San and Khoi Tribes


The San and Khoi (or Khoi-Khoi) tribes are among the first identifiable tribes in southern Africa. The San, considered southern Africa’s indigenous population, were later displaced by the Khoi-Khoi in a struggle for survival in one of the planet’s most unforgiving regions.

In earlier accounts the two groups have been generally known as the Bushmen and represent one of humankind’s most enduring adaptations to a severe climate. Both the San and the Khoi-Khoi, called in some accounts the Khoisan, were adept hunters with their small bows and were able to make poisons strong enough to kill the largest prey, much as the Jivaro tribe in Brazil concocted the deadly curare.

They would gain the name "pygmy" because of their small stature. However, while the San were often hunter-gatherers, the Kho-Khoi also raised livestock. The Bushmen over the centuries would find refuge in the Kalahari Desert, where few foes would dare to follow them.


However, around the 11th century c.e. the Bantu people began their historic migration into southern Africa from the north. Speaking a different language from the San and Khoi-Khoi and organized into tribal units, the Bantu would change the entire face of southern Africa.

The Bantu would give rise to the Zulu nation that, under Shaka in the early 19th century, would control much of what is now the Republic of South Africa. Cave paintings in the Sahara show hunting scenes, perhaps painted by the Bantu there, from over 2,000 years ago.

When the Dutch settled what became known as Cape Town in 1652, the life of the San, Khoi-Khoi, and Bantu inhabitants was changed forever. Although first intended as a trading station for the vast Dutch East India Company (the Netherlands then rivaled England as the greatest European maritime power), the Dutch in Cape Town, on the Cape of Good Hope, soon desired to colonize southern Africa.

Inevitably, they followed the logic of conquest: To gain the land they desired, they pushed off the indigenous African inhabitants. Called Hottentots by the Dutch, the San and Khoi-Khoi rapidly were reduced to the status of virtual slaves, while the hardiest followed their ancient custom of fleeing into the deserts.

In a brutal attempt at ethnic cleansing the Dutch launched a campaign to virtually exterminate the tribes to gain room for their own farms and cattle. Despite colonization the Bushmen still thrive in the Kalahari Desert.