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Khoisan (/ˈkɔɪsɑːn/; also spelled Khoesaan, Khoesan or Khoe–San) is a unifying name for two groups of peoples of Southern Africa, who share ethnic, cultural, and linguistic characteristics distinct from the Bantu majority of the region.[2] Culturally, the Khoisan are divided into the foraging San, or Bushmen, and the pastoral Khoi, or more specifically Khoikhoi,[3] previously known as Hottentots.

San tribesman.jpg
A 33-year-old San man from Namibia
Regions with significant populations
Southern Africa
Afrikaans,[1] Khoisan languages
Mainly Christian and African Traditional Religion
Related ethnic groups
perhaps Sandawe people

The San include the indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa before the southward Bantu migrations from North and East Africa reached the region 700 years ago, which led to the Bantu populations displacing the Khoi and San to become the predominant inhabitants of Southern Africa. Scholars have debated whether the Khoi had a separate origin from the San. The distinct origin of the Khoi is debated. In general, Khoi and similar peoples were of a Greater Kalahari ethnic family and the San were a related though separate group below the desert. Over time, some Khoi abandoned pastoralism and adopted the hunter-gatherer economy of the San, probably due to a drying climate. Such bands are now considered San. Similarly, the Bantu Damara people, who migrated south later, abandoned agriculture and adopted the Khoi economy. Large Khoisan populations continue to occupy several arid areas in the region, notably in the Kalahari Desert. The largest Khoisanic lineages are more closely related to Nilotic and paleo Kenyan groups than to Hadza or Bantu diaspora groups. This ethnic population split off from other Africans around 90-110 thousand years ago.[citation needed]



Khoisan engaged in roasting grasshoppers on grills, 1805. Aquatint by Samuel Daniell.

From the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic periods, hunting and gathering cultures known as the Sangoan occupied southern Africa in areas where annual rainfall is less than a metre (1000 mm; 39.4 in).[4] The 21st-century San and Khoi peoples resemble those represented by the ancient Sangoan skeletal remains. These Late Stone Age people in parts of southern Africa were the ancestors of the Khoisan people who inhabited the Kalahari Desert. Probably due to their region's lack of suitable candidates for domestication, the Khoisan did not have farming or domesticated chickens until a few hundred years ago. They adopted the domesticated cattle and sheep of the Bantu, as some animals had escaped and reached them before the Bantu migrated into the area.[5] The Bantu people, with advanced agriculture and metalworking technology, had developed in West Africa from at least 2000 BC. In the years after contact, they outcompeted and intermarried with the Khoisan, becoming the dominant population of Southeastern Africa before the arrival of Dutch colonists from the Netherlands in 1652.[6]

The Khoisan have been the largest human ethnic population throughout most of modern-human demographic history.[7] The Khoisan “was the largest population on Earth at some point”, according to evolutionary geneticist Pontus Skoglund of Harvard University.[8]

The evidence of the Khoisan's original presence in South Africa is the distribution of their languages today. Khoisan language groups often have extreme differences in structure and vocabulary despite close proximity, which demonstrates a long period of settlement and co-evolution of languages in the same region.[9] In contrast, the languages of Bantu-origin peoples in the region such as the Zulu and Xhosa are all very similar to one another. This indicates a much more recent common ancestry for the first Bantu group that spread and settled across the region.[10] Among their descendants, the Xhosa and Zulu adopted unique Khoisan click consonants and loan words into their respective languages.

Green: The distribution of the three language families spoken by Khoisan peoples, plus two others in Tanzania that are superficially similar.

After the arrival of the Bantu, the Khoisan and their pastoral or hunter-gatherer ways of life remained predominant west of the Fish River in South Africa and in deserts throughout their region, where the drier climate precluded the growth of Bantu crops suited for warmer and wetter climates. During the colonial era, the Khoisan survived in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Today many of the San live in parts of the Kalahari Desert where they are better able to preserve much of their culture and lifestyle.

