From New World Encyclopedia

Portrait listed in the 1914 New Student's Reference Book as "Hottentot."

The Khoikhoi ("men of men") or Khoi, in standardised Khoekhoe/Nama orthography spelled Khoekhoe, are a historical division of the Khoisan ethnic group of southwestern Africa, closely related to the Bushmen (or San, as the Khoikhoi called them). They lived in southern Africa since the fifth century C.E.[1] and, at the time of the arrival of white settlers, practiced extensive pastoral agriculture in the Cape region. They were called Hottentots, by the Europeans probably in imitation of the clicking sound of their language. The term is considered derogatory today.

War, disease, racial discrimination under Apartheid, and loss of their lands caused the Khoikhoi to be unable to continue their traditional semi-nomadic way of life. The Nama (or Namaqua), the largest group of Khoikhoi are also effectively the only remaining Khoikhoi. They have secured a portion of their homeland in the Richtersveld National Park, where they are able to maintain their own lifestyle. Pride in their lineage is returning with the recognition of this identity, and the descendants of the Khoikhoi are finding their place in a world that is increasingly able to accept and value the traditional lifestyles while continuing technological and other advances for the benefit of all.


The name Khoikhoi means "men of men" or "people people" thus "true people."[2]

They were traditionally and are still occasionally in colloquial language known to white colonists as the Hottentots. The word "hottentot" meant "stutterer" in the colonists' northern dialect of Dutch, although some Dutch use the verb stotteren to describe the clicking sounds (klik being the normal onomatopoeia, parallel to English) typically used in the Khoisan languages. That name is generally considered offensive. Author and academic Alison Lurie wrote a literary criticism of L. Frank Baum for his portrayal of a race of goat-like people called the "Tottenhot" in his book Rinkitink in Oz (written 1905, published 1916).[3] The word lives on, however, in the names of several African animal and plant species, such as the Hottentot Fig or Ice Plant (Carpobrotus edulis).

Nama (in older sources also called Namaqua) are an African ethnic group of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. They speak the Nama language of the Khoe-Kwadi (Central Khoisan) language family. The Nama people originally lived around the Orange River in southern Namibia and northern South Africa. The Nama are the largest group of the Khoikhoi people, most of whom have largely disappeared as a group, except for the Namas.


A Hottentot woman in full dress.

The Khoikhoi were originally part of a pastoral culture and language group found across Southern Africa. Originating in the northern area of modern Botswana, the ethnic group steadily migrated south, reaching the Cape approximately 2,000 years ago. Khoikhoi subgroups include the Korana of mid-South Africa, the Namaqua to the west, and the Khoikhoi in the south.

Husbandry of sheep, goats, and cattle provided a stable, balanced diet and allowed the related Khoikhoi peoples to live in larger groups than the region's original inhabitants the San. Herds grazed in fertile valleys across the region until the third century C.E. when the advancing Bantu encroached into their traditional homeland. The Khoikhoi were forced into a long retreat into more arid areas.

Migratory Khoi bands living around what is today Cape Town, South Africa intermarried with San. However the two groups remained culturally distinct as the Khoikhoi continued to graze livestock and the San subsisted as hunter-gatherers. The Khoi initially came into contact with European explorers and merchants in the fifteenth century. The ongoing encounters were often violent, although the British made some attempt to develop more amicable relationships. Local population dropped when the Khoi were exposed to smallpox by Europeans. Active warfare between the groups flared when the Dutch East India Company enclosed traditional grazing land for farms. Over the following century the Khoi were steadily driven off their land, which effectively ended traditional Khoikhoi life.

"Old Cape Hottentot male"

Khoikhoi social organization was profoundly damaged and in the end, destroyed by white colonial expansion and land seizure from the late seventeenth century onwards. As social structures broke down, some Khoikhoi people settled on farms and became bondsmen or farmworkers; others were incorporated into existing clan and family groups of the Xhosa people.

Following the discovery of diamonds at the mouth of the Orange River in the 1920s, however, prospectors began moving into the region, establishing towns at Alexander Bay and Port Nolloth, a process that accelerated the appropriation of traditional lands that had begun early in the colonial period. Under apartheid, remaining pastoralists were encouraged to abandon their traditional lifestyle in favor of village life.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Khokhoi women were publicly displayed in Europe because of their presumed sexual powers. The most notable of these was Saartjie Baartman, the so-called "Hottentot Venus." In his book Regular Gradations of Man 1799, Charles White, a historical race scientist, claimed blacks were halfway between whites and apes in the great chain of being. He used the example of Khokhoi women to show the supposedly primal sexuality of blacks. White claimed Hottentot women had overdeveloped breasts, showing a more animal nature; elongated labia minora; and steatopygia, the tendency to develop large deposits of fat on the buttocks, in a specific pattern of adiposity not seen in Europeans.


The religious mythology of the Khoikhoi gives special significance to the moon, which may have been viewed as the physical manifestation of a supreme being associated with heaven. Tsui'goab is also believed to be the the creator and the guardian of health, while Gunab is primarily an evil being, who causes sickness or death.[4]

Nama huts

In general they practice a policy of communal land ownership. Music, poetry, and story telling are very important in Nama culture and many stories have been passed down orally through the generations. The Nama have a culture that is rich in the musical and literary abilities of its people. Traditional music, folk tales, proverbs, and praise poetry have been handed down for generations and form the base for much of their culture. They are known for crafts which include leatherwork, skin karosses and mats, musical instruments (such as reed flutes), jewelry, clay pots, and tortoiseshell powder containers. Nama women still dress in Victorian traditional fashion. This style of dress was introduced by missionaries in the 1800s and their influence is still a part of the Nama culture today.

