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ETHNONYMS: Herders of southern Africa, Khoikhoi (Khoekhoe) Hottentots, Khoisan


Identification. "Hottentot" was the collective name given to indigenous herders of southern Africa by early travelers from Europe. As herders, they were distinguishable from both the hunter-gatherer "Bushmen" (or San) and from crop farmers (Bantu-speaking people). They had no collective name for themselves, but they identified strongly with various clan names, such as "Chochoqua," "Goringhaiqua," or "Gorachoqua." Twentieth-century scholars have tended to identify a number of ethnic divisions within the Khoi that are associated with geographically and socially distinct regions: "Cape Hottentots," "Eastern Cape Hottentots" (sometimes classified together as "Cape Khoikhoi"), "Korana" (!Kora), and "Naman" (Nama).

The term "Hottentot"and especially its abbreviated version, "Hotnot"have acquired derogatory connotations, and the preferred terms "Khoi" or "Khoikhoi" (meaning "the real people") are most commonly used in the literature today.

Location. At the time that the first European settlers arrived in southern Africa (mid-seventeenth century), Khoi populations were located around the Cape of Good Hope and along and inland from the southwestern and western coastsroughly south from 22° N and west from 25° E. This whole area is a winter-rainfall region, but, whereas the southwestern parts have an annual rainfall of up to 76 centimeters per year, much of the northern and inland areas are semidesert with sparse and irregular rainfall (less than 13 centimeters per year). Archaeological evidence suggests that the Khoi had previously been more widely distributed (especially to the east), but had been displaced by the arrival of crop farmers (Bantu-speaking people) whose southward migration eventually ended around a.d. 500 on the boundary between the summer and winter rainfall regions (near present-day Port Elizabeth). European settlement at the Cape similarly resulted in the rapid displacement of Khoi populations, who were eventually forced into the most arid and remote areas. Today Khoi herders are found only in isolated reserve areas in South Africa and Namibia.

Demography. Although some historians (e.g., Stow) have estimated the total Khoi population in the mid-seventeenth century at less than 50,000, it is unlikely that their number was less than 200,000. The main reason for this lack of agreement seems to be the different definitions of the population in question. For example, some estimates excluded population north of the Orange River, while others included the Einiqua (about whom very little is known). There is widespread agreement, however, that this population was decimated during the eighteenth centuryby the smallpox epidemics, through intermarriage with other populations, and through incorporation into settler society. The 1805 Cape census recorded only 20,000 "Hottentots," but this figure included people of mixed descent and excluded significant populations that were not yet part of Cape Colony. Present population estimates are similarly hampered by the problem of definition: most descendants of the Khoi are wage laborers who have been incorporated into the broader category of "Coloured" and do not identify themselves as either "Khoi" or "Hottentot." If the term "Khoi" is used in the narrower sense, however, to refer only to those descendants of the indigenous herders who continue to practice a herding life-style on communal lands, the current population (in South Africa and Namibia) is well below 20,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. The languages spoken by the Khoi and the San (Bushmen) were part of a broad family of Khoisan languages (clearly distinguishable from the Bantu languages spoken by the neighboring agricultural Nguni and Sotho). The Khoisan languages, well-known for the prevalence of a range of different clicks, can be subdivided into Khoikhoi (Hottentot) and San (Bushmen) languages. Whereas all Khoi herders spoke one of a number of mutually understandable Khoikhoi languages, some groups of San hunters also spoke Khoikhoi languages. Khoikhoi languages have largely been replaced by Afrikaans and are rapidly disappearing in South Africa todayvery few young people, even in the reserve areas, retain more than a smattering of their traditional language. In Namibia, it is still the mother tongue of most of the few thousand remaining Khoi herders.

History and Cultural Relations

Khoi herders have lived in southwestern Africa for at least 2,000 years. Until recently, it was generally accepted that a distinct group of herder Khoi, originating in Central Africa, had migrated south with their herds of fat-tailed sheep, eventually displacing hunting populations in those areas where they chose to settle. Contemporary theories acknowledge that, given the close linguistic, cultural, and racial links between the Khoi and the San, the emergence of a herding lifestyle was more complex than this simple model would suggest.

