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African butterflies

Culture & Heritage


When travellers of the world decide to explore the Western Cape a discerning few find themselves in the Little Karoo, where nature dazzles on the endless plains and among the mountains. Here, in blazing summers and icy winters, the silence is so pure you can hear God think, the stars so near you feel you have only to reach out to touch them. The Klein Karoo is one of the world’s most unique arid zones. In South Africa it stands alone, globally it is an envied rarity. The Karoo is the home of peace and tranquillity, here one can rest, relax, refresh yourself and recharge the inner batteries of your soul, while exploring, enjoying yourself and indulging your need for some unusual entertainment. People have lived in the Klein Karoo, one of largest biomes of its kind outside Asia, for about 500 000 years.  The Khoi and San people who left their legacy as art on the rocks gave the Karoo its name. The place’s name comes from Karusa, a Khoi word which means dry, barren, thirstland. This aptly describes the region where water is a very precious resource.  Journeys across this strange storehouse of nature can be long and tiring, but for It is an ancient, fossil rich land with the largest variety of succulents found anywhere on earth. 

In around 2300 BP (Before Present), hunter-gatherers called the San acquired domestic stock in what is now modern day Botswana. Their population grew, and spread throughout the Western half of South Africa. They were the first pastoralists in southern Africa, and called themselves Khoikhoi (or Khoe), which means 'men of men' or 'the real people'. This name was chosen to show pride in their past and culture. The Khoikhoi brought a new way of life to South Africa and to the San, who were hunter-gatherers as opposed to herders. This led to misunderstandings and subsequent conflict between the two groups.

The Khoikhoi were the first native people to come into contact with the Dutch settlers in the mid 17th century. As the Dutch took over land for farms, the Khoikhoi were dispossessed, exterminated, or enslaved and therefore their numbers dwindled. The Khoikhoi were called the ‘Hottentots’ by European settlers because the sound of their language was so different from any European language, and they could not pronounce many of the words and sounds.

The Khoikhoi used a word while dancing that sounded like ‘Hottentots’ and therefore settlers referred to the Khoikhoi by this name – however today this term is considered derogatory. The settlers used the term ‘Bushmen’ for the San, a term also considered derogatory today. Many of those whom the colonists called ‘Bushmen’ were in fact Khoikhoi or former Khoikhoi. For this reason, scholars sometimes find it convenient to refer to hunters and herders together as ‘Khoisan’.

When European settlement began, Khoikhoi groups called the Namaqua were settled in modern day Namibia and the north-eastern Cape; others, including the Korana, along the Orange River; and the Gonaqua, interspersed among the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape. But the largest concentration of Khoikhoi, numbering in the tens of thousands inhabited the well-watered pasture lands of the south-western Cape. These Karoo ‘Cape’ Khoikhoi would be the first African population to bear the brunt of White settlement.

The Khoikhoi kept herds of animals such as goat, cattle and sheep and had to move around to find enough grazing land for their animals. They moved according to the seasons and only stayed in one place for a few weeks. This meant that they had to be able to carry all their belongings themselves, or load them onto the backs of their animals.

Houses had to be very light and easy to erect and take apart. For this reason they were made of thin poles covered with reed mats. Even pots and buckets were made of wood with small handles to make them easier to tie to animals' backs. They also wore clothes made of leather, like the San. The animals, especially cattle, were a sign of wealth and the Khoikhoi only ate cattle that had died or had been stolen from their enemies. They only killed their own animals for important occasions like funerals or weddings. The women milked the animals and gathered wild plants from the veld and the men killed game for everyday food. This shows that the Khoikhoi hunted and gathered, but also herded animals.

Khoikhoi society and language: Khoikhoi society consisted of both rich and poor, as animals – which were a sign of wealth - could belong to individuals. This is because animals provided food, clothes and transport. This was completely different from the San, who were all considered equal and shared everything. Wealthier Khoikhoi people would share their milk with poorer members of their group, but would still be considered more important. They would also rub animal fat over their bodies to show their wealth. 

Khoisan languages, characterised by implosive consonants or ‘clicks’, belonged to a totally different language family from those of the Bantu speakers. In contrast to the San who spoke highly divergent languages, the Khoikhoi spoke closely related dialects of the same language. Nàmá, previously called Hottentot, is the most populous and widespread of the Khoikhoi and San languages.

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Van Wyksdorp Institute Van Wyksdorp Institute

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