Khoisan Peoples Disperse Throughout Southern Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Khoisan spread from the Kalahari desert throughout southern Africa, where they adapted their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to best utilize the natural environment and became the dominant group.

Summary of Event

The Khoisan people are considered one of the oldest living peoples, tracing their origins to forty thousand years ago, like other hunter-gathering peoples such as the Australian Aborigines and the Inuit people of North America. They represent the merger of two peoples, the Khoikhoi (Khoekhoe in the Nama language), who were herders, and the San, who were hunters. As the first peoples of Africa, they have been disparaged as “primitive,” resulting in their denigration by European colonizers as “Bushmen.” The Khoisan are an essentially hunter-gatherer people who have thrived for millennia in a socio-economy that relies on harmony with nature. They continue to be hunter-gatherers, refusing to be assimilated into evolving forms of technology and modernity.

Archaeological evidence drawn from sites in the Sahara indicates that animals were domesticated around seven thousand years ago. Around 4500 b.c.e., the lakes around the Sahara dried up, compelling various peoples to migrate to different parts of the African continent. Some archaeologists believe that the ancestors of the Khoisan may have migrated to the southern and western parts of Africa from central Africa because there are words used by the Khoikhoi that are found in some central African languages. Still others suggest an Asian origin for the Khoisan.

However, some scholars dismiss these theories as Eurocentric constructions and believe the Khoisan people originated in part of southern Africa. Archaeological evidence seems to support this view. Late twentieth century findings of early human activity on rocks in the Western Cape, dating back to 100,000 years ago, suggest that human settlement of southern Africa may have been earlier than commonly thought. Remains of skeletons found in Orange Free State of Azania in South Africa and at Kabwe in Zambia confirm a history of human settlement dating back at least 10,000 years, to what is referred to as the Later Stone Age. It seems probable that there were fraternal, even kinship, ties between the San and other African peoples who lived farther north.

Based on archaeological findings such as at Klasies River and Border Cave in the Cape region of South Africa, the probable ancestors of the San and the Khoikhoi were present in southern Africa 100,000 years ago. Some scholars maintain that the San were essentially a hunter-gatherer people and the Khoikhoi were herders descended from the hunter community in Botswana about 2,000 years ago because evidence of domestic animals dating back to 1,600 years ago has been found.

The Kalahari Desert in Botswana is believed to be the original place from which the Khoisan dispersed throughout southern Africa about 7000-6000 b.c.e. Because the Kalahari is an extremely dry and arid region, small bands of Khoisan people began to migrate to other regions in search of water sources and hunting grounds. The Khoisan possessed a distinctive and intimate knowledge of the natural environment because they depended on finding water in waterless zones and on gathering wild plants for food. They collected water in ostrich eggshells and tapped underground water supplies by digging holes in the sand, inserting a reed, and sucking water through the reed with a grass filter at the bottom. Such strategies enabled the Khoisan to survive in the harshest of environmental conditions, even in their migration to diverse locations from central Botswana to places in the Khahlamba Mountains (Drakensberg) in the northern portion of Kwazulu Province in South Africa (Azania). It appears that the Khoisan opted to settle in mountainous areas thousands of years ago, before other African groups that migrated to southern Africa.

The Khoisan were skilled hunters and lived in areas in which there was abundant game. They hunted animals above and under the ground, small and large. Underground game such as the duiker, steenbok, hare, wildcat, antbear, and porcupine were hunted through traps laid in the ground or through mobile hunting, which involved the use of bows and sometimes poisoned arrows. The modern-day Khoisan believe that animals should be hunted for food and never for sport. When they use arrows, the objective is to kill rather than to wound the hunted animal so that its pain is not prolonged. Game birds were also hunted, such as guinea fowl and korhaan.

Based on the practices of the modern-day Khoisan and archaeological evidence, the Khoisan communities were collectively defined. Duties and responsibilities were shared by women and men, and food was shared by all members of the community. The Khoisan had a venerable respect for nature, including its powers and creatures. Decisions affecting the community were made in consultation with its members. Although after their subjugation by Westerners, the conditions of their existence were altered somewhat negatively, the ancient Khoisan people enjoyed nutritious diets, thriving on protein from meat and vitamins from wild plants.


As the Khoisan established themselves in southern Africa and became the dominant group, they maintained a remarkable ecological balance and harmony with the natural environment, one that marked them as true environmentalists, both in history and in the present. Their ability to survive as a people in harsh environments for forty thousand years is remarkable and a valuable resource from which much can be learned about living in harmony with nature.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bank, Andrew, ed. The Proceedings of the Khoisan Identities and Cultural Heritage Conference. Cape Town, South Africa: Institute for Historical Research in conjunction with Infosource, 1998. A collection of papers written by Khoisan people and others on the history, culture, art, identity, language, music, and folklore of the San people. These papers were presented at a conference held at the University of the Western Cape in July, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boonzaier, Emile, Penny Berens, Candy Malherbe, and Andy Smith. The Cape Herders: A History of the Khoikhoi of Southern Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996. Provides information on archaeological findings throughout southern Africa regarding the Khoikhoi and the San. Demonstrates their presence thousands of years ago and pays particular regard to the manner in which hunters became herders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Richard Borsay. The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Though this work shares the limitations of any anthropological study, it offers concrete details on the science, technology, medicinal, plant, and environmental knowledge of the San people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis-Williams, David, and Thomas Dowson. Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art. Johannesburg, South Africa: Southern Book Publishers, 1989. This book explains the manner in which the Khoikhoi and the San became differentiated and settled in various parts of southern Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ottenberg, Simon, and Phoebe Ottenberg, eds. Cultures and Societies of Africa. New York: Random House, 1964. This work contains sections on the culture and life of the San people and their tenacity amid sparse environmental resources and harsh climatic conditions.

Categories: History