Some San hunters were incorporated into Khoi populations, and some Khoi herders lost their stock and became hunters. It is also possible that some San populations acquired stock and thus adopted a herder life-style. Notwithstanding such fluidity, there is much evidence that Khoi and San saw themselves as being different. In particular, the Khoi viewed people without stock as inferior and despised those hunters who stole their stock. A system of clientship developed whereby individual San (commonly referred to as "Sonqua") were adopted as servants by the pastoralists.

European settlers were initially interested in the Khoi as trading partners. To provide fresh supplies to ships rounding the Cape, Europeans obtained stock through barter. Khoi were very careful of their breeding stock and did not ordinarily kill cattle for food; tensions arose as they became increasingly reluctant to part with their animals. When settlers themselves began to farm, the resultant struggle over land increased tensions and led to open conflict. Gradually, the Khoi herders were displaced from the area around the Cape and forced to retreat to more remote and arid regions. While it is true that their numbers were decimated by smallpox epidemics, many were also incorporated into settler society as domestic and farm workers. At the same time, some settlers moved away from the Cape, intermarried with Khoi women, and adopted a life close to that of the Khoi pastoralists. Their descendants became known as "Basters" (bastards)people of mixed descentwho learned to speak Dutch (later Afrikaans) and were educated in Christianity.

There was significant interaction between the remaining "pure" Khoi and the Dutch-speaking Basters; gradually, therefore, no clear division could be drawn between the two. In some instances, Khoi and Basters combined into single sociopolitical groupings.

By the turn of the twentieth century, little remained of the traditional pastoral life-style of the Khoi. In many areas, however, descendants of the Khoi had managed to retain rights to land by recognizing that missionaries could offer some protection from encroaching Dutch farmers. By 1900, numerous mission stations had been established, and these areas eventually became the reserves where seminomadic pastoralism is still practiced today.


Unlike the San, who lived in very flexible and mobile bands generally numbering fewer than 50 persons, the basic village encampment (or kraal ) of the precolonial Khoi was significantly larger, incorporating well over 100 persons (some villages included several hundred). The basic housing structure was a round hut (matjieshuis ) made of a frame of saplings that was covered with reed mats. Each village encampment consisted primarily of members of the same patrilineal clan.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Although subsistence activity was centered on the care of herds of sheep and cattle, hunting and the collection of wildplant foods were also important. In general, cattle were only slaughtered for ritual purposes, but their milk was an essential part of the diet. The Khoi used oxen to carry loads and to ride on. Fat-tailed sheep were slaughtered more regularly (their fat was highly prized), and their skins were used for clothing. Ewes were also milked.

A majority of the contemporary population in the reserves is still involved with herding (primarily of sheep and goats) on communal land. Today most of the produce is sold outside the reserves. Notwithstanding the significance of herding, wage labor outside the reserves is the major source of income.

Industrial Arts and Trade. The Khoi manufactured skins into clothing, bags, and blankets, and threaded reeds together to make sleeping mats and mats to cover their round houses. Mat houses provided very practical accommodation, especially in warmer climates. During warm days they offered a cool, relatively bright shelter, with the crevices between the reeds allowing air to circulate. During the rains, the reeds would swell as they absorbed water and therefore offer good protection against leaks. During the cold months, the inside of the house could be lined with skins to offer extra insulation against the elements. This structure also had the advantage that it could be dismantled and reerected every few months in response to the changing seasons or when grazing in the surrounding area became depleted.

The Khoi made pottery, some of which had distinctive pointed bases and handles, which could be tied to their oxen when moving, or to hut poles. They made spears with fire-hardened tips, but generally used iron tips, which they obtained from neighboring Bantu-speaking peoples or, more recently, from European ships and settlers.

Division of Labor. Women milked the cows and ewes and collected plant foods; herding and hunting activities were the preserve of men. The construction of mat houses was a task shared by men and women: men cut and planted the saplings and tied them together with leather thongs to form a frame, and women collected the reeds and manufactured the mats. With the introduction of modern dwelling structures, women have largely taken over the entire task of constructing traditional homes, and men have become responsible for the erection of modern (primarily corrugated-iron or brick) housing. Many contemporary households in the reserves have both modern and traditional structuresthe latter being reserved for cooking activities (the domain of women).