Against the traditional interpretation that finds a common origin for the Khoi and San, other evidence has suggested that the ancestors of the Khoi peoples (one subset of the Khoisan) are relatively recent pre-Bantu agricultural immigrants to southern Africa, who abandoned agriculture as the climate dried and either joined the San as hunter-gatherers or retained pastoralism to become the Khoikhoi.

Biology and genetic studiesEdit

Khoikhoi woman and man (drawing of 1900). The woman is exhibiting steatopygia.

Charles Darwin wrote about the Khoisan and sexual selection in The Descent of Man in 1882, commenting that their steatopygia evolved through sexual selection in human evolution, and that "the posterior part of the body projects in a most wonderful manner".[11]

In the 1990s, genomic studies of worlds peoples found that the Y chromosome of San men share certain patterns of polymorphisms that are distinct from those of all other populations.[12] Because the Y chromosome is highly conserved between generations, this type of DNA test is used to determine when different subgroups separated from one another, and hence their last common ancestry. The authors of these studies suggested that the San may have been one of the first populations to differentiate from the most recent common paternal ancestor of all extant humans, the so-called Y-chromosomal Adam by patrilineal descent, estimated to have lived 60,000 to 90,000 years ago.[13][14] The authors also note that their results should be interpreted as only finding that the Khoisan "preserve ancient lineages", and not that they "stopped evolving" or are an "ancient group", since subsequent changes in their population are in parallel and similar to those of all other human populations.[15]

Various Y-chromosome studies[16][17][18] since confirmed that the Khoisan carry some of the most divergent (oldest) Y-chromosome haplogroups. These haplogroups are specific sub-groups of haplogroups A and B, the two earliest branches on the human Y-chromosome tree.

Similar to findings from Y-Chromosome studies, mitochondrial DNA studies also showed evidence that the Khoisan people carry high frequencies of the earliest haplogroup branches in the human mitochondrial DNA tree. The most divergent (oldest) mitochondrial haplogroup, L0d, has been identified at its highest frequencies in the southern African Khoi and San groups.[16][19][20][21] The distinctiveness of the Khoisan in both matrilineal and patrilineal groupings is a further indicator that they represent a population historically distinct from other Africans.

In modern South Africa and Namibia, a large share of the Cape Coloureds, Xhosa and Tswana are of partial Khoisan descent, by far outnumbering the unassimilated Khoisan population in these countries.

Code of ethicsEdit

The San people are the first indigenous African people to issue a code of conduct for research. The code, published on 3 March 2017, requires researchers to submit their research proposals to the San council for approval. The research, along with any visual material, needs to be consented to by the community. The code does not aim at restricting research but for the research to be done in an ethical manner. Benefits of any studies on the Khoisan people should also benefit the studied community, which does not exclude money. Other ways which the Khoisan community could potentially benefit include opportunities for co-research, training and employment as translators and research assistants. If any ethical violations are found, the researcher will be blacklisted from working with the San. This new code of ethics does not have any legal standing. The motivation for its creation includes preventing the use of insulting language such as 'Bushmen', the use of jargon, and the lack of consent from community members as to how the community is represented. Researches have admitted to making several mistakes in their publications and that the communities do not often gain any benefits from the extensive research conducted.[22][23]


The resistance of the Khoisan towards the Dutch in the seventeenth and eighteenth century is often oversimplified. The notion that the Khoisan people handed over their land to the Dutch is often challenged. The so-called 'Bushman wars' were to a large extent the response of the Khoisan after their dispossession. It is also noted that the Khoisan readily interacted with Bantu and Dutch intruders and this, combined with their loose social organisation and small population, led to a reduction of Khoisan ethnicity. However, the response of resistance was far more complex than that of other colonized people. At the start of the 18th century, the Khoisan in the Western Cape lived in a co-operative state with the Dutch. However, by the end of the century the majority of the Khoisan operated as 'wage laborers', not that dissimilar to slaves. Geographically, the further away the laborer was from Cape Town, the more difficult it became to transport agricultural produce to the markets. The issuing of grazing licenses north of the Berg River in what was then the Tulbagh Basin propelled colonial expansion in the area. This system of land relocation led to the Khoisan losing their land and livestock as well as dramatic change in the social, economic and political development of the Khoisan people. It is important to note that experiences of colonialism and resistance differed between the Khoisan people due to factors such as climate, proximity to markets, land laws and the time in history.[24]


