, a destroyer rather than builder, and a bearer of bad luck and disease. Just like the “supreme being” he is called by various names. They believe bad luck and disease is caused by the spirits of the dead, because they want to bring the living to the same place they are. Similar to the Afrakan people in South Africa, the San have a strong believe that the ancestral spirits play an important role in the fate of the living, but they don’t use the same rituals to appease them.
Cagn/Kaggen is the name the San gave their god; the first sociologists translated this as “Mantis”, maybe wrongly. This god being nothing else than the unseen presence of nature and everything that surrounded them. They also prayed to the moon and the stars but they could never explain exactly why they did this. Cagn/Kaggen was seen as human like and also had magical powers and charms.

The San’s beliefs go beyond that. The eland is their most spiritual animal and appears in four rituals: boys’ first kill, girls’ puberty, marriage and trance dance.

A ritual is held where the boy is told how to track an eland and how the eland will fall once shot with an arrow.
He becomes an adult when he kills his first large antelope, preferably an eland. The eland is skinned and the fat from the elands’ throat and collar bone is made into a broth. This broth has great potency.

In the girls’ puberty rituals, a young girl is isolated in her hut at her first menstruation. The women of the tribe perform the Eland Bull Dance where they imitate the mating behaviour of the eland cows. A man will play the part of the eland bull, usually with horns on his head.
This ritual will keep the girl beautiful, free from hunger and thirst and peaceful.

As part of the marriage ritual, the man gives the fat from the elands’ heart to the girls’ parents. At a later stage the girl is anointed with eland fat.

In the trance dance, the eland is considered the most potent of all animals, and the shamans aspire to possess eland potency.
The San believed that the eland was /Kaggen’s favourite animal.

The modern San of the Kalahari believe in two gods: one who lives in the east and one from the west. Like the southern San they believe in spirits of the dead, but not as part of ancestor worship. The spirits are only vaguely identified and are thought to bring sickness and death.

‘Medicine People’ or shamans protect everyone from these spirits and sickness.
A shaman is someone who enters a trance in order to heal people, protect them from diagreeable spirits and sickness, foretell the future, control the weather, ensure good hunting and generally try to look after the well being of their group.

Studies have shown that the San have many strategies for dealing with ill health

The women are experts at harvesting and preparing medicinal plants for the treatment of a wide range of ailments.
Blood letting and scarification may also serve as a medicinal function.
The best-known San medical practice is the healing dance. This is when the healers or shamans enter a trance by way of rhythmic clapping and stamping of the dancers feet.

A shaman or medicine person is someone who enters a trance in order to heal people, foretell the future, control the weather, ensure good hunting and so forth.

The San have many shamans. They are ordinary people who perform everyday tasks and are not a privileged class. The shamans sometimes exercise their supernatural powers in the dream world, but principally it’s practiced at a trance dance.

At a trance dance the women sit around a central fire and clap the rhythm of songs. The men will dance around the women. With the sounds of the dancing rattles and thudding steps combined with the women’s songs they activate a supernatural potency that resides in the songs and in the shaman themselves. When the potency 'boils’ and rises up the shamans’ spine, they enter a trance.

The shamans rely on hyperventilation, intense concentration and highly rhythmic dancing to alter their state consciousness. Inexperienced shaman can fall to the ground unconscious if they can’t control their level of concentration.

When entering a trance, shamans often bleed from their nose and experience excruciating physical pain. The shamans’ arms stretch behind them as the transformation into the spirit world takes place.

During the trance the shamans perform their tasks, the most important is to cure people of any ailments. They lay their trembling hands on these people and draw sickness from them into their own bodies. Then, with a high pitched shriek, they expel the sickness through a 'hole’ in the nape of the neck, the n//au spot. The sickness thus returns to its source, which is thought to be unidentified wicked shamans.

The next day, fully recovered, the shaman will tell people of his experiences with the spiritual world. It is from these experiences that the San painted the rock art and more recently on canvas

San Trance Dance
A trance dance occurs not only for the healing of the sick but also serves as a social and sacred function.
A fire is lit where a group, mostly women sit in a circle around it. The dancers, mostly men, will start dancing in a circle around these women. They will have rattles on their legs made from dried seed pods. The group sitting around the fire will sing, clap and tend to the fire while the dancers are trying to enter a trance.

The first few hours of a trance dance are relaxed and sociable. Then, when the first person shows signs of entering a trance, the clapping and singing gets more intense. This could be when they start to sweat profusely, begin to breath heavily and have glossy stares.

The dancers will soon begin to enter a trance. From here they will be able to start healing the people. A normal dance will last about 6 hours but occasionally can go for the whole day.

San Rock Art
The Sans rock art is one of the greatest in the world. The San/bushmen paintings are one of Southern Africa’s greatest cultural treasures. Subjects of the San paintings range from animals (mainly eland) to humans, therianthropes to ox-wagons and mounted men with rifles.

When Europeans first encountered rock art of the San people, or San, in southern Africa some 350 years ago, they considered it primitive and crude. They were just “San paintings,” two-dimensional accounts of hunting and fighting and daily life. Twentieth-century scholars had much more respect for the aesthetics of the paintings—often finely detailed and exquisitely colored—but many also viewed them largely as narrative accounts of hunter-gatherer life
In terms of archaeology we have a seemless stone tool tradition, and a seemless art tradition, going back 27,000 years with the 'Apollo 11’ stones - indeed, the San have longest continuing art tradition in the world.

Trance is so overwhelming that it is difficult to describe. To explain it and to help people who were not shamans to see what they had been through, the painters of rock art images looked for comparative experiences. Crossing over to the spirit world during trance could be compared to 'death’. This did not mean that they actually died, but that they believed that while they were in trance, their spirits would leave their bodies and meet others in the spirit world. 'Death’ is used as a metaphor for the trance state. Trance is very much like death. Sometimes it is called 'half-death’.