San Bushman beads of the Kalahari Desert, Southern Africa.

The typical stalking crouch of San hunters. They are wearing hide loin cloths and sandals and carry their small bows and poisoned arrows.

The Khosian people of South Africa, the Hottentots and the San, are small golden brown people rather than black who speak a language of complex tongue and palate clicks, and once inhabited Southern Africa right down to the tip of the Cape of Good Hope, before both black and white strangers settled their land and took the grass for cattle and the land for crops.

Because they regarded the invading cattle as a new species of antelope rather than domesticated property, and because itwas very hard to put them to work, the San were hunted down like wild animals in the Cape and shot from horseback like vermin in the 17th and 18th centuries. The last survivors eventually retreated into the harshest and driest areas of Southern Africa that neither black cattle herders nor white farmers wanted – the Kalahari and Namib deserts.

Beads are rare and treasured, so beaded adornment typically consists of a few strands round the neck, and a headband or hair medallions

Like the Australian Aboriginal people of the Western desert, the San Bushmen of Namibia and Botswana are renowned trackers and hunters and masters of survival in a harsh and dry environment. They are nomads, constantly moving in small family bands in search of game and water, staying alive by digging tiny wells in a dry river bed to sip a few mouthfuls of water as it seep upwards, burying ostrich eggshells filled with water for the dry times, even, in the harshest droughts, separating the water from the stomach contents of the grazing animals they shot for food with their poisoned arrows. They sometimes stalk and track an antelope for days before getting close  enough to shoot it without being observed. San women dressed and sewed  rawhide clothing and foraged fo bush foods, including edible bulbs, seeds and  insects. Termites were a particular delicacy.

The flightless ostrich was dangerous to hunt, as a kick from  their powerful legs could disembowel a hunter, but the large eggs n their guarded nests – each the equivalent of 24 hen’s eggs -  were a valued food sourceThe shells were also treasoured as natural water bottles and as the raw material for beads.The San made Africa’s finest ostrich egg shell beads.

A beaded child’s pubic cover. Beads were so hard to get hold of that there are three different shades of yellow in this small piece, not enough reds to complete the left lower triangle, and several other wandering colours.

 

To make them, the San first chipped the shell fragments roughly to size, pierced each one, then  strung them tightly into rigid rolls that could be smoothed on a  grove in a piece of soft sandstone until they were perfectly round and smooth.
They were then used to make headbands and edge clothing. The San also loved glass trade beads – which were rare and hard to obtain. As the San became more westernised, so glass beads become more plentiful and those San living on the tourist trials were soon wearing a lot of beadwork, but the essence of San beadwork is scarcity and restraint. I  have  a small child’s yellow cache sex that demonstrates this very well  –a small rectangle of beadwork  which contains three shades of yellow beads because they were so hard to come by.

An older San woman wearing beaded tabs or medallions in her hair.

The same restrained use of beads can be found in San clothing – traditionally made of rawhide.  Aprons are edged in glass or eggshell beads, but never covered  in them. Instead of the wide expanses of beads common in Native American and Bantu beadwork, the San would scatter small medallions of beads across a skirt or loin cloth, decorating the hide rather than covering it.

San beadwork is neither plentiful not opulent and it  reflects the hardship and scarcity of material possessions in their lives.Many San men and women don’t wear beads at all except on special occasions, or perhaps wear a strand or two on the wrist or around the neck. When beads were worn, the beaded headband seems to have been the most common article – and the one which demanded the largest quantity of beads.The headbands could be of ostrich eggshell beads or trade beads, and were as wide as the owner could afford – obviously a status symbol. More common were the small beaded tags or medallions which could be tied into the hair -usually just a few, though some wore a dozen or more in their hair.

San woman's cosmetic container

 

San beadwork may not be as opulent  or showy as that produced by many other African peoples,but it has its own special charm. This magical piece is a San woman’s  cosmetic compact is made form the shell of a tiny geometric turtle about 2 inches or 5 cm wide. It contains aromatic ground herbs and bark to be dusted over the body. The shell is sealed at one end, and closed at the other with a piece of rawhide used as a powder puff. This superb little example has a fully beaded cover, others are edged with ostrich eggsell beeads. Important – please note: The Geometric tortoise is an endangered species and export of these containers is banned under CITES regulations.

Sadly, like other nomadic and hunter-gatherer tribes around the world, the culture of the San is constantly under threat. Just as the rain forest is being cleared beneath the feet of the natives of South America to plant soybeans, so the San are being driven out of the wasteland that  nobody else wanted long ago.  In the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, for example the government wants to access the rich mineral deposits under the dry desert earth and is to forcing the San out of their desert lands into permanent settlements. When that happens their unique culture will surely and sadly fade away

See tribal art catalog www.tribalartbrokers.net/.products.asp

 

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