Genetic evidence suggests they are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world — a "genetic Adam" according to Spencer Wells, from which all humans can ultimately trace their genetic heritage.
The term "San" was historically applied by their ethnic relatives and historic rivals, the Khoikhoi. This term means "outsider" in the Nama language and was derogatory because it distinguished the Bushmen from what the Khoikhoi called themselves, namely the First People. Western anthropologists adopted "San" extensively in the 1970s, where it remains preferred in academic circles. The term "Bushmen" is widely used, but opinions vary on whether it is appropriate – given that the term is sometimes viewed as pejorative.
In South Africa, the term "San" has become favored in official contexts, being included in the blazon of the new national coat-of-arms. In South Africa "Bushman" is considered derogatory by some groups. Angola does not have an official term for Bushmen, but they are sometimes referred to as Bushmen, Kwankhala, or Bosquímanos (the Portuguese term for Bushmen). In Lesotho they're referred to as Baroa, which is where the Sesotho name for "South", "Boroa", comes from. Neither Zambia nor Zimbabwe have official terms, although in the latter case the terms Amasili and Batwa are sometimes used. In Botswana, the officially used term is Basarwa, where it is partially acceptable to some Bushmen groups, although Basarwa, a Tswana language label, also has negative connotations. The term is a class 2 noun (as indicated by the "ba-" class marker), while an older class 6 variant, "Masarwa," is now almost universally considered offensive.
Since the mid-1990s the central government of Botswana has implemented a relocation policy, aiming to move the Bushmen out of their ancestral land on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve into newly created settlements. Although the government categorically deny that relocation has been forced, a recent court ruling confirmed that the removal was unconstitutional and residents were forcibly removed.
The government's official reasons for adopting the policy is: "Over time it has become clear that many residents of the CKGR already were or wished to become settled agriculturists, raising crops and tending livestock as opposed to hunting-gathering when the reserve was established in 1961.
In fact, hunting-gathering had become obsolete to sustain their living conditions. These agricultural land uses are not compatible with preserving wildlife resources and not sustainable to be practiced in the Game Reserve.
This is the fundamental reason for government to relocate the CKGR residents."
Opponents to the relocation policy claim that the government's intent is to clear the area – an area the size of Denmark – for the lucrative tourist trade and for diamond mining. This is strenuously denied on the government's official web site, stating that although exploration had taken place, it concluded that mining activity would not be viable and that the issue was not related to the relocation policy.
It is further claimed that the group as a whole has little voice in the national political process and is not one of the tribal groups recognized in the constitution of Botswana. Over the generations, the Bushmen of South Africa have continued to be absorbed into the African population, particularly the Griqua sub-group, which is an Afrikaans-speaking people of predominantly Khoisan that has certain unique cultural markers that set them apart from the rest of the Africans.
The Bushman kinship system reflects their interdependence as traditionally small, mobile foraging bands. Also, the kinship system is comparable to the Eskimo kinship system, with the same set of terms as in Western countries, and also employ a name rule and an age rule. The age rule resolves any confusion arising around kinship terms, because the older of two people always decides what to call the younger. Since relatively few names circulate approximately only 35 names per gender, and each child is named for a grandparent or other relative, Bushmen are guaranteed an enormous family group with whom they are welcome to travel.
Traditional gathering gear is simple and effective: a hide sling, blanket, and cloak called a kaross to carry foodstuffs, firewood, smaller bags, a digging stick, and perhaps a smaller version of the kaross to carry a baby. Women would gather, and men hunted using poison arrows and spears in laborious days-long excursions. Children had no duties besides to play, and leisure was very important to the Bushmen. They spent large amounts of time with conversation, joking around, music, and sacred dances.
Villages ranged in sturdiness from nightly rain shelters in the warm spring, when people moved constantly in search of budding greens, to formalized rings when they congregated in the dry season around the only permanent waterholes. Early spring, a hot dry period following a cool dry winter, was the hardest season, after autumn nuts were exhausted, villages concentrated around waterholes, and most plants were dead or dormant. Meat was most important in the dry months, when wildlife could never range far from receding waters.
