The Khoi San

The Khoi San

Khoisan is the name by which a specific group of indigenous people 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.