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San tribesman.jpg
33-year-old San tribesman from Namibia
Regions with significant populations
Southern Africa

Khoisan languages


Animist, Islam[2]

Related ethnic groups

perhaps Sandawe

Khoisan (increasingly spelled Khoesaan, Khoesan or Khoe-San) is a unifying name for two major ethnic groups of Southern Africa.[1] 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. The Khoi and San people share physical and linguistic characteristics. It is generally assumed that the Khoi (actually the Khoikhoi, as most Khoi-speaking peoples are classified as San) branched from the San by adopting the practice of herding cattle and goats from neighboring Bantu-speaking groups; however, more recent evidence has suggested that the ancestors of the Khoi peoples are relatively recent pre-Bantu agricultural immigrants to southern Africa, who abandoned agriculture as the climate dried and either joined the San as hunter-gatherers or retained pastoralism to become the Khoikhoi.


Physical appearance

San woman from Botswana

Physically the Khoisan, with their short frames (149-163 cm/4'9-5'4;), copper brown skin, tightly coiled "peppercorn" hair, high cheekbones, and epicanthic eye folds are quite distinct from the darker-skinned peoples who constitute the majority of Africa's population. They have moderately long legs with long muscle bellies, which is a trait that sharply distinguishes them from surrounding Pygmy and Bantu populations having muscles with short bellies and long tendons (Coon 1965). Two distinguishing features of some Khoisan women are their elongated labia minora and tendency to steatopygia(the person who wrote this has mistaken them for their pastoral cousins the Khoikhoi, the khoisan are actually known for their danty thin bodies, neither of these features describe them),[2] features which contributed greatly to the European fascination with the so-called Hottentot Venus. However, the physical differences between Khoisan and other peoples may be diminishing due to intermarriage.


The Late Stone Age people in parts of southern Africa were the ancestors of the Khoisan people who inhabited the Kalahari Desert. These early hunter gatherers[3] lived here at least as late as the first century AD.[4]

Over the centuries San peoples were absorbed, killed, or displaced by Bantu speaking societies who were migrating south in search of new lands, most notably the Xhosa and Zulu. 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 distribution (green) of the various language families spoken by Khoisan peoples.

Generically Khoisan are known as Bushmen, which is the currently preferred term in several countries (although considered derogatory by some). Culturally the Khoisan are divided into the hunter gatherer San (originally a derogatory term used by the Khoi) or Bushmen, and the pastoral Khoi (also known historically as Hottentots, a term now considered obsolete and sometimes offensive). The various Khoisan languages, which are not all related to each other, are noted for their click consonants.

Pop culture

After a recent trip to Botswana, music artist Dave Matthews (who was born in South Africa) was inspired to write a song called Eh Hee based of his experience meeting the Khoisan people. His motivation for the song was the intense song and dance of the Khoisan he personally witnessed on his trip with his wife and daughter. Most notably, he first performed the song at Radio City Music Hall in New York City with Tim Reynolds where he called the Khoisan one of the most advanced people in the world.

See also


  1. ^ Alan Barnard. 1992
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Richard B. Lee. 1976
  4. ^ C. Michael Hogan. 2008


  • 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)
  • Hogan, C. Michael (2008) "Makgadikgadi" at Burnham, A. (editor) The Megalithic Portal
  • 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

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has an article on:


Alternative spellings

  • Khoi-San


Compound of the name of two tribes, the pastoral Khoi (formerly Hottentots) and the hunter-gatherer San (formerly Bushmen).

Phonetik.svg This entry needs pronunciation information. If you are familiar with enPR, IPA, or SAMPA then please add some!

Proper noun




  1. The group of Southern African indigenous people, comprising the Khoi and San. Indigenous to the semi-desert regions.
  2. The group of languages associated with the Khoisan including Nama, ‡Hõã, !Kung, !Xũũ, Ju/’hoan, and ‡Kx’auǁ’ein.


External links



Dutch Wikipedia has articles on:

Wikipedia nl


Compound of the name of two tribes, the pastoral Khoi (formerly Hottentots) and the hunter-gatherer San (formerly Bushmen).

Phonetik.svg This entry needs pronunciation information. If you are familiar with IPA or SAMPA then please add some!

Proper noun

Khoisan c.

  1. Khoisan, people.

Khoisan n.

  1. Khoisan, group of languages.

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