Archaeology has shown that the earliest human communities ever recorded lived in sight of Table Mountain. We cannot say for certain how they lived, but since the climate is quite arid, and there is no evidence of a complex civilisation, one can infer that they lived in small nomadic groups hunting animals and gathering edible plants.
This is not to say they lacked sophistication – their art, some dated at 27,000 years old, has been described as ‘one of the high points of human visual creativity’ .
However, much further north, groups of hunter-gatherers, probably in northern Botswana, turned to herding sheep and, later, cattle (pastoralism). Whether by migration or cultural transmission, the practise of herding drifted south, and was present along the rivers and coastline north and east of Cape Town at least 2,000 years ago.
Wherever there was good grazing, pastoralism became established, but it is not suited to very arid or mountainous areas. Thus, a distinction arose between the San people who continued to live by traditional hunting and gathering in difficult environments, and the Khoe who herded sheep and cattle on the plains.
Genetically these groups were very similar, although the Khoe, enjoying a better diet, tended to be taller and bigger. Their appearance was described by the traveller William Burchell in 1811
‘they were small in stature, all below five feet; and the women still shorter; their skin was a sallow brown colour.. Though small and delicately made, they appeared firm and hardy’ (quoted, Thompson, 1995, Pg 6)
They also shared a similar distinctive language made up of clicks. And we believe they traded with one another – for instance swapping meat for milk – and in times of difficulty or for the sake of marriage perhaps exchanged lifestyle. Together, they are known as ‘the KhoeSan’.
The San encamped under rock overhangs in the mountains or in small camps in dry areas. It is clear they lived in the mountain ranges just north of Cape Town until the nineteenth century.
They lived in small nomadic ‘bands’, numbering between 20 and 80 people, consisting of several family groups.
The women foraged around the camp for food, gathering bulbs (especially those of Arum lilies), roots, stalks and fruits. They also made clothes from skins sewn with catgut.
The men made bows and arrows, coating the tips with the venom of snakes and poisonous plants, and hunted antelope. It appears that they conducted religious ceremonies in preparation for a hunt, with a shaman entering a trance and his experiences recorded in rock art. The Eland is often represented and seems to have been a recurring theme in their mysticism.
Musical instruments were also made by the San, and European explorers testified to their skill in playing them. Men also gathered the favourite San delicacy – wild honey.