Early Inhabitants

The earliest inhabitants of South Africa were most likely the ancestors of the modern San. These are: short, yellow or brown-skinned people with at distinctive ‘click’ sound in their language. The San now lead a hunting life in and around the Kalahari Desert.

Remains of their settlements as shown in rock paintings and engravings have been found in many parts of South Africa. They occupied the highland areas of the Winterberg and Drakensberg Ranges. They also lived  north of the Orange River.

These early San lived a hunting and gathering existence. They relied on the plentiful wild game in Southern Africa. They lived, as they still live, in small groups. They were nomadic by necessity. If the San settled, then they lived in caves where important rock paintings have been found.

Dancing has always been important to the hunter. The importance of the hunted animal was shown in all types of dance. The dancers imitated the hunting of eland, the scavenging of vultures and hyenas and the chasing of ostrich.

Later pictures found in the Drakensberg Mountains, showing white men and horses, must have been done in the nineteenth century.

Research has shown that the rock art for which the San are renowned, was associated with medicine men. The art illustrates many aspects of Stone Age life and even contact between the San and black and white farmers. As a medicine man dances and the potency begins to boil inside him, his stomach muscles contract into a tight, painful knot and he bends forward until his torso is almost at right angles to his legs. He trembles and sweats profusely. They often suffered a nasal haemorrhage when they entered trance. They then entered the terrifying supernatural world. It is in this transcendent experience that the key to the art is to be found, for trance experience is depicted in the art by a series of metaphors and hallucinations to which individual artists contributed their own insights and understandings. These metaphors include ‘flight’ and ‘underwater’, but the most pervasive is ‘death’. This metaphor is based on an analogy between medicine men that were, and in the Kalahari still are, said to ‘die’ in trance and the literal, physical death of antelope. When an antelope dies its behaviour is remarkably similar to that of a man in trance: it lowers its head, trembles, sweats and bleeds from the nose. A dying antelope’s hair also stands on end, and hair was thought to come out on the back of a man in trance. In the art trancers are depicted in a distinctive forward bending, head lowered posture. Blood sometimes falls from their noses and they often have hair standing on end over much of their bodies.

Their simple hunting culture was quite satisfactory so long as there was no competition for the hunting lands. But the San were forced to retreat to the limits of their old areas by the advance of the Black people.

The Black people came from the north and northeast during the last thousand years. The White people came from the southwest from the seventeenth century.

The San could not compete with these groups, and either retreated or were destroyed by the white settlers, or the Khoikhoi from whom they were forced to steal cattle. The white farmers held the San in contempt. They called them Bushmen and thought of them as animals. They even hunted them like animals. Thousands were killed, and many children were forced to work on the farms. Today it is only in the desert areas that the traditional way of life can survive. Many have been prepared to settle on farms to avoid the terrible periods of drought in the desert.

Only a handful of the San live in South Africa today. The rest live in Botswana and Namibia.


The earliest Khoikhoi herders moved from Botswana in the direction of Zimbabwe, through the northern Gauteng and along the Harts River until they came to the Orange River. Here they parted: one group swung westwards towards the mouth of the Orange River, from where the ancestors of the Nama trekked northwards and those of the Namaqua southwards; the other groups, consisting of the ancestors of the Cape Khoikhoi, moved in the direction of the Fish and Sunday rivers, in the Eastern Cape. Thereafter the Gona diverged eastwards, while the ancestors of the Attaqua, Hessequa, Cochoqua and Peninsular Khoikhoi moved westwards past the present, Mossel Bay until they reached the vicinity of St Helena Bay.

It is quite probable that the herders whom European seafarers encountered along the Cape west coast after 1487 belonged to the westward moving wave of migration of the Cape Khoikhoi. Portuguese accounts of the early inhabitants of the Cape did not draw any distinction between the hunters (San) and the herders (Khoikhoi). They were both yellow-skinned and physically similar, although it is thought that the herders were somewhat taller than the hunters. The theory is that larger physique may be attributed to a protein rich diet based on a pastoral exsistance.

Each tribe consisted of a number of clans, made up of groups of blood and other relations. These groups frequently broke away to form separate clans. This fragile social organization prevented any development of hereditary chieftainship, with the result that the Khoikhoi offered less organized resistance to colonial encroachment than other African societies.