Traditionally the San were an egalitarian society. Although they did have hereditary chiefs, the chief’s authority was limited and the bushmen instead made decisions among themselves, on a consensus basis. Women's status was relatively equal. Women did not begin bearing children until about 18 or 19 years of age due to late first menstruation because of the low fat diet and had them spaced four years apart, due to lack of enough breast milk to feed more than one child at a time , and the requirements of mobility leading to the difficulty of carrying more than one child at a time.
Children were very well behaved and treated kindly by their parents and group. Children spent much of the day playing with each other and are not segregated by sex, neither sex is trained to be submissive or fierce, and neither sex is restrained from expressing the full breadth of emotion that seems inherent in the human spirit" .
The San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts on a regular basis rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services .
Bushmen had an advanced early culture evidenced by archaeological data. For example, Bushmen from the Botswana region migrated south to the Waterberg Massif in the era 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. They left rock paintings at the Lapala Wilderness area and Goudriver recording their life and times, including characterizations of rhinoceros, elephant and a variety of antelope species (resembling impala, kudu and eland, all present day inhabitants).
Around AD 1,000 Bantu tribes began to expand into bushman occupied areas and pushed the bushmen into more inhospitable areas such as the Kalahari desert.
The 1980 comedy movie The Gods Must Be Crazy portrays a Kalahari Bushman tribe's first encounter with an artifact from the outside world (a Coke bottle). In 1969, the director of this movie, Jamie Uys, had directed Lost in the Desert, in which a small boy stranded in the desert encounters a group of wandering Bushmen before, and is helped by them and then abandoned due to a misunderstanding created by the lack of a common language and culture.
John Marshall documented the lives of Bushmen in the Nyaer Nyaer region of Namibia over more than a 50-year period. His early film The Hunters, released in 1957, shows a giraffe hunt during the 1950s. N!!Ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman (1980) is the account of a woman who grew up while the Bushmen were living as autonomous hunter-gatherers and was later forced into a dependent life in the government created community at Tsumkwe. A Kalahari Family (2002) is a five-part, six-hour series documenting 50 years in the lives of the Juǀʼhrtoansi of Southern Africa, from 1951 to 2000. Marshall was a fierce and vocal proponent of the Bushman cause throughout his life, which was, in part, due to strong kinship ties, and had a Bushman wife in his early 20s.
In Wilbur Smith's The Burning Shores, the San people are portrayed through two major characters, O'wa and H'ani, and the Bushmen's struggles, history and beliefs are touched upon in great detail. The Burning Shores is a volume in the Courtney's of Africa series.
PBS's series How Art Made the World compares San cave painting 200 years ago to Paleolithic European painting 14,000 years old. Because of their similarities, the San can help us understand the reasons for ancient cave paintings. Lewis Williams believes that their trance states (traveling to the spirit world) are directly related to the reasons people went deep into caves, experienced sensory deprivation, and painted their visions onto the cave walls.
Spencer Wells' 2003 book The Journey of Man—in connection with National Geographic's Genographic Project—discusses a genetic analysis of the San and asserts their blood contains the oldest genetic markers found on earth, making the Bushmen humankind's "genetic Adam". These genetic markers are present on the y chromosome and are therefore passed down through thousands of generations in a relatively pure form. The documentary continues to trace these markers throughout the world, demonstrating that all of humankind can be traced back to the African continent and that the San are the last, most genetically unadulterated, remnant of humankind's ancient ancestors.
However, more recent analysis suggests that the San may have been merely isolated from other original ancestral groups and then rejoined at a later date, re-mixing the human gene pool.
In 2007, author David Gilman published his book "The Devil's Breath", a novel partly based upon the bushmen. One of the main characters !Koga, a small bushman boy helps Max Gordon, the main character to travel across Namibia, using traditional bushman methods to do so.