Khoikhoi and Kwadi Adopt Pastoral Lifestyle Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Deviating from the San hunter-gatherers of southern Africa, the Khoikhoi and Kwadi peoples realized the economic potential of pastoralism and began herding sheep and cattle.

Summary of Event

Khoisan (Khwe) herders entered southern Africa in approximately 300 b.c.e., replacing the hunter-gatherer San peoples who had inhabited the area since the early first millennium b.c.e. Given the nature of the communities known as Khoisan (the name that denotes this group as one of both herders and hunter-gatherers), it is difficult to pinpoint either their exact date of arrival in the region or their specific place of origin. This is important to note because experts have repeatedly issued the caveat that too closely defining the boundaries of hunter-gathering and herding societies would be counterproductive in the effort to uncover their pasts. As there were no livestock known to have originated in southern Africa, a fundamental question is how the Khwe people and their herds came to the region. Historians traditionally believed that modern Khoisan pastoralists, namely the Khoikhoi of South Africa and the Kwadi people of Namibia, originated in northeastern Africa and traveled southward until reaching the Cape. In recent times, however, expert opinion has swung to the hypothesis that the herding people of southern Africa came from the eastern Sahelian region, in present-day Botswana and Zambia.

During the third and fourth centuries b.c.e., when the Khoisan herders came to inhabit regions previously occupied by hunter-gatherer groups, these newcomers brought with them much more than livestock. The introduction of domestic animals to southern Africa had a significant impact on life in the region. For example, while the hunter-gatherers were able to sustain themselves on very little land, the pastoralists required vast amounts of terrain to graze their livestock; weather and the seasons dictated the migration of the Khoisan herders. The pastoralists spent the summer months near the coast and then traveled inland to allow their livestock to graze on the fertile grasslands along the mountain rivers. These societies even transplanted their more permanent homes from season to season by placing them on the backs of their oxen and traveling between the inland settlements and the coast. This practice was very different from that of the hunter-gatherer societies that lived in small clans and could stay in one place for a relatively long period of time.

Despite the need for seasonal migration, herding livestock was very successful economically. True entrepreneurs, the Khoikhoi and the Kwadi realized the advantages of combining herding with hunting and gathering, and as a result their populations grew nearly four times as large as the earlier inhabitants. Because of their versatility and success in the region, the Khoisan were able to spread into Namibia and into South Africa as far as the Cape. Instead of small, family-sized clans, the Khoisan settled in larger patriclans; these larger communal societies were able to split and spread, leaving many groups of related community members around the region. Also, unlike purely hunter-gatherer societies that often experienced the hardships of drought and lack of game, the Khoisan peoples were able to supplement their diets with milk and the meat from their livestock when necessary. As scholar Christopher Ehret explains in The Civilizations of Africa (2002):

Each cultural spread was as much of an economic frontier as of people. As often as not, the new economy would have advanced because the people ahead of the economic frontier saw the advantages of the new mixed hunting and herding adaptation, accepted it, and made it their own.

As Ehret suggests, when this frontier expanded, the Khoisan inevitably encountered the hunter-gatherer societies and in many cases welcomed newcomers into their clans; their interactions with the hunters were influential and resulted in intermixing rather than confrontation or hostility. Yet with this new economy came a new way of life for much of the region. Cattle became the livelihood of these societies and the introduction of ownership and wealth changed the character of society. There was now a hierarchy that often placed hunters at the bottom of the social order and patriarchs with an abundance of cattle at the top. Also, the split-and-spread method of the herder clans led to a less cohesive community and to lineages that became more difficult to trace over time.


Pastoralism, perhaps one of the most significant methods of livelihood in southern Africa, has been a topic of contention and historical inquiry for centuries. Socially and economically, the herders of southern Africa played a pivotal role in the growth and change of the region. History has recognized the Khoisan peoples’ adoption of sheep and cattle herding not only as socially important but also as economically progressive. The level of sophistication and social effects that herding brought to southern Africa through the Khoikhoi and Kwadi peoples is an important subject of study because it changed the way many inhabitants of the region came to structure their society. Social order, wealth, and acquisition became the economic drive of society.

In addition, pastoralism has survived nearly thirty centuries. To this day, cattle herding is a mainstay in many regions of southern Africa, including the better part of South Africa as well as northern Namibia. The fact that pastoralism has been so successful and fundamental to the changing societies of southern Africa has prompted years of historical research on the region. Unfortunately, a lack of archaeological evidence, combined with large migration and cultural mixing, have made study of the Kwadi (more so than study of the Khoikhoi of the southern Cape) arduous. Because the introduction and spread of pastoral peoples occurred in the prehistoric era of the region, historians have had to call on various means of research and have come to a number of contentious conclusions about the origins of these cultures.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 b.c. to a.d. 400. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. A comprehensive study of social, agricultural, and cultural history of South and East Africa that traces the development of many cultures historically and linguistically.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002. A general history of the continent from prehistory to 1800.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elphick, Richard. Krall and Castle: Khoikhoi and the Founding of White South Africa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977. An extensive study of the Khoikhoi peoples from the time of their arrival in southern Africa through much of the colonial era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mokhtar, G., ed. Ancient Civilizations of Africa. Vol. 2 in General History of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. A comprehensive study of societies from all regions of the continent during prehistory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reader, John. Africa: A Biography of the Continent. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. A textbook on Africa from before the common era to colonial times. References the colonial era as a tool for examining diverse perspectives on early inhabitants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vogel, Joseph O., ed. Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa: Archaeology, History, Languages, Cultures, and Environments. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1997. A key resource on the archaeology and anthropology of Africa, with more than one hundred signed essays accompanied by bibliographies, maps, illustrations, and charts.

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