Reconstructing the Past - the Khoikhoi
What did they do?
The Khoisan pages
An educational information resource
Provided by the Future Perfect Corporation

When South Africa was discovered in 1652, the Dutch met Khoikhoi who were dressed, as this man is, with a cow-hide draped over one arm. The ivory arm ring was not just ornamental, but was used to ward off kierie blows when fighting. (Artist Unknown, early 1700's, SA Library)
It is probable that the Khoikhoi were people derived from the aboriginal hunters of southern Africa - most probably, on linguistic grounds, those hunters who lived in northern Botswana. It was in this area that they changed their economy and became herders. In so doing, they would have had to make significant changes to their social organisation - initially as low-class members of a hierarchical agricultural society, and later as independent herders in their own right.

Many questions still remain unanswered though - were the herders found at the Cape by early travellers from Europe, immigrants from elsewhere? or were they hunting people who had obtainted domestic animals, and if so, how did this stock get to the Cape? It would seem that sheep were the earliest domestic animals. Richard Elphick, an historian, has suggested that the difference between Khoikhoi and Soaqua was only one of fortune. He believes that the Khoikhoi economy was fragile since they could easily lose their stock through theft, disease or drought. They would then have to fall back on hunting to survive and on raiding cattle from other herding groups in order to recoup their losses. He suggested a cyclical model: when a family had domestic animals they would see themselves as Khoikhoi, but when they lost their stock and had to revert to living off veldkos (food from the bush), they were seen by stock owners as Soaqua, a reduction in class status.

The relationship between the two economies was not always peaceable - the San stole from the Khoikhoi herds. Yet on the other hand, there were amicable relations set up when the San worked as clients for the herders.

Excavations at Kasteelberg illustrate the changing herd structure of the domestic stock. In the early levels only sheep bones are found, but some time before 1 300 years ago cattle were introduced to the site. As cattle require large amounts of grazing, the herders would have had to move their cattle inland annually because of the lack of summer rainfall. As finding water and pasture is vital, the social organisation was centered around this - most of the active population would move around for most of the year, but old people and women with young children would remain in one place with a few milch cows. They would find local food such as marine shellfish or underground plant foods. They might not see the main herds for several weeks, depending on the season.

The Khoikhoi
Reconstructing the Past
Where did they come from?
What did they do?
Social Organisation
Stock Ownership and Management
Religion and Nature
Further reading
The reference books used for the development of this site are recommended reading of the University of Cape Town and may be purchased online at Discovering Southern African Rock Art, The Bushmen of Southern Africa, Once We Were Hunters, The Cape Herders.
About this page
Where did it come from?
Developed by: Alan Levin
Edited by: Carolyn Neville
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