In the blistering heat, hunting and running down the next meal can take days. So it is surprising that the San had the time, energy or will to make beads. The fact they did, conveys as much about the significance, symbolism and holistic function attributed to beads, as it does about the human need to heal and create beauty.

The San (ju/oansi or !kung) amongst others, are the earliest inhabitants of Southern Africa dating back 30 000 years. In the last 350 years, these hunter-gatherers were marginalized and harried to live in areas of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, made inhospitable by desert or water born disease. But their historical journey is recorded at 15 000 sites, painted in mountainous areas and on cliff faces in Southern Africa.

Among the San … rock art is associated with the activities of San medicine people, or shamans. These people entered a state of trance at a medicine dance or in more solitary circumstances and, in that condition, cured the sick, went on out-of body journeys, made rain and controlled the movement of antelope herds.”   Prof. David Lewis Williams.

These wonderful cave paintings depicting animals and attenuated human figures that run, hunt or dance, offer us an insight into their lost world.  Some of these paintings highlight parts of their material culture in the form of beads at the neck, waist, knees and ankles.

Beads were acquired for: their protective function and medicinal qualities: The combination of their bead variety and colour choice was believed to heal, protect and harmonize the body with the environment and the spirit world. Organic items were included in beadwork for their potency and were added to necklaces and bracelets. This practice is still evident amongst Nguni traditional healers today.  San jewelry is therefore at the interface of magic and medicine and is an important aspect of the healing tradition along with herbal remedies, smoke inhalation, cicatrization and trance dance. Through constant wear, beads become part of the body, symbolize wholeness, come from gift exchange, have shared histories with other people, are markers of beauty and indicate a feeling for aesthetics.


Beads were hand drilled and made from stone, bone, ostrich shell, marine shells, horns, teeth, quills, cocoons, monitor skin, hair, wood, plant fibre, roots and seeds. Beads and organic objects are assembled and strung together on: muscle fibre, leather cord, animal hair, cotton or gut. Percussion instruments in the form of cocoon shakers could be classified as beads. Metals such as gold, copper, iron may have originally been mined and  sourced but after 1800, together with brass were traded from the Nguni people or Europeans and made into adornments.

Indigenous glass, the technology a bi product of mining centuries ago, may have been used by the San at Mapungubwe, but today only European glass beads from the 18/1900s remain. Both genders wear beadwork, with marriageable girls being the most decorated. Women through a process of discourse developed beading techniques, patterns and a variety of designs.

Beadwork colours are determined by symbolism, an availability of materials and regional preferences. Unfortunately few examples exist before the 1800s, at which time the predominant colour was white and made from ostrich egg shell. At the end of the 1800s, white, black and red in the form of: ostrich egg shell, seeds or glass beads were used. Since the 1900s, green, blue and yellow coloured glass beads were added

to the San repertoire.

Leather dress is always characterized by paucity and restraint. All parts of a hunt are utilized and springbok or steenbok skin, is tied at the hips into beaded aprons or thongs with leather tassels as an overall feature. A large kaross, shields the cold or acts as a baby carrier. Collection bags decorated with egg shell or glass beads gather roots, seeds and tobacco. San material culture therefore includes processes such as leather technology, different beading skills, a knowledge of symbolism and aesthetics.


However, the age of beaded artefacts is difficult to determine as many ornaments and accoutrements like cocoon rattles, portrayed in the masterpieces painted by San men are made in exactly the same way today. Old and new materials and styles are used concurrently for reasons of preference or economic expediency. i.e: In Tsumkwe and other areas, ostrich egg shell is still preferred today to edge aprons.

However the encroachment of modernity is inevitable and the tourist industry is one of the few providing employment for the San. The men used their phenomenal ability to track and read the landscape and contribute to the existing understanding of the properties of medicinal plants. Besides this, a spin off of the tourist industry may be a requirement for the San culture to remain unchanged, “or frozen in time”, providing the necessary photographic opportunities to foreigners. One may view this aspect as less than an advantage however at least these efforts foster San culture in areas where they as a people are marginalized and without opportunity.

Continued in part 2.



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