The Khoisan people live in the Northern Cape of South Africa and are said to have descended from two different tribes. The tribe is made up of the San and Khoikhoi, who were both hunters and gatherers. The term Khoisan is mostly used by anthropologists to differentiate the original people of southern Africa from their black African farming neighbors because the Khoisan was known to be hunters and gatherers. San hunters and gatherers lived in Northern Cape Town from early as 100,000 years ago missionaries and Europeans arrived in South Africa. The Khoikhoi people came to South Africa around 2,000 years ago and intermarried with the san, seeing that they shared most attributes such as physical appearance. The only thing that differed was there cultures. The Khoikhoi gave the other tribe the name "San", which means people who are "different from ourselves".
The San was mostly concerned with hunting small animals like antelopes as a way of living. They used crude weapons such as bows and arrows smeared with poison in order to make their hunting easier. The KhoiKhoi were mainly pastoralists and introduced pastoralist farming to the San. Having sheep, goats and cattle contributed to a balanced diet within the family. Unlike the San people, who did not live in a hierarchical society, the Khoikhoi had a complex social structure that was headed by religious and political leaders. These two cultures would later merge and become known as the Khoisan people (Barnard, 1992).
Experts point out that it is a sad story whereby the two tribes that define the cultures of South Africa are almost disappearing. The Khoisan are part of the South Africa traditional past and are also part of its future hence should be treated well. Most of them are being assimilated into the local population and the fact that the government does not track their population is not helping matters (Guldemann & Fehn, 2014). The differentiated clicks of the Khoisan language, once found nowhere else in Africa, have been assimilated into different speeches such as the Zulu and Xhosa (Harman, 2012).
Beyond the sphere of daily duties and chores, the Khoisan traditions and ways of life included sniffing makaranga tobacco. This is a type of tobacco that is made by mixing honey from the wild, dried after making it into a paste like substance. In Namaqualand traditions include distinct dress and music adapted from their heritage and early Boer influences.
Many Khoikhoi inhabitants were enslaved around Cape Town in the 17th century and as a result of poor working conditions many of them died from diseases such as small pox. Others were Khoisan inhabitants were absorbed into the dominant societies in cities and urban centres around them. Laborers like Europeans and Africans assimilated with the Khoisan hence contributing to their disappearance. This is the main reason why the population of the Khoisan is slowly disappearing because it is being absorbed cultures around them such as cities and urban centres.
The Khoisan languages family is the smallest of the languages families of southern Africa. The name Khoisan is derived from the name of the Khoi-Khoi group of people of South Africa and the San also called Bushmen group, which also inhabited most parts of Namibia and South Africa. The Khoisan language is said to be a mixture of two languages, the Khoikhoi and the san, who mixed to form the Khoisan (Kilian-Hatz, 2008). The cultures of the two tribes differ greatly, but were able to live together peacefully hence anthropologists began referring to them as the Khoisan. As the time has gone by, the Khoisan languages are disappearing as they are being assimilated to other languages and linguistic experts have pointed out that the languages could disappear within a few years to come.
The Khoisan languages are said to be unique in the African region and is mainly found in the southern parts of Africa. The term Khoisan language is derived from two words; khoekhoe meaning a person and san meaning a bush person or a bush dweller. The words are taken from Nama, one of the languages of the Khoisan. Experts use Nama words when describing the lives of the Khoisan as a group of languages. The studies of the Khoisan languages centre on the economic, physical, social and linguistic characteristic of the group as a family of languages. Linguistic experts encounter different languages when studying the Khoisan mainly because they live in forests or in the Kalahari Desert. World animals hinder researchers from villages in the deepest forests hence accessing reliable data has been a challenge. Contacting research in the Kalahari Desert is also tricky because of the harsh climatic conditions that exist there. Researchers suffer from dehydration and attacks from wild animals making the process hard (Guldemann & Fehn, 2014).
The Khoisan are distinguished from other south African languages by their extensive use of the click consonants, a characteristic that is also evident in other languages in Africa such as Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho that reside in south Africa, yei and mbukushu of Botswana, and dahalo of Kenya. The characteristic of using clicks is most especially found in African languages with the exception of the Damin of Australia. The languages of the Khoisan are however said to be original as compared to those others (Schladt, 1998).
The only Khoisan speaking people remaining are believed to be the san that lives in the Kalahari Desert region, Northern Cape Town and North West province in South Africa. All original Khoisan speakers are believed to have disappeared in the 1990s. The different governments of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia have always argued that they do not have accurate numbers of the tribe.
Economic, political and social practices of the Khoisan
Before they intermarried, the khokhoi and san had different economic activities characterized by where they lived. The Khoikhoi were pastoralists specializing in herding animals across the vast Kalahari Desert into South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. The san were hunters and gathers who occupied the coastal areas of the south west mostly in the 17th century. The san tribesmen were organized into societies called villages, which included fewer than fifty people. Each village was responsible for its own food and water. The economy of the san was characterized by the effective use of the environment that they lived in. their diet included a combined meal of birds, animals, plants and other types of food such as fish. The lives of the San were mainly centered on egalitarian values, whereby they recognized few leadership roles. The only leadership role available was that of spiritual leader or the diviner (Harman, 2012).
The lives of the Khoikhoi were similar to those of the San but they practiced pastoralism by keeping livestock- cattle, goats and sheep. The smallest political unit was the family, headed by the father or the oldest male. The Khoikhoi traveled long distances looking for water and pasture for their animals. During the initial interaction between the Khoikhoi and the San, the two groups differed in how they practiced their economic activities. The San practiced hunting and gathering with the Khoikhoi taking care of animals (Penn, 2005).
Barnard, A. (1992). Hunters and herders of southern Africa: a comparative ethnography of the Khoisan peoples. New York: Cambridge university press.
Guldemann, T., & Fehn, A.-M. (2014). Beyond Khoisan: historical relations in the Kalahari basin. Amsterdam: John Benjamins publishers.
Harman, K. (2012). Aboriginal convicts: Australian, Khoisan, and Maori exiles. Sydney: University of New South Wales.
Kilian-Hatz, C. (2008). A grammar of modern Khwe (central Khoisan) . Koln: Koppe.
Penn, N. (2005). The forgotten frontier: colonist and Khoisan on the Cape's Northern Frontier in the 18th century. Athens: Double story books.
Schladt, M. (1998). Language, identity, and conceptualization among the Khoisan. Koln: Koppe.
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