The Khoisan people of the Northern Cape are descended from two different tribes. An amalgam of the original San hunter-gatherers and the later-arriving KhoiKhoi, they were virtually annihilated by subsequent settlers. But the Khoisan culture lives on through some of the most compelling rock art on Earth.

Did you know?

The Khoisan believe strongly in a trickster deity who can be both foolish and wise.

Khoisan is a term used by physical anthropologists to distinguish the aboriginal people of southern Africa from their black African farming neighbours.

The original San hunter-gatherer groups lived on this land for about 100 000 years before the arrival of other black people and European settlers. When the pastoral KhoiKhoi appeared 2 000 years ago, they saw people similar to them in physical appearance, but with a different culture. They called these elders of the land 'the San', which means 'people different from ourselves'.

The San men usually hunted antelope using bows and arrows smeared with poison. Before a hunt, a shaman would conduct a religious ceremony. He would enter a trance and his vision was recorded on a rock by way of painting. This rock art is now a central feature of our heritage.

The Khoi brought pastoralism to the San – with their sheep and cattle contributing to a balanced diet. Unlike the San, who did not live in a hierarchical society, the Khoi had a complex social structure. These two cultures would later merge and become known as the Khoisan people.

It is a sad part of South African history that these two vibrant and culturally-rich tribes are now almost extinct; with Khoisan culture pushed to the periphery of our society. But they have left an indelible mark on our society.

The distinct clicks of their language, once found nowhere else in Africa, have been incorporated into Zulu and Xhosa speech. They have also contributed to the richness of Afrikaans and South African English with words such as 'eina' (ouch) and 'aikhona' (absolutely not). And place names like Karoo and Keiskamma.

Beyond the sphere of daily chores, Khoisan traditions include snuff and makaranga tobacco. This is a very strong tobacco that is mixed with wild honey and made into a paste before being allowed to dry. In Namaqualand traditions include distinct dress and music adapted from their heritage and early Boer influences.

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