Historically, at least as far back as the 17th century, the Little Karoo and Namaqualand were inhabited by nomadic African groups of Khoi and San. Though there are a number of cultural similarities and differences between Khoi and San, the utilization of Sceletium species appears to be one such case of cultural convergence between the Khoi and San, as is its symbolic connections with the land. The symbolic significance of the land in the San culture as the trance animal par excellence is well known. It is also a predominant and widely recurring feature of San rock art in southern Africa. Quite apart from its economic importance as one of the major objects of the hunt, it was symbolically linked to fertility, marriage, rainmaking, divination, dancing, trance and healing. The Khoi of the Little Karoo referred to Sceletium and the eland by the same term ‘Kanna’. Hence, the derivation of the place-name ‘Kannaland’ which was used by the early white settlers in reference to the Little Karoo was doubtless a reflection of the fact that Sceletium and eland co-occurred in abundance.
In 1662 Jan van Riebeeck bartered with the local inhabitants and received ‘kanna’ and sheep in return. Even in 1685 the economic value of the indigenous use of Sceletium was already recognized by Simon van der Stel, the second colonial governor of the Dutch Cape colony. The value of Sceletium as a trade item and its value in suppressing hunger and thirst were noted by Thunberg in his 1773 expedition where he cited that, if I may quote, the Namaquaas held the kannaplant in high esteem; they chew the stem as well as the roots and become intoxicated by it.
This painting dated 1685 from the journal of Simon van der Stel, the Dutch Governor of the Cape of Good Hope. The information accompanying the illustration has been translated from the original Dutch: “This plant is found with the Namaquas on some of their mountains. It is gathered in October and is called Canna. It is held in great esteem by them….. On account of its fragrance, taste and effect one can expect considerable profit from its cultivation”
the Swedish physician and botanist Carl Peter Thunberg reported on the use of Sceletium by the Khoi khoi: “It is found in the driest fields only, and is gathered chiefly by the Hottentots, who live near this spot. These afterwards trade it about, frequently to a great distance, and exchange it for cattle and other commodities”. The Khoi khoi “keep it by them for chewing, especially when they are thirsty”
Sceletium Tortuosum throughout History
- 1722, Thunberg: Swedish physician and botanist. Reported on indigenous use and trade.
- 1868, Pappe: German physician and botanist. Reported the use as a common remedy used by the colonists at the Cape of Good Hope as a good sedative.
- 1898, Meiring: Quiets children
- 1928, Laidler: Prized by Europeans as ginseng-like
- 1994, Rood: good calming herb
- 1996, Gericke & van Wyk: Useful relaxant
- 2000 van Wyk et al: elevates mood and decreases anxiety, stress and tension
- 2010, Brendler et al: Decrease in some anxiety