Imvubu Newsletter

The Khoisan of the Eastern Cape

© Hirst, M. 2009 Imvubu: 21:1, 4-5.

From the mountains to the coastline, the early Khoisan inhabitants utilized the diverse ecological niches and the rich resources of the wilderness including game, fish and shellfish. The Khoisan comprised, on the one hand, small bands of nomadic hunter-foragers and on the other hand, groups of hunters who had become herders and adopted pastoralism from a source other than the Southern Nguni probably to the north of Botswana.

On 6 June 1801 hunters wounded Thomas Bentley, a British army deserter accompanying Coenraad de Buys and his party of Dutch elephant hunters hunting in Xhosa territory east of the Keiskamma River, with two poisoned arrows near what later became known as the Thomas River. During the War of the Axe (1846-7), about 150 hunters with bows and barbed arrows served with Colonel Henry Somerset’s division against the Xhosa in the Fish River bush. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were reports of ‘robber bands’ of hunters living in the mountain fastnesses with small herds of cattle. By the 1840’s, they were increasingly armed with firearms. By 1848 some hunters had become subsistence agriculturalists settled on mission lands or on their own lands, for example, at the Kat River Settlement. Soon the Khoisan were to disappear as a distinct group becoming part of the emerging coloured population.

The Khoekhoe-speaking herders, who called themselves ‘men of men’ or ‘the real people’, referred to the hunters as San, a derogatory term meaning rascal or robber, because on occasion they killed and ate the herders’ livestock as if it were prey. The hunters undoubtedly had their own group names, which are now lost in time.

Like the hunters, the herders were nomadic. They lived in large groups, several of which were known by name (e.g. Namaqua, Gonaqua, Damaqua and Hoengeiqua), varying between 8, 000 and 25, 000 in size. When Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape in 1652, there was a camp of 200 Khoi huts on what is now Rondebosch Common incorporating anywhere between two to three thousand people. In addition to game and fish, both hunters and herders subsisted off veldkos, consisting of wild roots and honey. However, the herders, like the Xhosa, also depended on their hide milk sacks containing sour milk. However, among the Xhosa, drinking from the milk sack was reserved for agnates, i.e. members of the same clan (isiduko). The hunters and herders performed initiation rites for males and females at puberty. Sometimes intoxicated by mind-altering plants including hemp, the Khoisan danced at full moon anti-clockwise in a circle to percussive handclapping, a shamanistic practice Xhosa healers later adopted and integrated into their initiation and healing rites.

Whereas the hunters sheltered at night in the lee of an overhanging rock, which was sometimes decorated with painted images of game, hunting scenes, dancers, ox wagons, settlers or even soldiers, under thorn brush screens or merely wrapped up in their skin karosses under the stars on the open veld, the herders had huts consisting of a framework of poles which, when tied together, were covered with reed mats specially made for the purpose. When on the move, the herders dismantled and packed up their dwellings transporting them and their household chattel on the backs of oxen. Khoi arranged their huts in a circle, close enough for relatives to pass dishes of food to each other through the reed screens, with the enclosure in the middle being used to corral stock at night.

The early foragers initially scavenged meat from the kills of predators, such as lions and other carnivores. However, with the development of the bow and poisoned arrowhead, it became possible to hunt even large antelope like eland. The arrow poison, once absorbed into the bloodstream, immobilized the animal’s musculature, a process the hunters facilitated when chasing down their prey, eventually resulting in death from heart failure. The poison did not affect the meat in any way, which was roasted or dried. The poisoned arrow had a detachable point made from a sharp porcupine quill hafted onto a bone awl, which fitted snugly into the open end of the arrow shaft when in use. The point was detached from the shaft immediately on impact with the prey, which made it impossible for the animal to rub off the poisoned point. The hunters invariably picked up the discharged arrow shafts before chasing the stricken animal. When not is use, the poisoned point was reversed and kept safely in the arrow shaft to avoid accidental poisoning. Hunters were expert trackers recognizing game from spoor. They knew a great deal about the habits of wild animals, details of which were incorporated into their rich storytelling tradition. The hunters also made beads from ostrich eggshell, which the Southern Nguni and especially the Xhosa highly esteemed and obtained by barter in exchange for hemp. Hunters also made use of staked game pits, snares and traps.

Although the Khoi continued a hunting and collecting way of life along with herding fat-tailed sheep and cattle, it is notable that by the seventeenth century the hunting bow had already become a musical instrument called the gora, which herders played to lull their herds. Among the Khoi, before the introduction of iron spear points, the chief weapon was a wooden shaft the point of which had been sharpened and hardened in the fire. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the amaGqunukhwebe, a chiefdom of mixed Khoi-Xhosa descent, was a recognized part of the Southern Nguni congeries of chiefdoms along with the Xhosa. Through a process of commingling marked by trade, intermarriage and warfare, the Khoisan profoundly influenced the Xhosa, traces of which remain in the Xhosa language itself and certain shared techniques, ritual observances and cultural traits.