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The Ancients

The San, the Kattea and the Kgalagadi

The San ("Bushmen")

The San (or "Bushmen") were the first inhabitants of the Ghaap, for at least the last thousand years. They left a record behind in the form of stone tools and rock art. It is generally agreed that the San inhabited the Northern Cape for at least a thousand years. By the 1880s, they had been squeezed into the Langberg near Olifantshoek, or had migrated further westwards into the Kalahari desert. 

Bushmen 1892 H. G Cutter and LW Yaggy, P

How the Bushmen survived in a harsh arid environment


The Bushmen of the region were not homogeneous group. They lived in  tight-knit family groups, which spoke a wide variety of  dialects. When there was a sense of threat, the various San groups would warn each other by kindling fires on the tops of hills and mountains.


Somerville described the San in the eastern Cape as follows, in 1800:  “They are a very diminutive race, five feet or a little more being the greatest height of the men, and the women are small in proportion … The hair is matted with fat … Their dress is chiefly composed of sheep skins – on the head they wear a sort of cap, around which there is a band ornamented with shells or beads of different colours, from under this around the face and head there hang down a number of loose thongs, well smeared with grease, round the neck there are strings of beads, which they make from the sinews of sheep. From the right shoulder is suspended a leather bag or pocket in which they carry their provisions and tobacco, the former generally consisting of roots which they pick up.In this bag they also carry their apparatus for making fire which is extremely simple consisting of some pieces of dry wood about the thickness and length of a pencil, and some old birds nests also very dry which they use as tinder. The shoe is somewhat like the roman sandal, a sole with straps over the instep and one between the great toe and the second holding it on the foot. A skin (also called a kaross) is loosely thrown over the shoulders”.


The bushmen used the poison of the Cape Cobra for their arrows. They ate the larvae of ants, collected ostrich eggs, caught fish in rivers (with barbed assagays), hunted game, and enjoyed honey. They made snares for every animal from the hippopotamus down to the small antelopes.


Bushmen and Korana could swim well in rapid rivers – when they needed to carry a load across the river, they floated upon a dried beam of wood, about eight feet long, with a peg inserted in the centre, which they would hold. Half of the beam was held by the left hand; the other half passed under the belly and between their legs. In the hand that held the peg, they seized their load, and they would swim with the right hand and both feet. They could even cross a river with a sheep, wrote Somerville in 1801.


The Bushmen could run and walk with incredible speed for long distances, even under a scorching sun.

Initially, the Bushmen were amenable to white settlement. But as they became hunted by the colonists, they became more cruel and ferocious. This became a long-term war of attrition, throughout the Eastern Cape, Karoo and Ghaap Region.

Burchell's shelter, Campbell

 In 1811, William Burchell and his party (including the Griqua Adam Kok) were  investigating the establishment of a mission station at Grote Fontein in the Knovel Valley (just south of the modern town of Campbell). They came across a shelter that was inhabited by about twenty  Bushmen. Burchell wrote that they wore sandals and that their skin karosses were reddened with ochre. Burchell provided food and tobacco when they joined him around the campfire, and entertained them by playing on his flute. The following morning an old man brought his Gorah, a music instrument that Burchell then painted.

William Burchell 1811 San playing Gorah.
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