Sān Living Cultural Landscape
Namibia National Commission for UNESCO
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The Sān are considered to be the first inhabitants of southern Africa comprising present-day Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. The prehistoric Sān population was comprised exclusively of hunter-gatherers before the immigration of many different Bantu peoples several thousands of years ago that introduced domesticated animals and plants, metallurgy, pottery and organized society norms. As the agriculturist population increased over time the Sān were increasingly pushed from the areas they had previously occupied into more marginal areas where hunting and gathering remained more viable than agriculture. Although some Sān groups adopted livestock herding and gardening or assisted their new neighbours, the primary source of subsistence for many Sān groups remained their ancestral knowledge of the land on which to hunt for wildlife and the seasonal cycle of gathering appropriate veld fruits. This situation changed rapidly from the 18th century onwards with the expansion of European colonizers and ensuing conflicts over land. The Sān hunter-gatherers were considered vermin and vagrants and exterminated ruthlessly in most parts of southern Africa. By the mid to late 20th century coherent Sān communities survived only in remote parts of the Kalahari Desert.
The Sān comprise a number of linguistically, culturally and economically diverse communities with distinct histories and cultural practices. Namibia is home to between 30,000 and 35,000 Sān in all parts of Namibia that belongs to three major language groups, the Southern, the Central and the Northern groups. These groups themselves are sub-divided into several distinct language groups and self-identifying communities, e.g. the Hai||om, the Ju|’hoansi, the !Kung, the Naro, the Khwe and the !Xóõ. In some regions, the Sān comprise a very small number that do not constitute a community but rather a few households with several family members each.
Most Sān have adopted the socio-economic lifestyle of the region in which they live. The largest San communities in Namibia live in the Otjozondjupa, Caprivi, Ohangwena and Oshikoto regions, although the only Sān communities that still derive most of their livelihood from hunting and gathering natural resources within their environment, live in the Otjozondjupa and Caprivi regions. The Tsumkwe District of the Otjozondjupa region is the only administrative unit where the large majority of inhabitants are Sān with around 1,600 Ju|’hoansi and around 1,800 !Kung. Both the Ju|’hoan-speaking and !Kung-speaking communities have authority over their ancestral lands through Namibian legislation, while community rights over wildlife and plant resources are implemented through Namibia’s Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) legislation. This allows the Ju|’hoansi and !Kung Sān to maintain their strong heritage of hunting and gathering and the various cultural elements associated with that tradition.
It is a reality that subsistence hunting and gathering is a difficult lifestyle, with periods of hunger as frequent as times of plenty, as acknowledged by Sān communities themselves. It is not surprising that the Sān therefore have a long history of adopting economic alternatives when appropriate. Despite the changes that result from adapting to the modern world as an inalienable right of self-determination, hunting and gathering remains a very important element of the Sān identity and are usually integrated with other forms of livelihood.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
The living hunter-gatherer culture of the Sān is a reminder to people on all continents of the foundation from which all human cultures and societies emerged. The ancient way of life that is still followed by the Sān has allowed archaeologists, sociologists, and anthropologists to interpret archaeological remains and to reconstruct the likely way of life of prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities all over the world. Comparing archaeological remains and reconstructions to living Sān culture, and those of other hunter-gatherer societies that still remain elsewhere in the world, provide context to archaeological remains from before the dawn of farming and urban communities and inform theories on the emergence of domestication and hierarchical societies. The social structures of vibrant Sān communities, firmly grounded in the landscape in which they follow their traditional way of life, has provided the basis for the re-interpretation and understanding of historical records of various hunter-gatherer communities that has disappeared, including extinct or non-viable Sān communities in southern Africa. Their language and culture, their spiritual connection to their environment, the way in which they negotiate potential conflict and adversary, the social system of sharing to meld dispersed small family groups over long distances into a coherent society, and their means of negotiating between the physical and spiritual world has set a baseline for understanding the forces of change in culture. In particular, understanding the social context of Sān hunter-gatherer communities has been the primary means of re-interpreting the meaning of rock art in Africa that has been extended all over the world.
Criterion (iii): The exceptional living hunter-gatherer cultural traditions of the Sān that persisted in the face of considerable environmental and multicultural challenges have informed the reconstruction of similar cultures of the past globally and fuelled modern-day understanding of the emergence of other past and modern civilizations from hunter-gatherer origins.
Criterion (v): The traditional land-use of the Sān with their exceptional knowledge of their natural environment for the seasonal cycle for gathering appropriate veld fruits hunt and their legendary knowledge of wildlife ecology and behaviour, despite the enormous pressures for change, is an outstanding testimony of the resilience and continuity of human cultures.
Criterion (x): The living traditions, beliefs, symbology and ideology of Sān communities have unquestionably resulted in copious examples of rock art of outstanding universal significance and the emergence of artistic traditions in modern humans. The visual artists may have been exterminated, but the artistic traditions of negotiating between the physical and spiritual world still survives in the songs, music, dances, folklore and other crafts of Sān communities living in the sandy expanses of the Kalahari Desert.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The area includes within its proposed boundary all the elements necessary to express its Outstanding Universal Value. The environment and traditional Sān utilization area is largely pristine away from social development infrastructure such as roads, schools, clinics, rural development centres, other administrative offices and tourist accommodation. Most of these facilities are concentrated in a few large centres.
The traditional authorities of these communities manage these lands to the benefit of the communities under relevant Namibian legislation, which includes community management of their natural resources through the Nyae Nyae Conservancy (8992 km2) and N#a-Jaqna Conservancy (9120 km2) for wildlife and the Nyae Nyae and Mkata Community Forests for plants.
Sān communities in the Tsumkwe District of the Otjozondjupa Region in Namibia still predominantly live a traditional hunter-gatherer way of life on ancestral lands that includes the full spectrum of their cultural heritage. Although the Sān may adopt modern materials and exploit other economic alternatives when appropriate, their traditional way of hunting and gathering and the society norms associated with that lifestyle remains a very important element of the Sān identity and are usually integrated with other forms of gaining a livelihood.
Comparison with other similar properties
Dynamic Sān communities that still follow their traditional way of life currently only remain in Namibia, Botswana and possibly Angola. Botswana and Namibia have the largest Sān populations with 50-60,000 and 30-35,000 individuals respectively. Remnants of Sān communities are also found in other southern Africa countries, but no longer follow a traditional way of life due to historical persecution and extermination.
There are other hunter-gatherer communities scattered all over the world, e.g. in Tanzania, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Australia, India, Canada, USA, and Brazil. Only the Sān and Australian hunter-gatherer communities inhabit hot arid environments. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia has been inscribed for hunter-gatherer cultural elements, but do not represent a comprehensive hunter-gatherer landscape. Cultural aspects of Arctic hunter-gatherer communities have been included for several sites on Canada’s tentative list.
The tentative list of Botswana includes some aspects of Sān culture for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The tentative list of South Africa include the revivalist !Xam Khomani Heartland where the authenticity may be questionable. Many properties on the World Heritage List, e.g. rock art sites, were inscribed for hunter-gatherer artistic expression, mostly based on knowledge gleaned from living Sān societies about hunter-gatherer ideology and world view.
In the light of the important contribution made by studies of living hunter-gatherer societies to understanding cultural heritage around the world, living hunter-gatherer cultures would augment the representativeness of the World Heritage List. The dynamic, living Sān culture is one of the most reknowned examples of such hunter-gatherer societies and has informed the theoretical basis for which many other cultural sites were inscribed.