Revival of interest in aboriginal history: The “Khoe”, descendants of herders who introduced pottery 2000 years ago – Southern Africa

The name ‘Hottentot’, or its Afrikaans shortening ‘Hotnot’, became a disparaging term for people of colour at the Cape. Today we refer to the aboriginal herders of the Cape by the name they would have called themselves: Khoekhoen =’people people’ or ‘real people’ (non-gender specific plural). […]

In archaeological terms, the earliest herders in Southern Africa introduced sheep and pottery. […]

By 2000 years ago this early spouted pottery , known as Bambata, was widespread across Southern Africa from Northern Namibia to Limpopo Province of South Africa. Pottery and sheep moved rapidly southwards into the Vaal/Orange drainage, from whence they dispersed to the Western and Southern Cape, where the Khoekhoen were found historically by the first European travellers in the 15th century AD. Hunters, who were already living at the Cape speaking a /Xam language, lived alongside the herders who spoke a mutually unintelligible Khoe language (Nama, etc). The most prominent herder site is Kasteelberg which was occupied from about 1600-800 years ago. These people had large flocks of sheep, although a few cattle bones have also been found in levels dating to around 1000 years ago.

Small numbers of sheep bones have been found in earlier hunter sites, such as Die Kelders and Blombos (on the south coast), Witklip (near Vredenberg) and Spoegrivier (Namaqualand) as early as 2000 years ago. The assumption is that there were herders around at this time from whom the sheep came.

This model of pastoral expansion recognises that people who move camp frequently leave few material remains behind, often making them ‘invisible’ in the archaeological record. A good example of this is the historical information we have on the Khoekhoen at the Cape. […]

Khoekhoen quickly realised that the Dutch were not like previous visitors, and were setting a more permanent presence when they started building the Fort in 1652. The Khoekhoen fought two wars with the Dutch, and, had they persisted, they probably would have pushed them back into the sea. Unfortunately, they treated the Dutch like other Khoekhoen, and just stole their cattle, thinking that this would undermine their economy. They had no way of knowing the power behind the mercantile capital backing the Dutch up in Holland.

The Khoekhoen in the Southwestern Cape lost their grazing lands and slowly their herds were stolen by colonists and brigands taking advantage of instability. In 1713 a smallpox epidemic massively affected the Khoe at a time when the herds were taking strain from drought conditions and stock diseases. The Khoe around Table Bay never recovered from this. There were other instances of Khoe resistance to colonial repression in the 18th and 19th centuries, and attempts to maintain their cultural separation from the colony, but ultimately these also proved ineffectual. Many fled the colony to become refugees up-country, others became farm workers for the colonists, and intermarried with slaves.

This is the basis for the ‘Cape Coloured’ population, as the people were known under apartheid. Khoe descendants were unwilling to admit their lineage, as Khoekhoen were considered ‘primitive’ or ‘uncivilised’. A revival of interest in their own history was sparked in the 1980s and 90s among the people of Namaqualand who won a court case to prevent their common lands being broken up and falling into individual hands. They were also successful in negotiating grazing rights with Parks Board when the Richtersveld National Park was proposed. This new-found power and identity resulted in ‘Nama’ (both language and culture) having a cachet that was previously downplayed. Equally, the Griqua National Council has been pushing for Khoe recognition by the ANC-controlled government. No click language has been given status as an official language in South Africa (although Nama is recognised in Namibia). In land claims and restitution most Khoe descendants have been left behind because loss of land occurred before the cut-off date of 1913. This, however, has not stopped the people of the Richtersveld pushing their claim for compensation from the government-owned Alexcor Diamond mine (similar to what they receive from TransHex mining on the Orange River). So far the government has won the court battle, but the Khoe descendants may yet be able to establish their aboriginal title (as native people have done in Canada, Australia and NewZealand). […]

Professor Andrew B Smith, Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa

Source: Where Have All The Hottentots Gone? The Archaeology And History Of The Khoekhoen
Date Visited: 28 November 2020

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