Encounter South Africa
What to do
Where to go
Article Archive
Travel Tools


The Remarkable Khoi and San people of the Past



San Hunter


Rock Painting of San origin in Damaraland in Namibia


Rock engravings dating from the Stone Age


Typical Khoi Hut

Khoisan is the name by which the lighter skinned indigenous peoples of southern Africa,the Khoi (Hottentots) and the San (Bushmen) are known. These people dominated the sub-continent for millennia before the appearance of the Nguni and other black peoples.

This is evident from their marvelous animated paintings on rocks and caves walls as far afield as Namaqualand, the Drakensberg and southern Cape. The many clicking sounds used in their speech had influenced the language of some of the African-speaking nations well before the arrival of the white colonists in the 17th century`

In the past they were hunter-gatherers, living largely off game, honey and the roots and fruits of plants. They lived - and some still do today in total harmony with nature, posing no threat to wildlife and vegetation by over-hunting or gathering. The semi-nomadic existence of the San was (and is) governed by the seasons and the movement of game.

The San have short, slight bodies, small hands and feet and yellow-brown skin that wrinkle early. The women tend to store fat in their buttocks and have sharply hollowed backs. They look exactly like the characteristic profiles depicted in the San rock paintings. They store fat in their buttocks - a natural adaptation to their precarious existence in a harsh environment.

In time the whites encroached upon the San's traditional hunting grounds. Some Bushmen went to live with them and others moved on west and north in search of land where they could live freely. Today they are found only in the northwestern Cape, the Kalahari, Namibia and Botswana.

Most groups today are less nomadic than their forebears are. However, the desert San lives much as their ancestors did. They move in small clans, each with its clearly defined territory. The women gather wild melons such as tsamma - a source of food and water, roots and edible berries. The men hunt with wooden bow and arrow and use clubs and spears if necessary. The arrowheads are tipped with poison made from insect grubs. It acts slowly on the victim's nervous system.

The Bushmen, known for their stamina, may sometimes have to pursue their prey for a great distance before the animal finally drops, ready for a kill. They are superb trackers and may follow a herd for many days before getting close enough to use bow and arrow. After such a kill, the whole group joins in the feast, singing and dancing in a trance-like ritual around the fire. When game is scarce, the group splits up into smaller parties to search for food. In severe, prolonged droughts the women chew the bark of a particular tree which acts as contraceptive, so preventing an increase in the number of mouths to feed. Snakes, lizards and even scorpions are eaten.

To provide liquid in dry areas and for times of drought, the San store water in ostrich shells, which they bury deep below the sandy desert surface. They recover the shells with uncanny accuracy. Skin carosses, loin cloths and aprons are the San's only adornments. Their semi- nomadic life makes it impossible to possess anything that is not easy to carry. Their shelters are built of sticks and form roughly a circle, 150mm high. Some clover the sticks with mats woven from reeds.

The clan system of the Khoi was somewhat more regulated than that of the San. Each group had a chief. Their dwellings were beehive-shaped huts made with pliable sticks. Long mats, the strips sewn together by the women covered the frame, leaving an opening at either end. Doors made of a narrower mat to roll up or down was hung over these openings. The huts could be dismantled quickly and transported on the back of oxen as they moved on. These mat-covered huts can still be seen in Namaqualand.

The Khoi (Hottentots) are much like the San in appearance, but slightly taller. The essential difference between the two peoples is in their respective traditional lifestyles. Originally both semi-nomadic, the Khoi kept flocks of sheep and herds of oxen. Some planted crops and established semi-permanent settlements. They developed the craft of pottery making.

The KhoiSan Today
The view of the KhoiSan, has always been through European eyes since Europeans have a long tradition of recording written history, and it is easier for people to reference this information.

The first travellers to Africa found people who were very different from themselves. So different in fact that the Europeans had no difficulty in describing them as "savages" or cannibals". An image of the Khoi and San was created by Europeans that lasted for centuries.

The Europeans never gave any value to their superior ability to deal with the African environment even though this knowledge enabled the early colonists to adapt to the landscape as they trekked beyond the settlement of Cape Town. Their ideology of superiority and value system based on wealth, made it impossible for them to accept the Khoikhoi as equals.

Today there are less than 100,000 San left in Southern African with more than half of them living in Botswana. To a large extent they are excluded from schools and from the systems of government, politics and economy. Infrastructure has improved and more people are moving into the areas the San once had for their own exclusive use.

They are now in a desperate struggle for survival.


If the gentleman by the name of Hermanus Matroos could contact me I'll be pleased - estensheila@gmail.com.

Posted by: sheila besten

I would like to make contact with the Koisan group in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town Namely Boeta Hennie from Steenberg Cape Town
ph 071 6140619

Posted by: Nathalie

Who did attend this funerals of our fellow brothers & sisters, or are w going to continue blame, insult our african goverment that is trying so hard?

The repatriation of the remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar is part of the governments' effort towards the restoration of the dignity of victims of racism and colonialism; many of these remains are stored in museums all over the world, especially Europe.

In 2002 the remains of Sarah Baartman were safely returned to the country and buried in Hankey, Eastern Cape. The South African Government is committed to human rights, reconciliation, promotion and the protection our cultural heritage and social cohesion.