Many Nama in Namibia have converted to Islam and make up the largest group among Namibia's Muslim community.[5]


Gods and Heroes

The name of the Khoikhoi supreme being is Tsui-Goab. To him is ascribed the creation of the world, of humankind, and all the elements. He is the source of health and happiness. As a god of the sky, he resides in the heavens above the stars. He made the clouds and lived in them, and brought the rain. Tsui-Goab resides in a beautiful heaven of light and sunshine. The Khoi-Khoi always pray in the early morning with their faces turned towards the east where Tsui-Goab's first light appears.[6]

Gaunab meaning "destroyer," is their god of evil.

Legend has it that U-tixo, a powerful chief of the KhoiKhoi, and the first Khoi-Khoi ever, was also a renowned sorcerer of great skill. Several times he died and rose again. He made war against a wicked chief called Gaunab who had killed many Khoi-Khoi. In the final struggle U-tixo won, but while Gaunab lay dying he landed a last blow that broke U-tixo's knee, and since then U-tixo was called Tsui-Goub, or "wounded knee."[6] Having been regarded as extraordinarily powerful during life he was invoked after death as one who could still bring help and protection, and with the passing of time, he became regarded as God. In an alternate version, Tsui' Goab was not a man at all, but made the first man and woman from rocks.

One of the most famous heroes, Heitsi-eibib, also known as Heitsi, was the offspring of a cow and some magical grass that the cow ate. He was a legendary hunter, sorcerer, and warrior, who most notably killed the Ga-gorib. He was also a life-death-rebirth figure, dying and resurrecting himself on numerous occasions; his funeral cairns are located in many locations in southern Africa. He is worshiped as a god of the hunt.


A man-eating monster called the Aigamuxa/Aigamuchab is a dune-dwelling creature that is mostly human-looking, except that it has eyes on the instep of its feet. In order to see, it has to go down on its hands and knees and lift its one foot in the air. This is a problem when the creature chases prey, because it has to run blind. Some sources claim the creature resembles an ogre.

Ga-gorib was a legendary monster who sat by a deep hole in the ground and dared passers-by to throw rocks at him. The rocks would bounce off and kill the passer-by, who then fell into the hole. When the hero Heitsi-eibib encountered Ga-gorib, he declined the monster's dare. When Ga-gorib was not looking, Heitsi-eibib threw a stone at the monster and hit it below its ear, causing it to fall in its own pit.

In an alternate version of this story, Ga-gorib chased Heitsi-eibib around the hole until the hero slipped and fell inside. Heitsi-eibib eventually escaped and, after a struggle, was able to push the monster into the pit.

Gorib is "the spotted one" (meaning leopard, cheetah, or leguaan) in Central Khoisan languages, so the Ga-gorib probably has some connection with this formidable species. The element "ga-" remains to be explained. Possibly, it is a negative; "not-a-leopard," not only on comparative morphological grounds, but also because its adversary himself has many symbolic connotations of the leopard, such as rain, stars, and speckledness.

Hai-uri was an agile, jumping creature who is partially-invisible and has only one side to its body (one arm and one leg). It eats humans and is comparable to the Tikdoshe of the Zulu people and the Chiruwi of Central Africa. Bi-blouk was an alternate, female version of Hai-uri.

Contemporary Koikhoi

In 1991, a portion of Namaqualand, home of the Nama and one of the last true wilderness areas of South Africa, became the Richtersveld National Park. In December 2002, ancestral lands, including the park, were returned to community ownership and the governments of South Africa, Namibia, and Angola embarked on the development of a transfrontier park along the west coast of southern Africa, absorbing the Richtersveld National Park.

Today, the Richtersveld National Park is one of the few places where old ways survive. Here, the Nama still move with the seasons and speak their own language. The traditional Nama dwelling—the |haru oms, or portable rush-mat covered domed hut—is a reflection of their nomadic way of life, offering a cool haven against the blistering heat of the sun, yet easy to pack and move if grazing lands become scarce.


  1. Country Information on Namibia Retrieved September 7, 2007.
  2. Khoekhoe Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 15, 2007.
  3. Alison Lurie, A review of Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter Retrieved September 22, 2007.
  4. Reconstructing the Past - the Khoikhoi: Religion and Nature Retrieved September 22, 2007.
  5. Islam in Namibia…Making an Impact Retrieved September 7, 2007.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Hottentot Beliefs and Deities Retrieved September 22, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • Colquhoun, A.R. 1906. Africander Land. New York.
  • Cotterell, Arthur. 1979. A Dictionary of World Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-217747-8
  • Elphick, Richard. 1977. Khoikhoi and the Founding of White South Africa. London.
  • Holub, Emil. 1881. Seven Years in South Africa. Boston
  • Kolben, P. 1738. Present State of the Cape of Good Hope. London.
  • Meinhof. 1912 Die Sprachen der Hamiten. Hamburg.
  • Schultze, L. 1907. Aus Namaland und Kalahari. Jena.
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  • Stow, G.W. 1905. Native Races of South Africa. New York
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