Khoisan people represent ‘earliest branch off human family tree. The Khoisan people of southern Africa have been recognised as one of the earliest formed distinct human genetic groups.Some 22,000 years ago, they were the largest group of humans on earth,the Khoisan, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in southern Africa. Today, only about 100,000 Khoisan, who are also known as Bushmen, remain.

The Khoisan people from Southern Africa maintained ancient lifestyles as hunter-gatherers or pastoralists up to modern times, though little else is known about their early history. Here we infer early demographic histories of modern humans using whole-genome sequences of five Khoisan individuals and one Bantu speaker. Coalescent analysis shows that the Khoisan and their ancestors have been the largest populations since their split with the non-Khoisan population ~100–150 k yr ago. In contrast, the ancestors of the non-Khoisan groups, including Bantu-speakers and non-Africans, experienced population declines after the split and lost more than half of their genetic diversity. Paleoclimate records indicate that the precipitation in southern Africa increased ~80–100 k yr ago while west-central Africa became drier.


In around 2300 BP (Before Present), hunter-gatherers called the San acquired domestic stock in what is now modern day Botswana. Their population grew, and spread throughout the Western half of South Africa. They were the first pastoralists in southern Africa, and called themselves Khoikhoi (or Khoe), which means ‘men of men’ or ‘the real people’. This name was chosen to show pride in their past and culture. The Khoikhoi brought a new way of life to South Africa and to the San, who were hunter-gatherers as opposed to herders. This led to misunderstandings and subsequent conflict between the two groups.

The Khoikhoi were the first native people to come into contact with the Dutch settlers in the mid 17th century. As the Dutch took over land for farms, the Khoikhoi were dispossessed, exterminated, or enslaved and therefore their numbers dwindled. The Khoikhoi were called the ‘Hottentots’ by European settlers because the sound of their language was so different from any European language, and they could not pronounce many of the words and sounds.

The Khoikhoi used a word while dancing that sounded like ‘Hottentots’ and therefore settlers referred to the Khoikhoi by this name – however today this term is considered derogatory. The settlers used the term ‘Bushmen’ for the San, a term also considered derogatory today. Many of those whom the colonists called ‘Bushmen’ were in fact Khoikhoi or former Khoikhoi. For this reason, scholars sometimes find it convenient to refer to hunters and herders together as ‘Khoisan’.

When European settlement began, Khoikhoi groups called the Namaqua were settled in modern day Namibia and the north-eastern Cape; others, including the Korana, along the Orange River; and the Gonaqua, interspersed among the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape. But the largest concentration of Khoikhoi,numbering in the tens of thousands inhabited the well-watered pasture lands of the south-western Cape. These ‘Cape’ Khoikhoi would be the first African population to bear the brunt of White settlement.


The Khoikhoi kept herds of animals such as goat, cattle and sheep and had to move around to find enough grazing land for their animals. They moved according to the seasons and only stayed in one place for a few weeks. This meant that they had to be able to carry all their belongings themselves, or load them onto the backs of their animals.

Houses had to be very light and easy to erect and take apart. For this reason they were made of thin poles covered with reed mats. Even pots and buckets were made of wood with small handles to make them easier to tie to animals’ backs. They also wore clothes made of leather, like the San.

The animals, especially cattle, were a sign of wealth and the Khoikhoi only ate cattle that had died or had been stolen from their enemies. They only killed their own animals for important occasions like funerals or weddings. The women milked the animals and gathered wild plants from the veld and the men killed game for everyday food. This shows that the Khoikhoi hunted and gathered, but also herded animals.

Hottentot (racial term) - Wikipedia


Khoikhoi society consisted of both rich and poor, as animals – which were a sign of wealth – could belong to individuals. This is because animals provided food, clothes and transport. This was completely different from the San, who were all considered equal and shared everything. Wealthier Khoikhoi people would share their milk with poorer members of their group, but would still be considered more important. They would also rub animal fat over their bodies to show their wealth.


The Korana or Kora were a nomadic Khoikhoi group that probably derived their name from a chief called Kora (or Gora), who was originally a leader of the Gorachouqua (`-qua’ meaning ‘people of’). This leader detached himself from this group with his followers and became the first great chief of the Korana.