Since the welfare and self-sufficiency of the Khoikhoi were dependent upon the ownership of livestock, disasters such as drought, disease and theft contributed to the impoverishment of communities. Impoverished individuals or groups sometimes entered the service of more prosperous Khoikhoi as clients and stock herders. This process of possible economic recovery was virtually destroyed when the coming of the Europeans disrupted the geographic isolation of the Khoikhoi.

The arrival of the VOC at the Cape severely disrupted this seasonal pattern of migration in the southwestern Cape. Khoi pastoralists were excluded from land claimed by settler farmers in a series of conflicts that took place. Many were decimated by smallpox and other new diseases introduced by the European colonists. Resistance to colonial encroachment in the northern and eastern Cape continued throughout the eighteenth century, notably in the Khoikhoi rebellion of 1799-1803.

From the earlier times the white settlers refered to the Khoikhoi as Hottentots. Although the name came about as a result of the clicking sound found in their dialect, it became way of describing a person of low intellect. Addressing people as ‘Hottentot’ have since been banned by law.

With the demise of slavery at the Cape, the collective term ‘coloureds’ came into use for Khoi, San and exslaves.

During the twentieth century awareness of a Khoi heritage was absorbed into notions of coloured identity. However, in the 1990s a resurgence of indigenous Khoi and San identity began to take place.

The amalgam ‘Khoisan’ indicates a complex process of intermingling, intermarriage, acculturation and even assimilation, which occurred over centuries between roving San hunter-gatherers and migrating Khoikhoi herders.

The Black people

Archaeological evidence has disproved the old historical notion that Black peoples were still in the process of spreading southwards and westwards in the eighteenth century when they first encountered the expansion of white colonists on the Eastern Cape border. Iron Age people had reached this area more than a thousand years earlier and there was no significant westward movement thereafter. Evidence indicates that the first Iron Age communities were established in Natal and the Gauteng before AD 300.

The Iron Age not only refers to the fact that these people could make metal objects; unlike their Stone Age predecessors, but for the first time people were able to live a settled village life. The Early Iron Age communities were not moving into uninhabited territory for there were Stone Age peoples, the San, hunter gatherers, and in some areas to the west, Khoikhoi herders, as well. The newcomers must have had some influence on the earlier inhabitants but it seems that the different peoples found a means of coexistence, for artefacts typical of the Stone Age peoples are frequently found on Early Iron Age sites.

The map shows that the Early Iron Age people did not spread over the whole of southern Africa but confined themselves to savannah (bush veld) areas. They were also limited to areas of more than about 600 mm of mean annual rain within the summer rainfall region. These areas had sufficient rain for their crops, good grazing for stock and timber for fuel and building. It seems that these requirements limited their movement into the drier western regions, or from west of the Great Fish River in the Eastern Cape. Further west it was too dry for crops without irrigation. This provided a natural, ecological boundary between the Iron Age communities to the east and San hunter-gatherers and Khoikhoi herders to the west. These areas remained in the hands of the Khoisan hunters and herders until the spread of white colonists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

From 1488, when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape, scraps of information on the local peoples began to be recorded.

Survivors of Portuguese shipwrecks from 1552 onwards described settlements near the coast of Natal and Transkei. It is possible from their reports to identify Nguni-speaking peoples in the Eastern Cape, Transkei and Natal with Tsonga peoples from around Richards Bay to Delagoa Bay where Portuguese ships were already calling regularly to trade.

The Nguni-speaking groups were organized in relatively small chiefdoms, some of only a few villages. The shipwreck survivors described well-populated areas rich in livestock and agricultural produce.

There was considerable interaction between the Iron and Stone Age communities across this invisible frontier, until it was finally swept away by the advance of white colonists from the Cape in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Iron Age groups made use of the lands to the west for such activities as hunting expeditions and seasonal grazing for their flocks and herds. The San and Khoikhoi often served as clients, hunting and herding in exchange for such things as food, tobacco and iron implements.

It was perhaps this to-and-fro movement across the natural frontier that misled some of the early white observers into thinking that the Black people were still in the process of expanding southwards and westwards in the eighteenth century. However, the archaeological evidence has now shown that Iron Age people had reached the eastern Cape Province a thousand years earlier.

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