Khoekhoen rock art

This SlideShowPro photo gallery requires the Flash Player plugin and a web browser with JavaScript enabled.

There has been a long debate over the cultural differences between the San (or Bushmen) and the Khoekhoen (or Khoi) of southern Africa.

This debate is tied to questions of how the first domestic stock arrived in southern Africa. The traditional view is that a northern Khoi-San speaking group living in Angola, Northern Botswana or Western Zambia adopted sheep herding from early Bantu-speaking farmer groups in the last few centuries B.C. These Khoi-San herders then migrated down into southern Africa, perhaps forced out by expanding farming communities of south-central Africa, and became the Khoekhoen.

Following this argument, their arrival in the Cape is dated by the appearance of the first sheep bones. These appear in a number of archaeological sites around 2000 years ago. This reading of the past is known as the Khoekhoen migration model.

Another set of scholars argues against this view, saying that the division between the San and the Khoekhoen is a false distinction created by early European settlers at the Cape. They point out that these settled stunningly imperceptive and ignorant of indigenous cultures and they argue that the early settlers simply labelled all hunter-gatherers with one name and all herders with another. By this reasoning the Khoekhoen are former San peoples who gained sheep by a process of trade and diffusion from the north and who took on a new identity only during colonial times for matters of economic and political expediency. This is known as the San with sheep model.

The debate between these positions has gone back and forth and remains finely balanced. The debate rests on evidence from archaeology, genetics, linguistics and historical reports. It is easy to pick apart the historical reports; it is obvious that the early settlers found the distinction between Khoekhoen and San groups confusing and confused and it is very clear that many individuals and indeed whole groups at times shifted from being hunter-gatherers to herders and vice versa.

The archaeological evidence is equally awkward. Following a migration model one would expect sheep and cattle bones to appear in a number of sites at about the same time and one should find a clear distinction between San settlement sites without sheep and Khoekhoen settlement sites with sheep. In practice this evidence has been very difficult to find.

A few centuries seem to separate the earliest sheep from the earliest cattle bones. The two animals do not seem to have arrived together as a migratory ‘package’. No early sites have many bones of either animal.

Stone tools change a bit at the time of the first domestic stock, some say enough to argue for a new people in the landscape, others disagree; all agree that the difference is not sufficient to recognise two diagnostic archaeological cultures.

Pottery arrives in the landscape at about the same time; some say this is yet more evidence for immigrant herders; others argue its arrival is better explained by diffusion. Sites with significant evidence of domesticated stock and pottery remain elusive throughout the first millennium A.D.

Those in support of the migration model say that this is to be expected; the early herder groups would have been small in number, highly mobile in the landscape and would have left little archaeology for us to find. They point out that we should not expect to find large numbers of bones of domesticated animals since sustainable herding practices, especially amongst a highly scattered population, require that the killing of domestic stock is a rare event.

Early herding societies would therefore have eaten a very similar diet to hunter-gatherers. Those arguing for the San with sheep model say that the failure to find distinctive herder sites is damning and offers real evidence of absence.

Genetically there is little to separate Khoekhoen and San groups, perhaps not surprisingly as all agree that both come from the same region and that, if they separated into two peoples at all, this only happened in the last two thousand years.

For the linguists the matter is more clear-cut. The southern San languages of South Africa are distinct from the Khoekhoen languages and the distribution of the Khoekhoen languages suggests an intrusion from the north. Linguists say that a Khoekhoen migration into South Africa must have happened at some time in the past. Those archaeologists in favour of the San with sheep model explain the linguistic evidence by allowing a more recent migration of Khoekhoen groups, such as the Nama, into South Africa about 1000 years ago.

They say that a distinctive type of lugged pottery, still used by Nama groups today, first appeared at this time. They hold to the view that the first domesticated stock and the first pottery arrived at the Cape by a process of diffusion amongst San groups. They also say that this helps to explain the range of cultural beliefs and practices that distinguish Khoekhoen groups such as the Nama from the San groups in South Africa. So a Khoekhoen migration into South Africa is now conceded by most if not all. The question, then, is did this migration happen 2000 years ago or 1000 years ago.

With both sets of scholars entrenched and firm in their beliefs, and with the arguments finely balanced, it may be that rock art evidence can break this deadlock. If the Khoekhoen came from Angola or western Zambia then their ancestral rock art tradition would have been very different from the fine-line visionary art of the southern African San.

Angola and Zambia form part of the ‘schematic zone’ of rock art (see Pygmy rock art). Anyone coming from this zone would therefore have practised a geometric rock art tradition. So the key question is: do we see an intrusion of geometric rock art into southern Africa in the last two thousand years? The answer is yes. Recent research has shown a band of geometric art spreading through Botswana, western Zimbabwe into northern South Africa and then along the river systems to the northern and western Cape Provinces of South Africa. The art uses a demonstrably similar repertoire of geometric forms to that found in central Africa. The further south ones goes the more diverse the art becomes. This can only be explained by tying it to Khoekhoen migrations.

More recent movements, such as the historically recorded Nama move into Namibia, are matched by assemblages of fresh looking geometric rock art. In the northern and western Cape Provinces where we know that Khoekhoen and San groups interacted and intermarried extensively, the division between geometric art and San art becomes increasingly blurred through time, just as these identities became increasingly confused.

Judging by the rock art it is no wonder that early European settlers struggled to discriminate Khoekhoen from San as, by this time, both groups had fused to point of creating new amalgam identities. In the historical reports of the early settlers there are tantalising reports of Khoekhoen groups decorating the bodies of young girls with geometric designs during their initiation ceremonies. This fits uncannily well with our knowledge from central Africa that geometric art is a women’s art. So there is strong evidence of this geometric art came from central Africa and that it brought by the Khoekhoen. The key question is when.

The large number of sites, the long stratigraphic sequences, the changes in the art visible through time, the presence of massively painted sites in the Limpopo Valley, a place where hunter-gatherer and herder groups were excluded in the first millennium A.D., all point strongly to geometric art, and therefore the Khoekhoen, arriving 2000 and not 1000 years ago.

Search the database