Land Tenure. In precolonial times, several clan-based villages were united into much larger units called tribes or hordes, which ranged in size from a few hundred to several thousand individuals. The most significant aspect of tribal integrity related to the various clans' unrestricted access to communal tribal land. Local clans could move around and utilize pasture, water resources, game, and wild fruit and vegetables within the tribal area (although individual clans tended to move in a regular pattern in a specific tract of tribal land). The relatively low population density prior to the arrival of Europeans meant that there was limited competition for any given piece of land, and the extent of tribal land was thus defined not so much in terms of exact boundaries as with reference to land around key water holes as well as areas with better pasture.

The communal character of land tenure has been retained in most of the contemporary reserves, and local populations have resisted government s attempts to create individual farms. Although specific plots of land are allocated to individual farmers in some of the reserves (where crop cultivation is possible), such plots are not privately owned and remain under the control of the local communities.


Kin Groups and Descent. The exogamous patrilineal clan was the basic unit of social organization. Although tribal groupings were unstable and mobile, and were not composed exclusively of clan members, the Khoi kept detailed oral genealogies of the origins of various clans and of the relationship between them. This knowledge was very important, since precedence within tribes and clans was by primogeniture.

During most of the twentieth century, descent has been used as an important indication of statushigher status being associated with "White" blood. More recently, the opposite trend has been emerging: people are keen to emphasize their Khoi history.

Kinship Terminology. Individuals were given both patrilineal clan names and "great names"names inherited by a group of brothers from their mother, or of sisters from their father. In this way, men shared their name with their maternal grandfather, and women with their maternal grandmother. These names were closely associated with the pattern of institutionalized joking and avoidance relationships between kin.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Clans were exogamous, and men from one clan thus had to seek wives in another. Given the geographical proximity of related clans, it was possible for many men to find wives within the tribe; however, marriage between members of different tribes was also common. Marriage served as a powerful social mechanism to unite members of the tribe or to link different tribes together. This bond was reinforced by the custom that the bridegroom had to spend the first few months of marriage (often until the birth of the couple's first child) living at the village of his parents-in-law. (This practice has sometimes been referred to as bride-service). Thereafter, residence was patrilocal. Marriage usually involved the transfer of cattle from the groom s family to the bride's parents. Polygyny was permitted but not very common.

Inheritance. Individual clans or tribes controlled access to land and the resources on it, but there was a clear understanding that land could not become the property of individuals. By contrast, all stock were individually owned, and a wealthy stock owner was accorded high status. Wealthier stock owners almost invariably acquired their stock through inheritance. Customary inheritance patterns varied: in some tribes, the inheritance was shared among all the children; in others, only sons inherited; in yet others, the eldest son was the only heir.

Socialization. Parents were responsible for training their children in the basic subsistence skills, following the basic sexual division of labor. Very close relationships existed between grandparents and their daughters' children, and between children and their mother's brothers. Relationships between brothers and sisters and between a father's sister and her brother's children were respectful and formal.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although precolonial village encampments generally included some members of other clans, as well as some dependents or servants (San or impoverished Khoi from other clans), patrilineal descent formed the basis of social organization.

Political Organization. Each village recognized the authority of a headman, a hereditary position passed on to the eldest son of the founding ancestor and so forth for every generation. Headmen provided leadership regarding decision making within the village (e.g., determining when and where to move), as well as acting as mediator or judge in criminal or civil disputes. Although villages enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy, several villages were united to form a horde or tribe. As with clan-based villages, tribes had a kinship base. They were composed of a number of linked clans, with the seniority of one of the clans being recognized. (In one example, five of seven clans were descended from one of five brothers, with the remaining two being offshoots of these. The clan descended from the eldest brother was the senior clan.) The head of the senior clan was acknowledged as the chief of the tribe. The tribal chief controlled access to the tribal resources, but there was a clear recognition that neither the land, nor the resources left on it, could become the property of individuals (and this included the chief). Chiefs commanded a great deal of respect through their individual ability and effort (often accumulating very large herds), but they still remained dependent on the wishes of the tribal council, a group consisting of the headmen of all the other clans. Colonial governments succeeded in coopting many leaders (chiefs or headmen) by formally recognizing their position as "captains."

