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!Kung of the Kalahari (San Bushmen)


Where We Live:




The Kalahari Desert is a large, semi-desert in southern Africa, covering large parts of Botswana and Namibia. It sits on the region's interior plateau, with an average elevation of 3,000 feet above sea level. The San bushmen have lived in the Kalahari for up to 20,000 years. Theirs is the desert culture depicted in the 1980 film The Gods Must be Crazy.
  • Area: 362,000 square miles
  • "Kalahari" means "The Great Thirst" in the Tswana language
  • Location: southern Africa
  • Rainfall: 8 inches per year
  • Surface water form: Boteti River
  • Average temperature (max): 35 to 45 degrees
  • Winter temperature can plummet below zero Celsius Journeys International: Kalahari Desert
  • Not a true desert as it supports some plants and animals
  • Has large mineral deposits, and one of the largest diamond mines in the world
  • Home to Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor
  • Climate: Semiarid


The San bushmen people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Southern Africa and in the world. For years the Bushmen a hunter and gatherer ethnic group spread throughout the South of Africa from the Zambezi river to the Cape of Good Hope in search of food, with their few possessions.

The San bushmen have lived in Southern Africa for tens of thousands of years. The San are said to be descendants of Early Stone Age ancestors. They are nomadic group living in temporary shelters, caves or under rocky overhangs. With the arrival of the first Europeans settlers in 1652 in Southern Africa sparked clashes as they sought new territory they exterminated the Sans whom they deemed to be inferior like wild animals. They called them "Bushmen" and proceeded to wipe out 200,000 of them in 200 years. They also sold them in slave markets and to traveling circuses.

!Kung People Mythology


The !Xũ people of southern Africa were both animistic and animatistic; they believed in both personifications and impersonal forces. They believed in a god named Prishiboro, whose wife was an elephant. His older brother tricked him into killing her and, later, into eating her flesh. Her herd tried to kill Prishiboro in revenge, but his brother defeated them.
!Xu people also had many taboos concerning the dead as they believed that the ghosts of the deceased would cause them injury or death. It was against the rules to even say a name of someone dead, once an annual ceremony to release the spirits of the dead had been performed.
The !Xu practiced shamanism in order to communicate with the spirit world, and to cure what they called Star Sickness. The communication with the spirit world would be done by a shaman by entering a trance state and running through a fire; this would chase away bad spirits. "Star Sickness" was cured by laying hands on the diseased.


There is no formal leadership structure among the San bushmen community. Decisions are arrived at a consensus and issues are deliberated upon and discussed communally. Certain roles may require leadership from individuals with expertise such as hunting. No single group member holds positions of general influence over the rest of the community. This set up proved to be problematic to white colonialists when they wanted to enter into agreements with the San communities. The San bushmen are therefore free to do and go as they please within the constraints of their customs. If there is a disagreement within a group, the group may split and go their own separate ways with little or no coercion. They have no taxes, no Government, except that imposed upon them by outsiders.

Food and Water:

The San will eat anything available, both animal and vegetable. Their selection of food ranges from antelope, Zebra, porcupine, wild hare, Lion, Giraffe, fish, insects, tortoise, flying ants, snakes (venomous and non-venomous), Hyena, eggs and wild honey. The meat is boiled or roasted on a fire. The San are not wasteful and every part of the animal is used. The hides are tanned for blankets and the bones are cracked for the marrow.
Water is hard to come by, as the San are constantly on the move. Usually during the dry season, these migrants collect their moisture by scraping and squeezing roots.


!Kung are skillful hunters and can read the tracks in the Kalahari desert like a notebook. Hunting is usually done by men. They use traps or poisoned arrows and bow to catch their prey.



It takes a couple of hours before the prey dies when struck with the poisoned arrows. In cases of large game such a giraffe it can take up to 3 days. The poison used for hunting is made from various materials such as the larvae of a small beetle, poison from plants, such as the euphorbia, and snake venom. A caterpillar called ka or ngwa is also used to make toxic poison hence handled with extreme care so as to avoid fatal accidents.

The poison used for hunting is said to be neuro toxic and does not contaminate the whole animal. The spot where the arrow strikes is cut out and thrown away, whereas the rest of the game is fit for consumption. Hunting is a team effort and every game hunted is shared amongst the tribe members. Whilst the men are hunting the women forage for edible wild vegetables and fruits. Though the men can equally assist the women in gathering wild vegetables and fruits.

Rock Art:

Manganese oxide and charcoal, bird droppings or kaolin and the blood of an Eland are some of the items used to make paint for the Rock Art.



Music and Dance:

The great 'medicine or healing dance' and the rain dance were rituals as well as a social function in which everyone in the San bushman group participated. The women sit around a central fire singing and clap their hands whereas the men wearing rattles on their legs made from dried seed pods dance around the women.

The first few hours of a trance dance are relaxed and sociable. Singing and clapping becomes more intense as the dancing enter into a trance. The men sweat profusely as they begin to breath heavily and have glossy stares. Whilst in a trance the men are transported to the spirit world where they would plead for the souls of the sick and ask for them to be healed. When entering a trance, shamans often bleed from their nose and experience excruciating physical pain. A ritual dance can last from half to full day.


Following the healing dance the shaman narrates their experiences in the spiritual world. It is from these experiences that the San Bushmen painted the rock art and more recently on canvas.
Men in their late teens may serve as an apprentice to an experienced shaman for years. The men who seek to become shamans normally do it not for personal gain but to be able to serve the members within their communities in that capacity

Child Birth and Death:


Amongst the San Bushmen there are no formal ceremonies or elaborate preparation for child birth. The expectant mother will simply go behind a bush and give birth to the baby. She may take a female relative for support and comfort. Once she a has given birth she gets back to her daily routine.


If a child is born under very severe drought conditions, when the fertility of the Bushman 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 reality 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 Bushmen as shown by the following lines from a Bushman 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. Bushmen 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.

Religion and Beliefs:

The San bushmen believe that there is a supreme god and lesser gods. There are other supernatural beings as well, and the spirits of the dead. According the San bushmen of the Kalahari they believe that the supreme god is associated with life and the rising sun, and the lesser god with illness and death. The shamans, have access to the lesser gods who cased illness during the ritual dance trance.

The San bushmen also pay homage to the spirits of the deceased. Most San believed that upon death, the soul went back to the great god’s house in the sky. The dead influenced the lives of the living. For example when a medicine man died, the Sans would be concerned as to whether his spirit may return to haunt and endanger the living.

Birth, death, gender, rain and weather were all believed to have supernatural significance, for example, people acquired good or bad rain-bringing abilities at birth and this ability was reactivated when the person died.

Gods Must Crazy Opening Scene:

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