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August 2002



Where Have All The Hottentots Gone? The Archaeology And History Of The Khoekhoen

Professor Andrew B Smith, Department of Archaeology, 
University of Cape Town

The name 'Hottentot', or its Afrikaans shortening 'Hotnot', became a disparaging term for people of colour at the Cape. Today we refer to the aboriginal herders of the Cape by the name they would have called themselves: Khoekhoen ='people people' or 'real people' (non-gender specific plural). This name would have been in contrast to hunters known as Soaqua = Sonqua or San-qua who had no domestic animals and lived off bush foods (wild game animals and plants). These Bushmen or San were looked down upon by the herders whose stock made them so rich they could afford to coat themselves in a mixture of butter fat and red ochre, which made them gleam like a well-fed brown cow, and gave them status. We will look at discussions about where these people may have originated, what happened to them as a result of the colonial experience at the Cape, and conclude with where their descendants are today.

Origins of Khoekhoen

There is some debate on where the Khoekhoen came from. In archaeological terms, the earliest herders in Southern Africa introduced sheep and pottery. Some archaeologists and linguists believe that the Khoisan (people who spoke a click language and are genetically related to the Bushmen of Southern Africa) lived much further north towards East Africa (Zambia, Tanzania) than they have been found historically (Kalahari, Caprivi, Southern Zimbabwe, South Africa). The argument on this side of the debate would say that Nilotic herdsmen found archaeologically on the border between Kenya and Tanzania were the prototype pottery makers for the early ceramics in Southern Africa. The linguists would argue that these were Nilotic language speakers, and that they were immediate neighbours of another language group known as East Saheliens. The East Sahelian groups were in turn the source of loan words, such as 'ewe', 'ram', 'grains' and 'porridge' into Khoisan languages, particularly Khwe, the language family of the Khoekhoen.

By 2000 years ago this early spouted pottery , known as Bambata, was widespread across Southern Africa from Northern Namibia to Limpopo Province of South Africa. Pottery and sheep moved rapidly southwards into the Vaal/Orange drainage, from whence they dispersed to the Western and Southern Cape, where the Khoekhoen were found historically by the first European travellers in the 15th century AD. Hunters, who were already living at the Cape speaking a /Xam language, lived alongside the herders who spoke a mutually unintelligible Khoe language (Nama, etc). The most prominent herder site is Kasteelberg which was occupied from about 1600-800 years ago. These people had large flocks of sheep, although a few cattle bones have also been found in levels dating to around 1000 years ago.

Small numbers of sheep bones have been found in earlier hunter sites, such as Die Kelders and Blombos (on the south coast), Witklip (near Vredenberg) and Spoegrivier (Namaqualand) as early as 2000 years ago. The assumption is that there were herders around at this time from whom the sheep came.

This model of pastoral expansion recognises that people who move camp frequently leave few material remains behind, often making them 'invisible' in the archaeological record. A good example of this is the historical information we have on the Khoekhoen at the Cape. We have been unable to find any sites with large numbers of cattle bones from the early colonial period, except from colonial sites, such as the Fort in Cape Town. Kasteelberg thus becomes an important window into early pastoral presence in the Cape, and would have appeared to be an aggregation site, where people came together for a short period during the rainy season to celebrate marriages, births, and other important ritual activities. The fact that they repeated re-occupied the site has made them 'visible'.

Map showing expansion of sheep and ceramicsThe alternative view of the introduction of herding to the Cape does not accept 'invisibility' of pastoralists as a predictive model. Instead, proponents would argue that sheep and pottery were taken up by hunters in the Cape 2000 years ago, and they then adopted herding as their lifestyle. This model also assumes that there was little difference between hunters and herders: when a herder lost stock, through theft, drought, etc. he could always fall back on hunting, and later when he had recouped his losses, would once more become a herder.

Although recent work at Kasteelberg shows contemporaneous hunter sites on the kopje close to herder sites, and perhaps fewer distinctions than considered previously, nonetheless there still remain considerable differences. Perhaps the greatest of these is in the size of ostrich eggshell beads. Hunters made tiny beads (less than 5mm) while herders made them much larger (greater than 5 mm). The herders also focused on collecting seals from the coast 4 km away and bringing them up onto the sites as a source of fat. If the hunters used seals at all, they left their bones down on the beach.

Khoekhoen in History

This debate on Khoe origins means we are still somewhat unsure about Khoe antecedents. Historically, their cattle herds were the prime focus for provisioning of East Indiamen by the Dutch, and so the reason for setting up the station at Table Bay.

Khoekhoen quickly realised that the Dutch were not like previous visitors, and were setting a more permanent presence when they started building the Fort in 1652. The Khoekhoen fought two wars with the Dutch, and, had they persisted, they probably would have pushed them back into the sea. Unfortunately, they treated the Dutch like other Khoekhoen, and just stole their cattle, thinking that this would undermine their economy. They had no way of knowing the power behind the mercantile capital backing the Dutch up in Holland.

The Khoekhoen in the Southwestern Cape lost their grazing lands and slowly their herds were stolen by colonists and brigands taking advantage of instability. In 1713 a smallpox epidemic massively affected the Khoe at a time when the herds were taking strain from drought conditions and stock diseases. The Khoe around Table Bay never recovered from this. There were other instances of Khoe resistance to colonial repression in the 18th and 19th centuries, and attempts to maintain their cultural separation from the colony, but ultimately these also proved ineffectual. Many fled the colony to become refugees up-country, others became farm workers for the colonists, and intermarried with slaves

This is the basis for the 'Cape Coloured' population, as the people were known under apartheid. Khoe descendants were unwilling to admit their lineage, as Khoekhoen were considered 'primitive' or 'uncivilised'. A revival of interest in their own history was sparked in the 1980s and 90s among the people of Namaqualand who won a court case to prevent their common lands being broken up and falling into individual hands. They were also successful in negotiating grazing rights with Parks Board when the Richtersveld National Park was proposed. This new-found power and identity resulted in 'Nama' (both language and culture) having a cachet that was previously downplayed. Equally, the Griqua National Council has been pushing for Khoe recognition by the ANC-controlled government. No click language has been given status as an official language in South Africa (although Nama is recognised in Namibia). In land claims and restitution most Khoe descendants have been left behind because loss of land occurred before the cut-off date of 1913. This, however, has not stopped the people of the Richtersveld pushing their claim for compensation from the government-owned Alexcor Diamond mine (similar to what they receive from TransHex mining on the Orange River). So far the government has won the court battle, but the Khoe descendants may yet be able to establish their aboriginal title (as native people have done in Canada, Australia and NewZealand).

Article by: Professor Andrew B Smith, Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa.

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