Hunter-Gatherers of South Central Africa

From the Congo Basin to the Cape of Good Hope

Discover more about your ethnicity with AncestryDNA. By comparing your genetic signature to the DNA of people from the South-Central African region, AncestryDNA can give you a clearer picture of your ethnic origins.

People in this DNA ethnicity group may identify as:
South African, Namibian, Tswana (from Botswana), Congolese, Bantu, Khoisan

The story of your ethnicity lives in your DNA.

South-Central African History

The Africa South-Central Hunter-Gatherers region is made up of ancient hunter-gatherer and pastoral groups who, though small in number and physical height, are considered the wellspring of human populations around the world. Increasingly, southern African Khoe-San groups and Central Africa’s Mbuti and Baka (Pygmy) groups are drawing the attention of scholars and researchers for their genetic diversity, ancient origins and unique cultural traditions.

Geography as Destiny

The Africa South-Central Hunter-Gatherers region includes much of southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana and South Africa) and the heart of Central Africa (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Congo-Kinshasa). Individuals with this genetic ethnicity may also be found in Angola, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya.

There are two geographic features important to understanding the peoples native to this region. First is the Kalahari Desert, the second-largest desert in the world, which spans a large part of five countries. Despite having no water source beyond seasonal rainfall, the Kalahari is home to a rich variety of plants and animals that have made life possible for the Khoe-San peoples spread across it. The second important feature is the Congo River Basin; the river drainage and massive rainforests provide a home to the Baka and Mbuti and other Pygmy groups.

Life in the Kalahari Desert and Congo forests was fraught with risks and dangers that could only be overcome by cooperation. Harmony in the group was the highest cultural goal for people native to these regions.

The Khoe-San

The southern portion of this region has been home to the nomadic Khoe-San peoples for thousands of years. The pastoral Khoe, or Khoi (“the people”), rely on herds of livestock for sustenance. The San people, often referred to as “Bushmen,” are hunter-gatherers who forage for plants, insects, roots, game and water. Both groups comprise many smaller groups and clans. Though distinct culturally and linguistically, the Khoe and San have a common genetic origin. The fact that the Khoe-San have among the highest levels of genetic diversity in the world has led researchers to believe that the Khoe-San are one of the world’s most ancient human populations.

Though the Khoe tend to have hierarchical cultures based on livestock wealth, the San have no hierarchy, share all things and make all decisions by consensus, even if reaching agreement takes a long time. Both cultures are oral in nature—they have no written language—but have distinctive art forms and language. The Khoisan languages are known for their distinctive clicks; however, their languages are unrelated to nearby Bantu languages such as Zulu and Xhosa, which have adopted some Khoisan click consonants.

Because the Khoe-San groups have no written language, their history is based on archaeological findings, oral tradition and DNA studies. The great Bantu migrations from eastern Africa brought successful ironworking, animal husbandry and farming to southern Africa, creating fast-growing populations that displaced the Khoe-San peoples. From the 16th through the 18th centuries, Bantu groups pushed the Khoe-San farther south and west toward modern-day Botswana and South Africa, while Dutch and French settlers of the Cape region pressured Khoe groups to move farther north. Although they had been spread thinly across southern Africa for thousands of years, the Khoe-San population ultimately concentrated in the arid Kalahari and areas they occupy today.

Your ethnicity reveals the places where your family story began.

The Baka and Mbuti

The rainforests of the Congo River Basin, especially those of the north and east, are home to Pygmy groups such as the Baka and Mbuti. They live in small, nomadic groups, eating fish, bushmeat and foraged fruits and plants. The Baka and Mbuti groups are also communal, egalitarian and make decisions by consensus.

Of the early history of the Baka and Mbuti and other Pygmy groups, even less is known than about the Khoe-San people’s history. The tropical rainforests tend to swallow up their artifacts and habitations, which are made of natural materials that decompose quickly. Archaeological evidence indicates that human populations have lived in the Congo River Basin for some 30,000 years. Genetic evidence points to all Pygmy populations coming from a common ancestral group about 3,000 years ago.

Colonial and Modern Eras

Because of their small populations, isolation, nomadic lifestyle and the largely inaccessible and inhospitable areas they lived in, the Khoe-San and Baka and Mbuti people were less afflicted by the slave trade than other African populations. The Colonial Era, however, had numerous long-range effects. As the newcomers came into contact with the native peoples, they altered migration patterns, introduced Christianity, made certain lands off-limits and changed the hierarchies and relationships among tribes and clans. Ultimately, the nations that were formed in the aftermath of colonization continued to disenfranchise nomadic peoples, using their traditional lands for resources such as diamonds, gold, platinum and strategic minerals.

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