Avoid the white propaganda they want us africans to fight, they want us to forget that the Afrikaans mense (whites) did hunt us like animals!

Posted by: Piet

Dutch & Afrikaner people are coming with their propaganda to act as if they sympathise with us, well they want us to fight with our fellow Bantu!
We have to be CAREFUL, let us ask ourselves - khoisan originate in Africa not European, we have a real small hair the 1 that was called kafer hare!

They want to use us because they don't want to give us the land they stole from all the african ppl in general, most of colourds ppl in PTA already got the money for their land, only those who were moved frm their land/home!

Posted by: charmaine

The history of the khoisan provided a complex of many fortunate ideologies in the histories of the black race and their continent. But somehow this gave me a deep thinking about the origins of the we (the Bantu people). If i may to ask where did the Bantu people came from?

Posted by: solani

At primary school during the 80's I always wondered what happened to the hottentot. Today I know, our ancestors were colonialised, cheated out of our land and livelihood. Today, our people, are the poorest of the poor, most families living on handouts while only a certain few enjoy the fruits this country (historically OUR COUNTRY). I think it's time the government recognise our First Nation Status. Today I am proudly Khoi-Khoi from the Koranna Tribe and certainly not a coloured or mixed race. For too long have the indigenous people of this country been mistreated and ignored. We demand our rightful place in South Africa.

Posted by: Bernice Human

The term coloured was not coined by the people's of mixed heritage of the cape initially, but by devide and rule regimes from the colonists to the present government, who has further entrenched it. The language Afrikaans originated from Khoisan people. The slaves brought the cape and Dutch settlers in their efforts to communicate. The people of mixed heritage that initially formed this group of people speaking Afrikaans in South Africa originates from these distinct groups who formed the Afrikaans language. This does not mean that there are no other mixed race people in South Africa and elsewhere like Trevor Noah.

Posted by: Errol Heynes

Lol! Modern society we living in, people are so obsessed with race, class, gender and language belonging. It is not a surprise; I mean thatís human nature. I like this kind of blog, I mean people here open your eyes and make you view the world in a broader spectrum, ok for argument sake I am a young Black African from both Tswana parents.

Now lets come to an argument; the word ďcolouredĒ is of a South African political context that was given to people of mix race by the apartheid government, believe me there are dozens of coloured people around the world as result of inter-racial breeding but they are not referred to as coloured as in South Africa, many of them in the US and Europe are seen as blacks, in South America are regarded as Latino meaning Latin which is sometimes odd to me.

Now there come an interesting part, since we all agree that coloured occurs as a result of inter- breeding; thus that suggests that mating of White (Caucasian) + Asian= Coloured, Asian+Black(African)= Coloured, Black+White= Coloured. We must bear in mind that there are main three groups of people which is associated to geographic origin namely: Europeans (Caucasions, fair in complexion with straight hair), Africans (Blacks, Dark skinned people with curly hair) and Asians (Brown people with thick straight black hair).

Donít be confused all these above people have different characteristics due to their geographic location, Africa, Asia and Europe are old world meaning they have been there before North America, South America and Australasia split from the mother continent Pangea before continental drifting, now donít ask me why are there white people or black people in North America, in simple reasoning North and South America are new world, remember I have said three are old world meaning the current inhabitants of North and South America migrated from the old to the new world, in factual essence Europeans navigated the world and found West Indies who in reality are the Browns or Asians in North America and the Blacks where brought during slave era from Africa.

Back to the topic, here in South Africa archeological achieves have proven to us that the first people to inhabit Southern Africa are Khoisan, and the very same Khoisans are not from Asia or Europe they are purely African, they have similar characteristics as the rest of afro-centric descendants concluding that they are Blacks so in true essence even if you can call yourself Khoisan you are an African therefore it doesnít matter. Coming to language it is stereotypic to associate Coloured people with Afrikaans, as I said there are different Coloured people in the world therefore language does not conclude you as a Coloured, but rather your genes of both sides does, suggesting that one can be a Coloured of Afro-centric nature, Coloured of Asian-centric or Coloured of Euro-centric.

Case study: let us take Trevor Noah for instance, he is a Coloured but surprisingly he cannot speak Afrikaans and contrary to that he has good command of IsiZulu, Xhosa and English. So please people do research before you argue and stop being biased and twist facts.

As for modern Coloureds you should be proud that you are the generation of evolution of man-kind, the rest is just politics and I foresee that 1000 years to come 90% of the world population will be Coloured due to inter- racial breeding.

Posted by: Gaorakwe Mokwepa Molatane

The original Khoe name for Cape Town was /Hu!gais. Today it would be spelled 'Cuxais' in Nguni orthography. It means 'Blanketed in Cloud'.

Posted by: Samuel

It is very interesting to learn more about Khoi nation as to how they live and conduct their daily life. Anyway I would like thank you guys for keeping me informative. I'm staying in eastern Free State and I usually meet with the Khoi people around my home town. But here we are living the same as us, the only way one can differ them from us is early wrinkle and dwarfism.

Posted by: mosala sekhohola been

[See more...]




Copyright@ 1997-2013 Encounter SA