Reconstructing the Past - the Khoikhoi
The Khoisan pages
An educational information resource
Provided by the Future Perfect Corporation

The central theme of almost all Khoikhoi ritual was the idea of transformation, or transition from one state to another. Most rituals marked the critical periods of change in a person's life - birth, puberty, adulthood, marriage and death. The transition rites formed part of the social process.

The ritual and festive activity which took place when a child was born often recurred in other Khoikhoi rituals. Prior to delivery, the mother to be was taken to a hut where she remained for at least seven days after delivery. Both she and the child were seen to be vulnerable and so certain avoidances were practised. No men were allowed to enter the hut, the mother and baby had to avoid inessential contact with water. For the first three months, the child was fed on goats or cows milk and not from the mother's milk. A special fire was also lit in the hut. After this period of seclusion, both were ceremonially reintroduced into society. Their bodies were smeared with cowdung, fat and buchu (a fragrant plant). The rituals of incorporation were accompanied by a feast in which members of the kraal and blood relations from other kraals participated.

The key elements of all Khoikhoi ceremonies involved a period of seclusion associated with vulnerability and danger. During these periods certain things, notably water, were avoided, whilst others, such as fire and buchu were associated with protection. The ceremonies also involved a clear process of reincorporation into society, but as persons with new roles.

Domestic stock seem always to have been associated with protection. During initiation ceremonies, stock were killed and the omentum, part of the animal's intestine, was hung around the neck of individuals to show that they were going through change or transition.

The rituals also reveal something about social relationships and status in Khoikhoi society. Wealthy stock-owners gained prestige by their ability to provide stock for the feasts they hosted. Marriage involved the transfer of cattle.

The emphasis on transition rituals to mark an inidividual's change in status shows clearly how important age was in defining status in Khoikhoi society. This emphasis can also be found in kinship terms used by the Khoikhoi. Specific terms were used to refer to older or younger siblings. There were also specific terms to differentiate maternal aunts who were older from those younger than the mother.

An awareness of the way in which cattle were a part of the social and political life of Khoikhoi society is crucial to understanding the differences in worldview. To the Khoikhoi, cattle were not seen as a product to be bought and sold, they had ritual and social significance far beyond monetary value. When the Khoikhoi started to trade some of their stock, a contradiction within the trading partnership with the Dutch began. Theft, coercion and non-productive exchange (livestock for alcohol, copper, beads etc) loss of stock produced a downward spiral that the Khoikhoi could not break. The breakdown of the social and economic values of the Khoikhoi went hand in hand with greater dependency, and increasing reliance by the Khoikhoi on the Dutch as mediators in disputes, and in growing Dutch interference in the raiding patterns between groups of Khoikhoi.

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
Sponsored by: Future Perfect Corporation
Special thanks to: Becky Ackermann and and David Philip Publishers
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