South Africa Table Mountain

The Khoisan People,
descendants of the Khoi and San people in South Africa

The Khoisan people are descendants of the ancient hunter-gathering San (bushmen) people, who were the earliest known original inhabitants of South Africa followed later by the pastoral Khoi (Hottentot) people, thousands of years ago.

They are thought to have emerged out of the same gene pools as all the black people, but to have developed on their own.



At present the san people (bushmen) are confronted by extinction with a remaining population of 100,000 people, most of them living in the north west of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

Museum scene of ancient “San” people using the Battle Cave in the beautiful Drakensberg mountains as their shelter - The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
Museum scene of ancient "San" people using the Battle Cave in the beautiful Drakensberg mountains as their shelter
The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
copyright © South African tourism

The San People were typical hunter-gatherers, leading a nomadic lifestyle, moving along from location to location simply following their food source. They depended on hunting game comprising a variety of antelope species, together with gathering wild plant foodstuffs for their survival.

The San have frequently been referred to with names such as "Bushmen", "San" or "Sonqua", "Soaqua", "Sarwa" or "Basarwa", and "Twa", all of them basically meaning, "those without domestic livestock".

An 18th century drawing of Khoikhoi worshipping the moon - The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
An 18th century drawing of Khoikhoi worshipping the moon
The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
copyright © South African tourism

The San have a distinctive yellowish tinged complexion and because of the average length of an adult of somewhere around 1.5 m, they are significantly shorter then members of the Black colored people. It is commonly believed that their roots are to be found along the north coast of the African continent.

They were driven further and further south ward by expanding more powerful nations in their quest for living space. The Black people were primarily located throughout the tropical and equatorial parts of Africa by the time the San reached the southern regions of Africa.

a small clan of
a small clan of "San" people looking and living the way their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
The Khoi and San people in South Africa

The tough and resilient little San people who were capable of producing the type of courage and compassion needed for their survival for such a long period of time, left us a way to glimpse into their world. They left us a fantastic heritage of rock art in the form of beautiful engravings and paintings all over the country.

The San people have left us an invaluable legacy of marvellous animated paintings on rocks and on cave walls - The Khoi and San people in South Africa
The San people have left us an invaluable legacy of marvellous animated paintings on rocks and on cave walls.
The Khoi and San people in South Africa
copyright © South African tourism

The Khoikhoi on the other hand practiced a pastoralist way of life, (a nomadic lifestyle centered around the herding of livestock) some 2 000 years in the past and adapted their cultural lives accordingly. Just like the San, the Khoikhoi also possessed a yellowish tinged complexion but they were larger in size.

This could certainly have been caused by the actual fact that their staple diet was protein. Their entire existence revolved around their livestock and so they were continuously on the move in their quest of better grazing for their cattle and sheep.

The San people hunted with wooden bow and arrow and used clubs and spears if necessary - The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
The San people hunted with wooden bow and arrow and used clubs and spears if necessary.
The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
copyright © South African tourism

The hunter-gatherer San ranged widely over the area; the pastoral Khoikhoi lived in those comparatively well-watered areas, chiefly along the southern and western coastal strips, where adequate grazing was to be found.

Settler family settling down on their new land - The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
Settler family settling down on their new land.
The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
copyright © South African tourism

It had been the latter which the early European settlers first came across when setting foot on South African soil, primarily to the disadvantage of the Khoikhoi. In today's times the Khoikhoi people have become extinct as an identifiable nation.

This happened primarily because of diseases as a consequence of assimilation with the settlers and with the slaves in particular. Next to that there has additionally been a degree of forthright extermination.

San family in the Namib desert in Botswana - The Khoisan People, The Khoi and San people in South Africa
San family in the Namib desert in Botswana.
The Khoisan People, The Khoi and San people in South Africa
copyright © South African tourism

There are researchers who claim that the Khoikhoi originally moved from the great lakes in Africa to Southern Africa long after the San. Several other researchers, on the other hand, are of the opinion that the Khoikhoi herdsmen evolved out of the hunter-gatherer tribes in Southern Africa.

A number of languages spoken by the San happen to be substantially similar to some specific Khoikhoi dialects. Based upon certain San and Khoi language studies, a considerable number of linguists are quite positive about the possibility that the Khoikhoi language could well have evolved out of a San language. Another reason for the similarities between the two peoples was the process of intermarriage between them.

Present-day Khoisan people in a small village - The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
Present-day Khoisan people in a small village
The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa

Today we cannot speak of distinctly identifiable San and Khoikhoi people anymore. Through time they have mixed and as a result the use of a combination of the words "Khoi" and "San" into "Khoisan" has become popular.

Deep in the Kalahari desert of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, there is a small population of about 100 000 San or people left, trying to make a living the way their ancient predecessors did. Threatened by extinction, this has become more and more difficult for them and these days a large number of have turned to either agriculture or stockbreeding in order to survive.

Group of modern-day female Khoisan dancers - The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
Group of modern-day female Khoisan dancers
The Khoisan People, Blend of the Khoi and San people in South Africa
Photograph by Steve McN






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