Lost Khoisan Tribe

The Forgotten People of the West Coast: Who were the Khoisan?

Khoikhoi peopleThe coastal regions of the south-western Cape were densely occupied by pastoralists, or herders, known as thekhoikhoi Khoikhoi. The West Coast region was the land of the CochoQua, which included Saldanha Bay to Vredenburg. The ChariGuriQua or GuriQua occupied the lower Berg River area, St Helena Bay and points around Piketberg.

Khoikhoi Culture: A Brief Introduction

The Khoikhoi culture were responsible for the discovery and widespread use of Sceletium tortuosum (Kanna), which is gaining in popularity around the world. The word ‘Khoisan’ is used in a broader term to describe both the Khoikhoi as well as the San or ‘Bushmen’ as if they were one people sharing a common culture. These were, however, two distinct cultural groups. The Khoikhoi called themselves ‘the real people’ or Khoi-na, to distinguish themselves from other groups such as the San (SoaQua or SonQua), named Bushmen by the colonists. The ‘Bushmen’ were smaller groups of hunter/gatherers who lived off the veld and had no cattle. The Khoikhoi, on the other hand, were nomadic herders who owned vast herds of cattle and sheep and lived in large groups based on an exogamous clan system. Exogamy entails choosing a marriage partner from a social group of which one is not a member, as such a marriage brings certain benefits by establishing alliances between the groups. It can also be regarded as necessary for the groups’ survival.

sanhuntSan HuntIn the hunting and foraging society of the San, all people are equal. Khoikhoi society was hierarchial. Those who owned stock were regarded as ‘wealthy’; there were servants (without stock) and those who would work as herdsmen as a form of hired labour. A herdsman would receive a lamb in payment for service. The Khoikhoi lived in villages which consisted primarily of members of the same patrilineal clan. Each village recognised the authority of a headman which was a heriditary position passed on from father to eldest son. Several villages were usally united into a much larger unit called a tribe, which could range in size from a few hundred to several thousand individuals.

Local clans could move around and use pasture, water resources, game, wild fruit and vegetables within the tribal area. Unrelated clans from another tribe, however, had to obtain permission from the local chief to use local resources. A good water supply was essential for the Khoikhoi herders, since adequate grazing is of little value without water. It was understood that outsiders could move into another tribal area, as long as they requested permission and paid some form of tribute to the chief. The chief “owned” neither land nor the resources on it, as land could not become the property of individuals. The rights granted to outsiders were temporary. (We can now see why there were so many misunderstandings when the first Europeans arrived).

Water and livestock, particularly cattle, played a central role in the culture of the Khoikhoi people. Their religious, political, economical and social life was intricate; strict rules and social control governed every individual. Birth, puberty, adulthood, marriage and death were accompanied by rituals and rites of passages as important to the Khoikhoi as to any other people. Yet, these facets of Khoikhoi existence were often misunderstood and even ignored by the early explorers, who saw only a savage people no better than animals.

Excerpts from the journals of early travellers:

Thomas Herbert, 1627: “Their language is rather apishly than articulately sounded, with whom ’tis thought they have unnatural mixtures…During the time I stayed amongst them, I saw no signs of any knowledge of God, the law of Nature being scarce observed: No spark of Devotion, no symptom of Heaven or Hell, no place set apart for Worship, no Sabbath for rest…” John Milford, 1614: “These people are the most miserable, destitute of Religion in any kind, as farre as we can perceive and of all civility: their speech a chattering rather than language; naked save a short cloake of skinnes on their shoulders, …eate that which dogges would hardly digest. Pyrard de Laval, 1610: “the people who live along this coast … are very brutish and savage … They eat human flesh and entirely raw animals, with the intestines and guts without washing them, as do dogs… Further, they live without law or religion, like animals.


The early explorer’s requirements, especially for water, placed them in contention with the herders. Just as farmers today are protective of the water holes, so were the pastoral people of that time. Water holes were maintained and kept open. Permission to use the water was normally granted if it was politely requested, followed by a gift. To ‘take’ water without permission could be regarded as an act of aggression.

Da Gama mentions an incident where Bartholomeu Dias was attacked for taking water. “They defended the watering place with stones thrown from the top of a hill which is above this watering place, and Bartolomeu Dias shot a cross-bow at them and killed one of them.” In Mossel Bay Da Gama notes that: “While we were in this bay of Sao Bras taking in water one Wednesday, we placed a cross and a padrao at the said bay of Sao Bras. We made the cross out of a mizzen-mast and it was very tall. The following Thursday, as we were about to leave the said bay, before we departed, we saw about 10 or 12 negroes overthrow both the cross and the padrao. After taking in everything that was necessary we departed from here.”

We have Vasco da Gama’s version of what happened in St Helena Bay. He records that: “In the land the men are swarthy. They eat only sea-wolves and whales and the flesh of gazelles and the roots of plants. They have many dogs like those of Portugal, which bark as do those.” He describes the abduction of a man who “was small of body, and … was going about gathering honey on the moor.” A misunderstanding between the sailors and the indigenous people most likely caused the skirmish that followed:

The people caught a seal, roasted it and gave some of it to Veloso, a sailor who had requested permission from da Gama to accompany the people “to their houses to learn in what manner they live and what they eat and what their life was like. When eating was finished, they told him that he must return to the ship, and that they did not wish him to go further with them.”

When Veloso reached the ship, he began to shout (we do not know why). A skirmish followed and da Gama and three or four men were wounded. There are other accounts: de Goes says that the Khoikhoi or SonQua attacked only when da Gama and others landed to ‘rescue’ Veloso – whom they had not harmed – thinking that da Gama’s party intended to attack them. Faria y Sousa says that in revenge, da Gama fired on them with crossbows from on board. We will never know what really happened that day. The Khoikhoi as well as the SonQua were strongly protective of their women and children, which explains why the resisted all attempts made by ‘strangers’ to accompany them to their homes. Women and children were seldom seen by the sailors and then often only at a distance.

Khoikhoi Language

Early travellers from Europe named the people of the Cape “Hottentots”, (a word that was later used to describe people as subservient and inferior.) There are two possible origins for this word: one describing a dance and the other describing the language:

Augustin de Beaulieu, 1620: “They speak from the throat, and seem to sob and sigh when speaking. Their usual greeting on meeting us is to dance a song, of which the beginning, the middle, and the end is ‘hautitou’.” Vasco da Gama, 1497: “..small in stature, ugly of face, and when they speak it seems as if they hiccup.” Cornelis de Houtman, 1595: “I could learn no more from them but that they speak very clumsily, like the folk in Germany .. who suffer from goitre…” Edward Terry, 1616: ” … their speech it seemed to us inarticulate noise, rather than language, like the clucking of hens, or the gabbling of turkeys…” Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, 1649: “When they speak they fart with their tongues in their mouths, yet, although their speech is almost without separation of word from word, they understand each other very readily …. they have no knowledge of gold or silver, and properly speaking know nothing of religion…”


ShamanThere are many Khoikhoi words common in everyday Afrikaans and English speech in South Africa. There are the shamangeographical place names such as OuteniQua, Karoo, Gamka, Namaqualand and Keiskamma.

There are animal names – gogga, koedoe, kwagga, geitjie – and plant names – boegoe, dagga, koekemakranka, karree, and the names of things such as karos and kierie. The words refer not only to things and places but also include adorable words such as abba, kamma, eina and aitsa. And many more… We use these words every day but we do not always know or acknowledge their origin. So, in our small way we pay tribute to the lost people of the West Coast.

Further Kanna Reading