Most palaeoanthropologists and geneticists subscribe to the ‘Out of Africa’ theory that the ancestors of modern humans arose some 200 000 years ago in Africa, with the earliest modern human fossils being found at Omo Kibish, Ethiopia (Shreeve, 2006). They also agree that all the variously shaped and shaded people of Earth trace their ancestry to African hunter-gatherers. Ancestral DNA markers turn up most often among the San people of southern Africa and the Biaka Pygmies of central Africa, as well as in some East African peoples (Shreeve, 2006). From this, we can reasonably deduce that the San form part of our ancestry, as well as being the first people of southern Africa, as is evidenced by a vast rock art record that is to be found on the sub-continent.
The San were pushed into remoter and drier regions by two major, relatively recent migrations of other peoples. Approximately 2 000 years ago the sheep and cattle herding Khoekhoe peoples migrated south from Namibia and Botswana, pushing San people away from the coast and river areas. About 800 years ago, a major migration of Bantu-speaking peoples entered eastern South Africa (Huffman, 2006); it would seem that early relations between hunter-gatherers and the agro-pastoralist peoples were often positive and involved a degree of intermarriage with the retention of the independence of San languages and culture.
This changed with the arrival of European explorers and settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries, after which land was gradually carved up into freehold farms, displacing the indigenous people onto smaller tracts of communal land, particularly in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The expansion of European colonisation caused great strain on land resources; San hunter-gatherers were victimised by the European settlers as were Khoe and Bantu-language groups, all competing for resources in the face of European territorial expansion. Over this period, disease and other genocidal activities decimated most San clans in South Africa and Namibia, with the last permit to hunt a Bushman being issued by the pre-apartheid state in 1927 (Gall, 2001).
The ‡Khomani San are descended from several original San groups, including the ||Ng!u (close relatives of the !Xam, who lived south of the !Gariep River), the ‡Khomani who spoke the same language as the ||Ng!u but had a distinct lineage, the |’Auni, the Khatea, the Njamani and probably others whose names are now lost to us. Most San of this bloodline now speak Khoekhoegowap and/or Afrikaans as their primary language. There are only seven of the original 23 confirmed speakers (there is no reference point for this statement – in 2000, for example) of the ancient N|u language, constituting an important component of the few surviving aboriginal South African San. Approximately 1 500 adults are spread over an area of more than 1 000 square kilometres in the Northern Cape Province. Most live in the northern reaches of Gordonia, at Witdraai, Askham and Welkom, just south of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and in the towns of Rietfontein, Upington, Loubos, Olifantshoek and surrounding villages and settlements.