Khoisan woman


Art remains relevant to issues of identity and representation. San art, which has been created with intense political intent, has awakened the San politically. Western collectors of art often interpret and classify San Art as ‘primitive art’ which creates a challenge in changing the stereotypes linked to San Art.[25] In beadmaking Ju|’hoan jewellery shows that the main expression of San self-made jewellery is found in the manner in which it is worn rather than the patterns of design.[26]


Nama StapEdit

The Nama Stap Dance is a Nama-Khoisan dance based in identity, indigenous knowledge and culture. It suggests cultural and social immersion filled with artistic/symbolic signs. It is a lively dance which is passed down from generation to generation and expresses the essence of social interaction and a Nama-Khoisan livelihood. The social level of interaction, style and movement patterns in the Nama Stap Dance symbolises the social relationships between individuals and groups. The Nama Stap Dance consists of movements which are seen as warm, welcoming and hospitable, which further relates to the African principle of Ubuntu. It is believed that the dance culture among the youth has grown.[27] [28][29]

Khoisan land titleEdit

The Khoisan people were among many who were dispossessed by colonial and other authorities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Following the end of apartheid, the South African government allowed Khoisan families (up until 1998) to pursue land claims which existed prior to 1913. The South African Deputy Chief Land Claims Commissioner, Thami Mdontswa, has said that constitutional reform would be required to enable Khoisan people to pursue further claims to land from which their direct ancestors were removed prior to 9 June 1913.[30] The 'Khoisan Revival' is a new surge of people identifying as Khoisan and asserting their indigenous rights. The activism surrounding the claiming of land that the Khoisan lost pre-1913 is not only about reclaiming of physical and economic spaces but it seen to give current members of this community a platform to express grievances over their coloured identity, history and healing.[31]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Parkinson, Christian (2016-06-14). "The first South Africans fight for their rights". BBC News. Most [Khoisan people] now speak Afrikaans as their first language. 
  2. ^ Barnard, Alan (1992) Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa: A Comparative Ethnography of the Khoisan Peoples. New York; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  3. ^ Many of the San also call themselves Khoi, which just means "person" in the Khoi languages.
  4. ^ Lee, Richard B. (1976), Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Khoi San and Their Neighbors, Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  5. ^ Diamond, 396.
  6. ^ Diamond, 394–7.
  7. ^ Kim, Hie Lim; Ratan, Aakrosh; Perry, George H.; Montenegro, Alvaro; Miller, Webb; Schuster, Stephan C. (4 December 2014). "Khoisan hunter-gatherers have been the largest population throughout most of modern-human demographic history". Nature Communications. Nature Publishing Group. 5: 5692. doi:10.1038/ncomms6692. PMC 4268704 . PMID 25471224. 
  8. ^ Science, December 4, 2014
  9. ^ Diamond, 384
  10. ^ Diamond, 384–6.
  11. ^ Charles Darwin (1882). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray. p. 578. 
  12. ^ "Dwindling African tribe may have been most populous group on planet". 
  13. ^ Schuster, SC; et al. (2010). "Complete Khoisan and Bantu genomes from southern Africa". Nature. 463: 943–947. doi:10.1038/nature08795. PMC 3890430 . PMID 20164927. 
