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Pre-Colonial cultures in South Africa

The San and Khoikhoi

By Alistair Boddy-Evans, About.com

For several millennia the San lived in peaceful isolation in what is now South Africa – until two thousand years ago when the first of several waves of colonists swept into South Africa. Each time a new wave arrived the existing populations were marginalized. In the first of these waves, the pastoralist Khoikhoi moved down into the western and southern coastal regions – pushing the hunter-gatherer San inland.

Who were the San
Of all the peoples of South Africa, only the San are truly indigenous – and they have been displaced and victimized by each successive wave of immigrants. Today there are but a few remnants of this once proud people in South Africa (and Botswana), and inevitably theirs is the voice least heard by government.

The San were hunter-gatherers. Living in highly mobile groups of between 20 and 50, either following the game around the country – and living in close rhythm with the land and its seasons – or maintaining a more settled life along the coastal regions – and depending on seals, shellfish, crayfish, birds and the occasional beached whale, for food.

The San have left a lasting record of their life through thousands of paintings – rock art. Though more closely related to their cultural and spiritual life, many of the paintings give a San perspective on those who came into their land and displaced them. In particular only those paintings found along the west coast of South Africa show sheep, as tended by the pastoralist Khoikhoi, whilst over on the east side of South Africa, at various locations along the base of the Drakensberg mountain range, are a painting of a Renaissance era sailing ship, horse-drawn wagons, and images of San being hunted by rifle-toting horse-riders (potentially either Xhosa or European).

Who were the Khoikhoi
The Khoikhoi were the first pastoralists to make their way into what is now South Africa, having originated in the northern and eastern regions of what is now Botswana. It is likely that the Khoikhoi developed their pastoral culture approximately 2000 years ago through contact with migrating Bantu tribes from further north (who were traveling down through Africa with domesticated herds of cattle, sheep, and goats).

Model for the origins of the Khoikhoi
approx 1800–2000 years before present

Archaeological evidence shows that the Khoikhoi entered South Africa from Botswana through two distinct routes – traveling west, skirting the Kalahari to the west coast and thence down towards the Cape, and traveling south-east out into the Highveld and then southwards to the south coast. Differences in geographical resources and archaeological finds suggest that it was only those traveling west who took sheep with them – they were more able to withstand the harsh conditions of land bordering the Kalahari, whereas the Highveld was capable of supporting larger herds of cattle. The west coast is also the only region where San rock art depicts sheep.

Inevitably the Khoikhoi and San competed for land – as grazing herds increased, especially on the more marginal lands, the pastoralist Khoikhoi took the upper hand – having a more consistent food source, a centralized and stable community, and much lager numbers. Bands of San were occasionally incorporated into the Khoikhoi society – but only as clients (working land 'owned' by the Khoikhoi and receiving limited payment in terms of cattle or sheep) or as servants (again working for the Khoikhoi but without the option of owning land or animals). Conflict with those San who remained as hunter-gathers resulted in their indiscriminate 'culling' (a method also later employed by the Bantu peoples and Europeans) or by their being driven into more inhospitable lands. Either way, the San were seen as low-status people compared to the Khoikhoi.

The more consistent food supply provided by herds of sheep and cattle allowed larger communities of Khoikhoi to settle into areas with rich pastures, or to nomadically move with the herds in search of fresh grazing in more marginal areas. Khoikhoi at the coast also took advantage of the abundance of sea food.

Principal references:

The Cape Herders: A History of the Khoikhoi of Southern Africa by Emile Boonzaier et al., Ohio Iniversity Press, 1996, ISBN 0821411748.

The Changing Past: Farmers, Kings, and Traders in southern Africa 200–1860 by Martin Hall, James Currey Ltd., 1987, ISBN 0852550294.

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