Khoi - Orientation



Identification. "Hottentot" was the collective name given to indigenous herders of southern Africa by early travelers from Europe. As herders, they were distinguishable from both the hunter-gatherer "Bushmen" (or San) and from crop farmers (Bantu-speaking people). They had no collective name for themselves, but they identified strongly with various clan names, such as "Chochoqua," "Goringhaiqua," or "Gorachoqua." Twentieth-century scholars have tended to identify a number of ethnic divisions within the Khoi that are associated with geographically and socially distinct regions: "Cape Hottentots," "Eastern Cape Hottentots" (sometimes classified together as "Cape Khoikhoi"), "Korana" (!Kora), and "Naman" (Nama).

The term "Hottentot"—and especially its abbreviated version, "Hotnot"—have acquired derogatory connotations, and the preferred terms "Khoi" or "Khoikhoi" (meaning "the real people") are most commonly used in the literature today.

Location. At the time that the first European settlers arrived in southern Africa (mid-seventeenth century), Khoi populations were located around the Cape of Good Hope and along and inland from the southwestern and western coasts—roughly south from 22° N and west from 25° E. This whole area is a winter-rainfall region, but, whereas the southwestern parts have an annual rainfall of up to 76 centimeters per year, much of the northern and inland areas are semidesert with sparse and irregular rainfall (less than 13 centimeters per year). Archaeological evidence suggests that the Khoi had previously been more widely distributed (especially to the east), but had been displaced by the arrival of crop farmers (Bantu-speaking people) whose southward migration eventually ended around A . D . 500 on the boundary between the summer and winter rainfall regions (near present-day Port Elizabeth). European settlement at the Cape similarly resulted in the rapid displacement of Khoi populations, who were eventually forced into the most arid and remote areas. Today Khoi herders are found only in isolated reserve areas in South Africa and Namibia.

Demography. Although some historians (e.g., Stow) have estimated the total Khoi population in the mid-seventeenth century at less than 50,000, it is unlikely that their number was less than 200,000. The main reason for this lack of agreement seems to be the different definitions of the population in question. For example, some estimates excluded population north of the Orange River, while others included the Einiqua (about whom very little is known). There is widespread agreement, however, that this population was decimated during the eighteenth century—by the smallpox epidemics, through intermarriage with other populations, and through incorporation into settler society. The 1805 Cape census recorded only 20,000 "Hottentots," but this figure included people of mixed descent and excluded significant populations that were not yet part of Cape Colony. Present population estimates are similarly hampered by the problem of definition: most descendants of the Khoi are wage laborers who have been incorporated into the broader category of "Coloured" and do not identify themselves as either "Khoi" or "Hottentot." If the term "Khoi" is used in the narrower sense, however, to refer only to those descendants of the indigenous herders who continue to practice a herding life-style on communal lands, the current population (in South Africa and Namibia) is well below 20,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. The languages spoken by the Khoi and the San (Bushmen) were part of a broad family of Khoisan languages (clearly distinguishable from the Bantu languages spoken by the neighboring agricultural Nguni and Sotho). The Khoisan languages, well-known for the prevalence of a range of different clicks, can be subdivided into Khoikhoi (Hottentot) and San (Bushmen) languages. Whereas all Khoi herders spoke one of a number of mutually understandable Khoikhoi languages, some groups of San hunters also spoke Khoikhoi languages. Khoikhoi languages have largely been replaced by Afrikaans and are rapidly disappearing in South Africa today—very few young people, even in the reserve areas, retain more than a smattering of their traditional language. In Namibia, it is still the mother tongue of most of the few thousand remaining Khoi herders.


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