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The Khoisan

The term "Khoisan" refers to a groups of liguistically and ethnically related groups who constitute the oldest indigenous peoples in the Southern African region.  Their languages, characterized by "click" sounds not found elsewhere in Africa, have almost disappeared from South Africa in the 1990s. All remaining Khoisan speakers are believed to be San, living in the Kalahari Desert region in the Northern Cape and North-West Province. The use of the name "San" to describe these peoples is a complex issue.  The term originally derived from their close relatives, the Khoikhoi (see below), and had highly derogatory connotations.  Responses among these peoples as to how to refer to them collectively varies, since they have no collective term in their own language.  Some prefer the old European term "Bushman" (itself loaded with negative connotations), while some have generally accepted the name San despite its original negative meaning.  As for the numbers of peoples remaining today, the government has no accurate count, although it is generally believed that larger numbers of San live in Botswana and Namibia.

The closely related Khoikhoi, who were living in coastal areas of the southwest in the seventeenth century, have been entirely destroyed or assimilated into other cultures. No Khoikhoi peoples remain in South Africa in the 1990s, although many so-called coloureds and others can trace their ancestry through Khoikhoi and other lines of descent.

The San hunters and gatherers who occupied southern Africa for several thousand years organized their society into small kinship-based villages, often including fewer than fifty people. The San economy developed out of the efficient use of the environment; their diet included a wide array of birds, animals, plants, and, among coastal populations, fish and shellfish. The San espoused generally egalitarian values and recognized few leadership roles, except that of religious specialist, or diviner. The culture of the Khoikhoi was similar to that of the San, but the Khoikhoi acquired livestock--mainly cattle and sheep--probably from Bantu speakers who moved into the area from the north.  These peoples are also well know as the authors of famous paintings on cave walls in much of South Africa, depicting scenes of the hunt and other aspects of daily life. 

Some South Africans of mixed-race descent and Khoikhoi residents of Namibia have preserved Khoikhoi oral histories that tell of a time when their ancestors quarreled and split apart. Ancestors of the Namaqua (Nama) moved to the Atlantic Ocean coastline and south toward the Cape of Good Hope; other Khoikhoi moved toward the Kalahari and the Namib deserts and farther north. Seventeenth-century European immigrants enslaved hundreds of Khoikhoi around Cape Town, and many died in smallpox epidemics that swept southern Africa in 1713 and 1755. Others were absorbed into the dominant societies around them, both African and European, and into the populations of laborers who were brought from Malaya, China, and from other regions of Africa.

SOURCES: The World Factbook, U.S. Department of State, Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress

About other South African Languages and Cultures:
Introduction to South African Languages  •  The Sotho (Pedi, Sotho, Tswana)  •  Tsonga, Shangaan and Venda  •  The Nguni(Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, Ndebele)  •  Afrikaners, English Speakers, and Indians  •  The Khoisan


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