AskDefine | Define Khoisan

Dictionary Definition

Khoisan n : a family of languages spoken in southern Africa [syn: Khoisan language]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings



From the pastoral Khoi (formerly Hottentots) and hunter-gatherer San (formerly Bushmen).

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.

Extensive Definition

This article is about the Khoisan ethnic group. For the Khoisan language group, see Khoisan languages.
Khoisan (increasingly commonly spelled Khoesan or Khoe-San) is the name for two major ethnic groups of Southern Africa. They are also called by some the Capoid race. 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, and were massacred in great numbers by Dutch, British, and German settlers in acts of genocide (e.g. the Herero and Namaqua Genocide). Today many of the San live in parts of the Kalahari Desert where they are better able to preserve much of their cherished culture.

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 negigibly 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.



  • 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)
  • 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.

External links

Khoisan in Bulgarian: Койсан
Khoisan in Catalan: Khoisan
Khoisan in Czech: Khoisan
Khoisan in Danish: Khoisan
Khoisan in German: Khoisan
Khoisan in Esperanto: Kojsanoj
Khoisan in Basque: Khoisan
Khoisan in Galician: Khoisan
Khoisan in Italian: Khoisan
Khoisan in Dutch: Khoisan (volk)
Khoisan in Norwegian: Khoisan
Khoisan in Polish: Khoisan
Khoisan in Portuguese: Khoisan
Khoisan in Russian: Койсанские народы
Khoisan in Slovenian: Kojsanci
Khoisan in Serbian: Козијанци
Khoisan in Finnish: Khoisanit
Khoisan in Swedish: Khoisan
Khoisan in Spanish: khoi-san
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