The Khoisan

There is not another social group on this planet which has been studied more than the Khoisan.

Written by Chris McIntyre


The Khoisan is a language grouping rather than a specific race or tribe, and includes the various peoples of both the San and the Khoi. All have relatively light golden-brown skin, almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones. Their stature is generally small and slight, and they are now found across southern Africa. There is not another social/language group on this planet which has been studied, written about, filmed and researched more than the San, or Bushmen, of the Kalahari. Despite this, or indeed because of it, popular conceptions about them, fed by their image in the media, are often strikingly out of step with realities. The Khoisan languages are distinguished by their wide repertoire of clicking sounds. Don’t mistake these for simple: they are very sophisticated. It was observed by Dunbar in ‘Why gossip is good for you’ that, ‘From the phonetic point of view these [the Khoisan languages] are the world’s most complex languages. To speak one of them fluently is to exploit human phonetic ability to the full.’

The San

The San were perfectly adapted to their desert environment and had learned to survive its harsh extremes of climate – drought, unrelenting heat and sun in the winter, and heavy rains and floods in the summer. Predominantly hunter-gatherers, it is thought that at various times, when the climate was more favourable, the San may also have owned and grazed stock. Several times in past millennia the climate of Botswana has been much wetter, and at others much drier than it is at the moment. Periodically the huge pans that are a distinctive feature of the landscape, such as at Makgadikgadi and Nxai, became great lakes, full of water and supplied by several rivers. Probably some San groups took advantage of plentiful supplies of water to acquire stock. Now the rivers have dried up and the Okavango Delta has receded, the pans are full of water only during the rainy season and the San are herders no longer. There are also more recent records of them owning and trading copper from secret mines in the Kalahari, and bartering it for iron.

The Khoi

Around 3000BC, Late Stone Age hunter-gatherer groups in Ethiopia, and elsewhere in north and west Africa, started to keep domestic animals, sow seeds, and harvest the produce: they became the world’s first farmers. By around 1000BC these new pastoral practices had spread south into the equatorial forests of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, to around Lake Victoria, and into the northern area of the Great Rift Valley, in northern Tanzania. However, agriculture did not spread south into the rest of central/southern Africa immediately. Only when the technology, and the tools, of ironworking became known did these practices start their relentless expansion southwards. It’s thought that during the last centuries BC many Khoi-speaking peoples in northern Botswana converted their lifestyle to pastoralism – herding cattle and sheep on the rich pastures exposed by the retreating wetlands of the Okavango Delta and Lake Makgadikgadi..

It used to be thought that the Khoi acquired their stock during the (black) Iron Age, from Bantu-speaking farmers who are thought to have migrated into their area around 1,500 years ago. However, finds of sheep bone dating back 3,000 years now suggest that the Khoi had obtained stock long before the arrival of the Bantu, probably from east Africa where they had been herded for thousands of years. The Khoi spread, migrating with their livestock through central Namibia, as far south as the Cape of Good Hope, by about 70BC.

When the first Dutch settlers saw the Khoi in about AD1600 they lived in groups with a leader, but were split into smaller clans under their own headman. The clans came together only in times of stress or war. Because water was vital for the stock animals, the Khoi dug wells that were owned exclusively by the clan and group. In times of drought, when water was scarce, fights might erupt over these waterholes. Then each clan sent men to fight to protect the group’s interests.

Each clan lived in a village, which was built inside a circular thorn hedge. In the centre were thorn enclosures to pen and protect the stock, surrounded by a circle of houses. Khoi houses are of a ‘bender’ or dome tent construction type; that is, long flexible poles are bent to form arches and the ends stuck into the ground. They are then covered with mats. When the clan needed to move to find more water or grazing these huts were simply taken down and strapped onto the back of their animals.

The distinction between the Khoi and the San

The San are often described as hunter-gatherers and the Khoi as pastoralists. The distinction between the two Khoisan peoples is not quite so clear-cut, but it is generally useful. The Khoi, who live in central Botswana and Namibia, have herds of cattle, but continue to source some of their food from hunting and gathering, supplemented by milk products. Because of the intrinsic value of the animals, the Khoi milk their herds but do not kill them for food; stock animals are only killed to mark special occasions.

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