  14. ^ Mayell, Hillary (December 2002). "Documentary Redraws Humans' Family Tree". National Geographic. 
  15. ^ Schoofs, Mark (April 4, 2000). "Fossils in the Blood". The Body. 
  16. ^ a b Knight, Alec; Underhill, Peter A.; Mortensen, Holly M.; Zhivotovsky, Lev A.; Lin, Alice A.; Henn, Brenna M.; Louis, Dorothy; Ruhlen, Merritt; Mountain, Joanna L. (2003). "African Y chromosome and mtDNA divergence provides insight into the history of click languages". Current Biology. 13 (6): 464–73. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00130-1. PMID 12646128. 
  17. ^ Hammer MF, Karafet TM, Redd AJ, Jarjanazi H, Santachiara-Benerecetti S, Soodyall H, Zegura SL (2001). "Hierarchical patterns of global human Y-chromosome diversity". Molecular Biology and Evolution. 18 (7): 1189–203. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.molbev.a003906. PMID 11420360. 
  18. ^ Naidoo T, Schlebusch CM, Makkan H, Patel P, Mahabeer R, Erasmus JC, Soodyall H (2010). "Development of a single base extension method to resolve Y chromosome haplogroups in sub-Saharan African populations". Investigative Genetics. 1 (1): 6. doi:10.1186/2041-2223-1-6. PMC 2988483 . PMID 21092339. 
  19. ^ Chen YS, Olckers A, Schurr TG, Kogelnik AM, Huoponen K, Wallace DC (2000). "mtDNA variation in the South African Kung and Khwe, and their genetic relationships to other African populations". The American Journal of Human Genetics. 66 (4): 1362–83. doi:10.1086/302848. PMC 1288201 . PMID 10739760. 
  20. ^ Tishkoff, SA; Gonder, MK; Henn, BM; Mortensen, H; Knight, A; Gignoux, C; Fernandopulle, N; Lema, G; et al. (2007). "History of click-speaking populations of Africa inferred from mtDNA and Y chromosome genetic variation" (PDF). Molecular Biology and Evolution. 24 (10): 2180–95. doi:10.1093/molbev/msm155. PMID 17656633. 
  21. ^ Schlebusch CM, Naidoo T, Soodyall H (2009). "SNaPshot minisequencing to resolve mitochondrial macro-haplogroups found in Africa". Electrophoresis. 30 (21): 3657–64. doi:10.1002/elps.200900197. PMID 19810027. 
  22. ^ Linda Nordling. Science. March 17, 2017. San people of Africa draft code of ethics for researchers.
  23. ^ Jason Daley. March 23, 2017.The San People of South Africa Issue Code of Ethics for Researchers. 19 June 2017
  24. ^ Wilmot Godfrey James, Mary Simons.Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey.Class, Caste, and Color: A Social and Economic History of the South African Western Cape. Page 1-10.
  25. ^ M, Guenther. Canadian Anthropology Society. Anthropologica. Contemporary Bushman Art, Identity Politics and the Primitivism Discourse. Vol.45, No. 1(2003)p95-110.
  26. ^ A de Voogt, S Ying Ng. Sage Publications. Journal of Material Culture. Individual expression, cultural specificity and production bias in Ju|’hoan jewelry-making. May 18, 2017.
  27. ^ MM van Wyk. The Namastap as Indigenous Identity and Cultural Knowledge. J Hum Ecol, 48(1): 181-188(2014)
  28. ^ Khoisan Resistance to the Dutch in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries Cambridge University Press.Shula Marks The Journal of African History Vol. 13, No. 1 (1972), pp. 55-80.
  29. ^ Khoisan Resistance to the Dutch in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries Cambridge University Press.Shula Marks The Journal of African History Vol. 13, No. 1 (1972), pp. 55-80.
  30. ^ Mercedes Besent. "SABC News - Possible constitution changes for Khoisan land claims:Wednesday 16 October 2013". 
  31. ^ land- Anthropology Southern Africa Claiming Cape Town: towards a symbolic interpretation of Khoisan activism and land claims.Volume 39, 2016 - Issue R. Verbuyst. Pages 83-96 | Published online: 10 Jun 2016


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