Although there are few people that live in the Okavango Delta itself, humans have been relying on the region for survival for many millennia. There are many different tribes that have found sanctuary in the Delta over the years.
There is archeological evidence that the San or Bushmen people
have been living in the Kalahari for thousands of years. It was thought that it was only in the last few years that the Bantu speaking people moved into the Kalahari, and this would seem to be supported by their oral history.
There are many different tribes that call the Kalahari home. The Okavango has always been sparsely populated due to its inaccessibility.
There are three main groups of people who traditionally live in the Okavango Delta, the Hambukushu, the Bayei and the Banoka.
In the eighteenth century the Hambukushu were forced out of their lands around the Zambezi and moved to the Chobe Region. They made their home along the Chobe River. They were forced out by the Balozi clan
. Chief Ngombela of the Balozi was expanding his empire, and any tribes in the land he conquered had to pay him tribute. As a result the Hambukushu fled along the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers.
Here they came into conflict with and forced the Bayei people to move into the area of the Okavango where the river spreads out to form the Delta, an area now referred to as the Panhandle. The Hambukushu were followed by the Balozi marauders and so they fled further into the Delta to escape.
Moving their cattle onto the islands of the Delta they were able to defend themselves, and defeated Balozi's forces.
By 1800 they were well established in the Delta and they had to co-exist to an extent with the Bayei. The Bayei were expert fishermen
who mostly fished in the shallow waters in the southern parts of the Delta. They mostly hunted, and gathered, but kept cattle as pack animals.
There was also another tribe that lived in the heart of the Delta called the Banoka. These people were often referred to as the River Bushmen. They were Khoi people who had adapted to living in the Okavango. They were mostly found along the Boteti River. They were very good fishermen
, and those clans that lived in areas free of Tse tse flies also kept cattle. They used woven fishing baskets and were experts at hunting animals that lived in the Delta.
The Bayei and Hambukushu shared many techniques for fishing and boat building. It was the Bayei who refined the dug-out canoes
called Mekoros. Their work was of a much higher quality and they were master craftsman. The Hambukukshu were also agriculturalists and they planted crops such as millet. They relied on rain to water their crops.
Consequently they developed many rituals to bring rain. They became known as expert rainmakers. The ceremony involved sacrificing children
to appease the gods and bring the rains. These children were often sourced from other tribes, and consequently many tribes that had been living in the area fled.
The Hambukushu were also known to be slave traders
. They raided other villages to obtain people that they could sell to the Arab slave traders. The Hambukushu were also master iron workers and this meant that their weapons were superior and many other tribes had little defense against them. In more recent history many more Hambukushu moved into the Delta in 1969 when they fled the Angolan civil war.
Another important group in the Kalahari and in the Okavango region is the Batwana people who settled near Lake Ngami in 1795 having split from the Bangwato, the main Tswana tribe. They were followed by warriors
from the Bangwato and had to defend themselves several times. They moved into the Delta from where they could better defend themselves.
They were also attacked by the Matabele
from Bulawayo in present day Zimbabwe. They suffered heavy losses of both cattle and slaves, however when the Matabele tried again, the Batwana were ready for them, and using the Delta to their advantage, defeated the Matabele.
In 1915 they moved their capital to the banks of the Thamalakane River where present day Maun can be found. In 1884 the Germans occupied what today is Namibia and came into conflict with the local tribe, the Herero. After brutal subjugation, the Herero rose in rebellion and, the Germans decided to wipe them out. Consequently, many Herero fled all over Southern Africa. Small groups of them took refuge in the Kalahari
and they can still be found throughout Botswana today.