Initially there were two main groups, the Great Korana and the Little Korana. Each of these broke into splinter groups that divided until there were many groups whose names have been slowly forgotten or were not recorded. Quarrels over water and grazing rights, or the ownership of women or livestock usually caused the divisions amongst groups. When parties split up they usually assumed the name of their leader. But sometimes they took the name of a place where they had stayed for a long time.

One such case was the name Hoogekraal (`High Kraal’), the original name for Pacaltsdorp, near George. Korana family names tended to signify a special characteristic or occupation such as the Towenaars (Sorcerers) and the Regshande (Right-handers). Where the first Chief Kora lived is unknown, but in early times, most Korana lived near the Gariep, Vaal and Harts rivers and others moved into the Overberg and the Karoo.

The last great Korana trek took place during the late 17th century, when they trekked from their chiefdoms in the south-western Cape to escape pressure from White settlers. These Korana trekkers travelled along the western trading routes as far north as the great river that they called Gariep, which means ‘river’. The early pioneers added ‘Groot’ (Great) to it, and after that, it was simply known as the Groot Rivier. A Dutch soldier of Scottish extraction, Robert Jacob Gordon, who was commander of the garrison at the Cape in 1777, renamed it the Orange after the Prince of Orange. However, many still referred to it as the Groot Rivier. After the 1994 change of government, it was given back its original name, Gariep.

For many centuries the early people lived along this river and its tributaries because game was able to graze in the vleie and the berry trees and bulbous plants grew in profusion. There, the Korana settled among the Nama herders and groups of San hunter-gatherers. By then, the Korana had become well-armed and some sources cite that they lived very much in the style of the ‘Wild West’. They knew how to ride horses, understood the value of keeping their mounts in prime condition, and frequently raided the farms south of the great river and the Baster communities.

They also settled in what is today the Free State, the district that became known as Koranaland (Gordonia). Many small conflicts over hunting and plundering took place between these groups and the Bantu-speaking peoples and White trekkers in the area. It is important to note however, that livestock raids were carried out by a minority group of Korana.


The small conflicts over cattle and land raids came to a head in 1868, when the colonial government created a special magisterial district. The Northern Border Protection Act was passed to permit action against the Korana. A special border unit was stationed at Kenhardt, but the handful of police and burghers were too few to protect a 330 km stretch of land. This eventually led to the Korana wars of 1869 and 1878.

In 1869, the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police and a small detachment of the Royal Artillery arrived in the area – led by Sir Walter Currie. Later, a prolonged drought forced White settlers and Coloured farmers, as well as the Korana, to move closer to the Gariep River. Such a conglomeration of herds close made it easy for Korana ‘raider’ groups to prey on the herds, and their activities aroused the ire of the district.

Klaas Lukas, who was initially neutral, gathered together 1,000-armed men to defend their livestock. His supporters included the majority of the Korana. The Korana ‘raider’ groups were defeated and came under the control of the Cape Government. Those Korana who rejected a future under colonial rule trekked further into the Kalahari. The Cape Government settled the Basters near Upington to form a buffer between the Boers and the Korana. Today, the Korana have almost completely disappeared as a separate group through assimilation with the population in the area.‘Bastaards’ or ‘Baster’ was a derogatory referred to offspring of liaisons between Europeans, slaves and Khoikhoi. The term was also used to refer to subordinate Blacks who could speak Dutch, ride and shoot.


There were often close and complex relationships between the Bushmen and the Korana. When the Korana made war on the Bushmen, they captured Bushman women and children – who were then integrated into the Korana community as wives. Bushmen would sometimes assist Korana in raiding parties, or as messengers and herdsmen. Korana groups traded dagga and tobacco for honey and the Bushmen’s honey and honey beer. Some Bushmen would pay reciprocal visits to Korana kraals.

The Bushmen are hunters and food-gatherers, the Hottentots are also herders. The latter work iron, which the Bushmen have never learned to do. The Bushmen, on the other hand, have a graphic art that stands out as one of the achievements of man- kind, while the Hottentots have no art at all.

​Some of the Korana clans also had close relationships with the Tswana. The Koranas called the Thlaping the “Briquas”, and exchanged products from them, such as tobacco and sibilo.  Of great importance is that several key Tswana chiefs took Kora wives. When the Tlhaping came to the Langberg in the 1770s, they, and some southern communities, developed close relationships with the Kora who were settled along the Orange. Maswe, the Tlhaping chief at this time, took a Kora wife.


Categories: Culture and History