Social Control. Criminal and civil disputes were handled by the chief and his council (or, in some cases, by the village headmen). More recently, however, such cases have been handled by the captain (i.e., a government appointee), by management boards in the various reserves, or by state courts.

Conflict. During precolonial times, relations between Khoi and San groups were often strained. Khoi accusations that San had stolen their livestock sometimes resulted in open warfare. The pressure on land associated with European settlement gave rise to warfare not only between Khoi and the Dutch farmers, but also between different Khoi tribes. It is generally assumed that Khoi political groupings were too small and weak to offer much resistance to the settlers (who had access to firearms and horses). The Khoi did offer significant resistance, however. Various tribes could and did unite against the common enemy, the most notable episode being the Khoikhoi War of Independence (1799-1803). Although ultimately unsuccessful, it showed that the Khoi were capable of mobilizing the support of many different tribal groupings (in this particular case, they also joined forces with Bantu-speaking Xhosa) and of presenting a united force.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Khoi have been under missionary influence for a considerable length of time, and relatively little information regarding religious beliefs is available. A range of myths that have been recorded shed some light on pre-Christian beliefs. Special significance was attached to the moon (it has been claimed that the Khoi "worshiped" the moon) and to two central good beings, Tsûi-//goab (the deity) and Haiseb or Heitsi-eibib (the folk hero). The Khoi also believed in ghosts and witches, but not in the power of ancestors; however, there is some evidence that the spirits of the dead were involved in curing rituals.

Religious Practitioners. Some individuals played a dominant role in healing or rainmaking rituals, but it would be incorrect to view them as specialist religious practitioners. There is some mention of magicians, but very little is known of the methods they employed.

Ceremonies. The central theme of virtually all Khoi ritual was the idea of transformation or transition from one status to another. Most rituals marked the critical periods of change in a person's lifebirth, puberty, adulthood, marriage, and death. In all of these rituals, the concept of !nau was central. !Nau was seen as a state of particular vulnerability and danger. The ceremonies all involved a period of seclusion associated with increased !nau. During these periods of social withdrawal, certain substances (notably water) were avoided, whereas others (such as fire or the buchi plant) were associated with protection. Of particular interest is the part played by livestocknot only in feasting associated with the rituals, but in the rituals themselves. In contrast with water, domestic stock seemed always to be associated with protection (e.g., feeding babies with the milk of cows or ewes, or the wearing of parts of a slaughtered animal, as in the case of female puberty rituals).

Medicine. Besides the healing rituals (often taking the form of trance-dancing), much use was made of the medicinal properties of various plants. All adult Khoi possessed a basic knowledge of plant usage, but certain individuals were seen to have developed higher levels of expertise. Some of this knowledge remains important today.

Death and Afterlife. Besides natural causation, death under exceptional circumstances was often attributed to the evil being //Gâuab, to ghosts, or to the violation of certain ritual avoidances. Burials took place as soon as possible after death. The Khoi did not have a well-developed conception of an afterlife, and funeral ceremonies were appropriately unelaborated.

See also San-speaking Peoples


Barnard, Allan ( 1992). Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa: a Comparative Ethnography of the Khoisan Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carstens, W. Peter (1966). The Social Structure of a Cape Coloured Reserve. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Elphick, Richard (1977). Kraal and Castle: Khoikhoi and the Founding of White South Africa. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

Engelbrecht, J. A. (1936). The Korana: An Account of Their Customs and Their History, with Texts. Cape Town: Maskew Miller.

Hoernlé, A. Winifred (1913). Richtersveld: The Land and its People. Johannesburg: Council of Education, Witwatersrand.

Marais, J. S. (1968). The Cape Coloured People: 1652-1937. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Schapera, I. (1930). The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa: Bushmen and Hottentots. London: George Routledge & Sons.

Smith, Andrew B., ed. (1995). Einigualand: Studies of the Orange River Frontier. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.

Stow, George W. (1905). The Native Races of South Africa: A History of the Intrusion of the Hottentots and Bantu into the Hunting Grounds of the Bushmen, the Aborigines of the Country. London: Swan Sonnenschein.

Wilson, Monica, and Leonard Thompson, eds. (1969). The Oxford History of South Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


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Khoi, Iran: see Khoy.

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