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Comparison between Bantu and Khoisan Ethnographies

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Comparison between Bantu and Khoisan Ethnographies

Ethnic structure of Africa is extremely complicated. Approximately 50 nations and nationalities and for about 3 thousand of different tribes speaking diverse languages live in the continent.

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There are 107 ethnic groups in the African continent.

The number of 24 nations exceeds 5 million and they make up 55, 2% of the population in Africa. The greatest of them are the Egyptian Arabs, Hausa, Yoruba, Algerian Arabs, Moroccan Arabs, Igbo, Aromia, and Sudanese Arabs. Along with this it should be noted that almost every ethnos has its own language, except from the Arabic, which is spoken by the fifth part of the African continent.

In addition to the ethnic motley, every African country is also exclusively diverse according to its religious belonging. In the countries of Tropical Africa Moslem communities of different directions, Christians of different religions, traditional believes adherents, Afro Christians, who combine Christianity and traditional religions, are in neighborhood with each other.

Nowadays Southern Africa is full of diverse cultures and nations.

African nations contain the Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Venda, Sotho, San, Tsonga, Afrikaners, Tswana, and Shona people. The colonization procedure and settlement led to the essential population of Indian and European decline in different southern countries in Africa.

Khosian groups can be considered as ones of the oldest tribes. Today culturally they are split into the hunter and gatherer San (they are also known as Bushmen) and the pastoral Khoi (their second name is Hottentots, even though this is commonly thought to be as out-dated and sometimes rude and vulgar). (Maho 1994-97)

Over the centuries a lot of branches of the Khoisan nations were imbibed or dislocated by Bantu speaking communities who were traveling south to find new lands, in particular the Zulu and Xhosa, who both have taken over certain Khoisan clicks and loan words and phrases into their corresponding languages. (Westphal 1962) The Khoisan overcame the desert. These nations adapted to the places with downpours which were not good enough for Bantu harvest. During the colonial period these people lived in Namibia and Botswana, Southern Africa and were slaughtered in great quantities by Dutch, British, and German settlers in acts of depopulation. They made great contributions to the descent of several parts of the colored population in Southern Africa. Today a big quantity of the San dwells in the Kalahari Desert where they manage to save much of their appreciated culture.


Khoisan nations came to Southern Africa for about 60,000 years ago. Therefore, the Khoisan languages can be considered as ones of the oldest of all human languages.

They used to apply and they are still applying click consonants (clicks) by way of full-fledged phonemes.(Vossen 2001)

Although the Khoisan tongues have some similar features in their systems of sounds, their grammatical systems can be called exclusive. Because of lack of historical data it is rather difficult to define their genetic relation to each other and to other tongues of Africa. (Köhler 1987)

Nowadays the Khoisan languages can be heard exclusively in Southwestern Africa, in the place around the Kalahari Desert, and in one not big zone of Tanzania. The Hadza and Sandawe tongues in Tanzania are commonly known as Khoisan; still, they are aggressively remote in terms of geography and linguistics from the other languages.

“As a result of centuries of contact and intermarriage with Khoisan speakers some of the Bantu languages spoken in southern Africa also make use of click sounds, but they are represented by conventional English letters.” (Reconstructing the Past)

Bantu language as the majority of other modern languages had a strong tendency to syllable openness.

Bantu languages belong to the languages of agglutinative and synthetic type with many inflecting languages features. Their phonological system is remarked with sound types. (Derek 2003)

Environment and Economy

Bantu people were involved in hunting and gathering. Their main weapon was a little bow and thin arrows with plumage of leaves. The sharp edge of the arrows was burnt on the fire and was spread with some poison on. Bantu people were perfectly aware of animals’ habits and while hunting used various traps and snares.

It is possible that aboriginal hunters were Khoisans’ ancestry of Southern Africa – most possibly, on the grounds of linguistics, these hunters who dwelled in Northern Botswana. It was in this place where they modified their economy and became cattlemen. (Barnard  1992)

Their activity had a cyclical pattern: when a family kept domestic animals they accepted themselves as Khoikhoi, but when they lost their cattle and had to return to living due food from the bush, they were seen by livestock possessors as Soaqua.

The relations between the two groups were not always peace-loving. The San used to steal from the Khoikhoi flock. Still, at the same time, there were friendly relations established when the San worked as customers for the cattlemen.


Khoisan nations’ culture was similar to Bantu culture. The Khoisans were hunters and gatherers; they made their tools of stone and tree. The Khoisans as well as Bantu used a bow and arrows as their main weapons. However, the Khoisan tribes’ arrows were supplied with the edges made of stone and bone. In order to dig roots they applied a stick with a stone hoop pinned on. These tribes didn’t have their permanent dwellings and applied temporary huts or sheds. The Bantu tribes who settled in the whole South part of Africa were more culturally developed rather than the Khoisans.(Westphal 1971)

They were skillful in iron treatment. They could both treat iron and smelt it from ore.

The main part of the Bantu tribes, as Hottentots was chiefly occupied with cattle-breeding. All Bantu tribes were occupied with farming. Apparently, Bantu tribes discovered some plants, in particular different kinds of African millet and oil-palm. However, Bantu ethnographies used to cultivate their land manually, not applying plow cattle draught. Main farming tools were mattocks and knives of different kinds. (Westphal 1963)

Kinship and social organization

 Cruelty and injustice are in a complicated way associated with patriarchy, and the dominating structure. Cultural structures of patriarchy and predominance are really prevailing at those times, but are not unavoidable. Pre-patriarchal communities, like the Khoisan of Southern Africa, can be taken as patterns of concordant, gender-continuous, non-aggressive ways of life that can be applied to shape alternate patterns to cruelty and injustice.

Kinship system of the Khoisans used to be and is still bilateral. Kindred terms can apply to the persons who are not the speaker’s relatives.

Apparently, social order of the Khoisan tribes can be considered as one of the earliest stages of the primitive communal order.

Southern Bantu tribes had a widely spread paternal kin. Bantu tribes’ social order is characterized by its flabby structure: separate communities were weakly tied between each other. Every community was a rather small group of families. Men of this group were predominantly genetic relatives. Wives used to come from other communities and, as a rule, kept in touch with their native communities during their whole life. Widow was entitled to return to the parents’ community with her little children. Family used to consist (what is as a rule even today) of a husband, one, or (what is more seldom) several wives and their unmarried kids. Usually a common family used to occupy a separate hut with a family fireplace.

The country settlement of the Khoisans was rather big, often more than one hundred people. The fundamental housing system was a round shack (matjioeshuis) made of a structure of green branches which had been planted into the ground and connected together. It was put on with mats made of reed. It could be left without coverage and re-established in a new place when scratching the area became exhausted. Sometimes the mats were just taken off and rolled up. Tribes left the frameworks behind when they knew they would be coming back to that place again. During the favorable and warm weather, it was rather cool in the hut with the cracks between the reeds giving air a possibility to revolve. In winter, the inside was lined with animals’ skins to provide additional insulation from the elements.

Each settlement camp consisted of persons of the same tribe – a community of male breeds of a certain forefather with their women and kids. These settlements included some persons from other tribes. Besides, it also could be dependants and servants.

Every village was ruled by a headman, an inherited position given to the eldest son of the forefather for each generation. Headmen settled the problems of community, they decided which place to pick up to settle and when to start moving. They also acted as conciliators or judges in criminal or civic debates.


The Khoisans gave special meaning and essence to the moon. The periods when the moons were new and full were considered to be significant for rituals to call up for rains and dancing, and obviously the moon was considered to be the physical exposition of a greatest being connected with sky, earth and in particular rain (of principal importance to the nations in dry places, whose lives were dependent upon rains).

Among the Nama two outstanding figure were worshiped in their myths. The first was Tsui-goab, the divinity who was accepted as the main forefather of the Khoisans. He was a founder, the health protector, the source of success and well-being, and first of all he was a ruler of the rain and the connected phenomena of clouds and thunder.

 “Along with this Gaunab is primarily an evil being, who causes sickness or death. The other major figure is Haitsi-aibib, a folk hero and magician of great repute who could change his form. Haitsi-aibib died many times in different places, but had the ability to come to life again – often being reborn in a different form.” (Uba 1982) His ‘graves’ are widely spread, and it was thought as good fortune for those people who passed by to add to those stones piles, or to lay branches or skins down.

Bantu tribes had their secret societies; they conducted ceremonies applying ritual dances or totems’ masks as a worship belonging.

 According to one of the myths, the ruler, gifted with a divine power, had to support equilibrium between opposite states – drought and dampness.  Nowadays Bantu tribes have a God in Southern Africa called Modimo. Still, this “great spirit” doesn’t play a significant role, at least, he is not prayed to by people. He is not the world’s creator. He likely corresponds to destiny.

Marriage pattern

In the core of the Khoisan social system was a common family— man (husband), woman (wife), and their kids. Due to historical data lack it is difficult to speak about rights and duties of the wives and husbands in the Khoisan family.

Bantu family used to be patriarchal, with the eldest male representative who is highly respected. After marriage couple usually lived with the husband’s relative. This system retained for today. A wife keeps her father’s name after getting married. Still, their children take their father’s name. Nevertheless, Bantu tribes have saved much of their old culture. Female kinship communities are very essential. They played a great role while keeping the household, working in farming and keeping the general atmosphere of a family.

Nowadays Bantu tribes practice polygamy but most of them prefer a traditional model of a family. Both mother and father have his and her distinctive duties.

African tribes and foreigners

In 1655, Jan van Riebeeck who was a Dutch Commander decided to colonize the whole place around Table Bay. In 1657 nine workers of the Dutch East India Company got freedom and stopped sailing and became their new lives as farmers. In 1700 the total farmers’ population increased to about 1,350, and settlers kept on settling around Cape Town. The European population of the settlers was rather various. It consisted of Dutch, German, Swiss, Scandinavian, and French people.

European women lived there and were involved in farming. They also dwelled in the towns and took part in trades, namely hotel-keeping and concoction. Rich colonial women kept households and made marriages-in-convenience within the economic hierarchy.

       In the 17th and 18th centuries South African nations and Europeans lived in closeness, and interacted usually for social and economic goals. This interaction resulted in a mixed culture that has some remain even today.

       South Africa is located in the southern part of African continent. It is also called “Land Of The Blacks”. Still, in South Africa there are a lot of white people among the blacks.           Contemporary South Africa consists of many nations who, because of the country’s history, are divided into four principal categories on the grounds of race: aboriginal Africans or Black nations, Europeans, White nations, Asians or Indians, and Coloreds.


Maho J.F. Khoesaan language and ethnic names. Compiled by Jouni Maho, 1994-97.
Barnard A. Hunters and herders of southern Africa. Cambridge studies in social and cultural anthropology, vol. 85. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1992.
Köhler Oswin R. A. Khoisan languages. In: Encyclopaedia brittanica, vol. 22. 1987.
Westphal, Ernst O. J. On classifying Bushman and Hottentot languages. In: African language studies, vol. 3. 1962.
Westphal, Ernst O. J. The linguistic prehistory of southern Africa: Bush, Kwadi, Hottentot and Bantu linguistic relationships. In: Africa, vol. 33. 1963.
Westphal, Ernst O. J. The Click languages of southern and eastern Africa. In: Current trends in linguistics, vol. 7: linguistics in sub-Saharan Africa. Edited by Thomas A. Sebeok. Mouton. The Hague & Paris. 1971.
Reconstructing the Past – The Khoikhoi Web page. http://khoisan.org/social.htm
Vossen R. The Khoesan languages. Curzon Press. Richmond (UK). 2001.
Derek Nurse; Gérard Philippson. The Bantu Languages. Volume 1. Part 3 July 2003.
10.   Uba C.N. “Divinities and Ancestors in Igbo Traditional Religion,” in Africa, 1982.

Cite this Comparison between Bantu and Khoisan Ethnographies

Comparison between Bantu and Khoisan Ethnographies. (2016, Sep 06). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/comparison-between-bantu-and-khoisan-ethnographies/

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