The KhoiSan peoples are the aboriginal people of South Africa who have lived here for millennia.
The Khoikhoi (“people people” or “real people”) or Khoi, in standardised Khoekhoe/Nama orthography spelled Khoekhoe, are a historical division of the Khoisan ethnic group, the native people of southwestern Africa, closely related to the Bushmen (or San, as the Khoikhoi called them). They had lived in southern Africa since the 5th century AD and, at the time of the arrival of European settlers in 1652, practised extensive pastoral agriculture in the Cape region, with large herds of Nguni cattle.
Archaeological evidence shows that the Khoikhoi entered South Africa from Botswana through two distinct routes – traveling west, skirting the Kalahari to the west coast, then down to the Cape, and travelling south-east out into the Highveld and then southwards to the south coast. Most of the Khoikhoi have largely disappeared as a group, except for the largest group, the Namas.
The name Khoekhoe most accurately translates to ‘People People’. They were traditionally—and are still occasionally in colloquial language—known to white colonists as the Hottentots, a name that is currently generally considered offensive (e.g. by the Oxford Dictionary of South African English). The word “hottentot” meant “stutterer” or “stammerer” in the colonists’ northern dialect of Dutch, although some Dutch use the verb stotteren to describe the clicking sounds (klik being the normal onomatopoeia, parallel to English) typically used in the Khoisan languages. The word lives on, however, in the names of several African animal and plant species, such as the Hottentot Fig or Ice Plant (Carpobrotus edulis). Another would be the infamous invertebrate, a scorpion species called the Hottentotta, one of the most venomous in Africa.
The Khoikhoi were originally part of a pastoral culture and language group found across Southern Africa. Originated in the northern area of modern Botswana, the ethnic group steadily migrated south, reaching the Cape approximately 2,000 years ago. Khoikhoi subgroups include the Korana of mid-South Africa, the Namaqua to the west, and the Khoikhoi in the south. Husbandry of sheep, goats and cattle provided a stable, balanced diet and allowed the related Khoikhoi peoples to live in larger groups than the region’s original inhabitants, the San. Herds grazed in fertile valleys across the region until the 3rd century AD when the advancing Bantu encroached into their traditional homeland. The Khoikhoi were forced into a long retreat into more arid areas.
Migratory Khoi bands living around what is today Cape Town intermarried with San. However the two groups remained culturally distinct as the Khoikhoi continued to graze livestock and the San subsisted as hunter-gatherers. The Khoi initially came into contact with European explorers and merchants in approximately AD 1500. The ongoing encounters were often violent, although the British made some attempt to develop more amiable relationships. Local population dropped when the Khoi were exposed to smallpox by Europeans. Active warfare between the groups flared when the Dutch East India Company enclosed traditional grazing land for farms. Over the following century the Khoi were steadily driven off their land, which effectively ended traditional Khoikhoi life.
“Old Cape Khoikhoi male”
Khoikhoi social organization was profoundly damaged and, in the end, destroyed by European colonial expansion and land seizure from the late 17th century onwards. As social structures broke down, some Khoikhoi people settled on farms and became bondsmen or farm workers; others were incorporated into existing clan and family groups of the Xhosa people.
In recent years the Khoikhoi have fought a bitter battle against the Herero cattle herders, who have attempted to take their traditional lands.
The religious mythology of the Khoikhoi gives special significance to the moon, which may have been viewed as the physical manifestation of a supreme being associated with heaven. Tsui’goab is also believed to be the creator and the guardian of health, while Gunab is primarily an evil being, who causes sickness or death. Recently, many Khoikhoi in Namibia have converted to Islam and make up the largest group among Namibia’s Muslim community.
The traditional Khoisan are a hunter and gatherer society. They live in simple and disposable huts made of long sticks bound at the top with vines or other fiber then covered in grass.Each family has their own hut. However children that are older may live in separate huts with others in their age group. The Khoisan are polygamous (more than one wife). Wives may share or occupy different huts depending on how well they get along. Visitors are entertained outside the home unit around the fire.
The Bushmen, San, Sho, Basarwa, Kung, or Khwe are an indigenous people of southern Africa that spans most areas of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. They were traditionally hunter-gatherers, part of the Khoisan group and are related to the traditionally pastoral Khoikhoi. Starting in the 1950s, through the 1990s, they switched to farming as a result of government-mandated modernization programs as well as the increased risks of a hunting and gathering lifestyle in the face of technological development.
The Bushmen have provided a wealth of information for the fields of anthropology and genetics, even as their lifestyles change. Genetic evidence suggests the Bushmen’s ancestors predate the genetic changes of the rest of the human population — making them a “genetic Adam” according to Spencer Wells, from which all humans can ultimately trace their genetic heritage.
The terms San, Khwe, Sho, Bushmen, and Basarwa have all been used to refer to hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa. Each of these terms has a problematic history, as they have been used by outsiders to refer to them, often with pejorative connotations. The individual groups identify by names such as Ju/’hoansi and !Kung (the punctuation characters representing different click consonants), and most call themselves by the pejorative “Bushmen” when referring to themselves collectively.
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 because it is sometimes viewed as pejorative.
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.
Prehistoric Livestock Herders in the Upper Seacow River Valley
Inspired by the Bushmen people who have the world’s oldest DNA, Professor Garth Sampson began the Zeekoei Valley Archaeological Project in the 1970’s. The ZVAP is a long-term, large-scale project comprising the largest surveyed archaeological site in Africa. It is the Karoo’s most well-known research project, spanning hundreds of thousands of years of hominid history. He hasn’t found the oldest human remains…yet.
This first paper takes us ‘recently’ back in time to when livestock farming was taking place in the Karoo long before the arrival of settlers from Europe.
Click here to download the full paper (pdf 670kb).