Khoisan: see African languages.
Khoisan (increasingly commonly spelled Khoesan or Khoe-San) is the name for two major ethnic groups of Southern Africa. Historically, they have been referred to as the Capoid race because they can be visually distinguished from most other sub-Saharan Africans by way of their relatively lighter skin color and their epicanthic folds. From the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period, hunting and gathering cultures known as the Sangoan occupied southern Africa in areas where annual rainfall is less than 40 inches (1016mm)—and today's San and Khoi people resemble the ancient Sangoan skeletal remains. The Khoisan people were the original inhabitants of much of southern Africa before the southward Bantu expansion — coming down the east and west coasts of Africa — and later European colonization. Both Khoi and San people share physical and linguistic characteristics, and it seems clear that the Khoi branched forth from the San by adopting the practice of herding cattle and goats from neighboring Bantu-speaking groups.


Culturally they are divided into the hunter gatherer San (commonly known as Bushmen, although this can be interpreted as derogatory) and the pastoral Khoi (sometimes known as Hottentots, although this is generally considered obsolete and sometimes offensive). The Khoisan languages are noted for their click consonants.

Over the centuries the many branches of the Khoisan peoples were absorbed or displaced by Bantu speaking societies who were migrating south in search of new lands, most notably the Xhosa and Zulu, who both have adopted some Khoisan clicks and loan words into their respective languages. The Khoisan survived in the desert or in areas with winter rains which were not suitable for Bantu crops. During the colonial era they lived in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Today many of the San live in parts of the Kalahari Desert where they are better able to preserve much of their cherished culture.


The religious mythology of the Khoikhoi gives special significance to the moon, which may have been viewed as the physical manifestation of a supreme being associated with heaven. Tsui'goab is also believed to be the creator and the guardian of health, while Gunab is primarily an evil being, who causes sickness or death. Recently, many Khoikhoi in Namibia have converted to Islam and make up the largest group among Namibia's Muslim community.


Oldest human group?

According to Knight et al. (2003) Y-haplogroup A, the most diverse or oldest-diverging Y haplogroup transmitted purely by patrilineal descent, is today present in various Khoisan groups at frequencies of 12-44%, and the other Y-haplogroups present have been formed by recent admixture of Bantu male lineages E3a (18-54%), and in some groups, noticeable Pygmy traces are visible (B2b). The Khoisan also show the largest genetic diversity in matrilineally transmitted mtDNA of all human populations. Their original mtDNA haplogroups L1d and L1k are one of the oldest-diverging female lineages as well. However, analysis of neutral autosomal (inherited through either parent) genes finds that the Khoisan are similar to other sub-Saharan African populations.

The presence of Haplogroup A, especially the subclade A3b2, in East Africa have led some to speculate on an ancient connection between those populations and the Khoisan, although the negligibly small frequencies of the A haplogroup that were observed in some recent genetic studies on East Africans puts this theory in serious doubt.

One interpretation is that the Khoisan are the earliest-diverging human group, or even a group that has preserved the original human lifestyle along with genetics. More conservatively, it can be said that the patrilineal or matrilineal descent of most individuals in most other human groups have passed through common genetic bottlenecks that are later than the most recent common patrilineal ancestor or most recent common matrilineal ancestor shared by all humans, and that the ancestors of the Khoisan avoided these particular bottlenecks. Such bottlenecks might be associated simply with the chance reproductive success of particular males, or with the settlement and subsequent expansion of a small group (e.g. modern humans venturing out of Africa, or the Sahara Pump Theory, or recovery from disasters like the Toba catastrophe) or have even more complex causes.

This does not show that the Khoisan were particularly isolated through history and prehistory; in fact, the autosomal genes demonstrate interchange with other African populations.


From 1904 to 1907, the Namaqua, a Khoikhoi group living in present-day Namibia, along with the Herero took up arms against the Germans, who had colonized Namibia. 10,000 Nama, 50% of the total Nama population, perished.



  • Barnard, Alan (1992) Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa: A Comparative Ethnography of the Khoisan Peoples. New York; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Barnard, Alan (2004) Mutual Aid and the Foraging Mode of Thought: Re-reading Kropotkin on the Khoisan. Social Evolution & History 3/1: 3-21.
  • Lee, Richard B. (1976), Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and Their Neighbors, Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Lee, Richard B. (1979), The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Coon, Carleton: The Living Races of Man (1965)
  • Rick Kittles and S. O. Y. Keita (1999), Interpreting African Genetic Diversity, African Archaeological Review, Vol. 16, No 2.
  • Knight, Alec, et al.: African Y chromosome and mtDNA divergence provides insight into the history of click languages. Current Biology, 13, 464-473 (2003).
  • Smith, Andrew; Malherbe, Candy; Guenther, Mat and Berens, Penny (2000), Bushmen of Southern Africa: Foraging Society in Transition. Athens: Ohio University Press. ISBN 0-8214-1341-4
  • Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Harmless People.
  • P. Underhill et al.(2000), "Y chromosome sequence variation and the history of human populations": Nature Genetics, 26, 358-361

External links

Search another word or see khoisanon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature