Khoisan busy barbecuing grasshoppers

Khoisan people of South Africa were once the most populous humans on Earth


The Khoisan, an indigenous population in Namibia, may once have comprised the majority of living humans on the planet, for much of the past 150,000 years. The Khoisan population declined about 22,000 years ago and again during the 17th century's European colonialists' incursions into Africa.

The new study by geneticists published in Nature Communications , reviewed by the journal Science, revealed that the Khoisan, now numbering about 100,000, are a genetically diverse group because of a large ancestral population in the distant past.  The name ‘Khoisan’ generally refers to the hunters and herders of a number of ethnic groups that speak a distinctive click language, although it is not the name that the population use for themselves. Historically, there were two groups of peoples in the Khoisan language family, the Khoi Khoi pastoralists or herders, and the San, who were hunters and gatherers. Today, they are known collectively as the Khoisan.

Adverse climatic conditions in Africa caused by glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere prior to 22,000 years ago reduced human populations, but Southern Africa maintained a good climate, reports, which also reviewed the new genetic study. Good weather results in easier living conditions and plentiful food, so populations known collectively as the Khoisan thrived.

Khoisan, people known for their rare click language, may have been the most numerous humans, but they remain genetically distinct from Europeans, Asians and other Africans. Some of these other groups moved out of Africa and populated Europe, Asia and the rest of the planet around the same time that Khoisan people were in the majority, says.

"Khoisan hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa always have perceived themselves as the oldest people" said Stephan Schuster, a former Penn State University professor, now at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and a leader of the research team.

Many Khoisan still hunt as they did thousands of years ago. Photo by Paul Weinberg from the series Once we were Hunters

Many Khoisan still hunt as they did thousands of years ago. Photo by Paul Weinberg from the series ‘Once we were Hunters’ ( Wikimedia Commons )

The study looked at 420,000 genetic variants across 1,462 genomes from 48 ethnic groups. “These analyses reveal that Southern African Khoisans are genetically distinct not only from Europeans and Asians, but also from all other Africans,” reports

Previous research has also suggested that Khoisan people may be directly descended from mankind's oldest common paternal ancestors. DNA studies in the 1990s, found that the Y chromosome of San men, one of the indigenous populations making up the Khoisan, share certain patterns of genetic variation that are different from those of all other populations. It was theorized that the San are one of the first populations to have differentiated from the most recent common paternal ancestor of all extant humans, estimated to have lived 60,000 to 90,000 years ago.

Researchers found that through history Khoisan intermarried little with other ethnic groups, which helped preserve their genetic uniqueness.

"This and previous studies show that the Khoisan peoples and the rest of modern humanity shared their most recent common ancestor approximately 150,000 years ago, so it was entirely unexpected to find that this group apparently did not intermarry with non-Khoisan neighbors for many thousand years," said Webb Miller, professor of Bioinformatics at Penn State and a member of the research team, as reported on "The current Khoisan culture and tradition, where marriage occurs either among Khoisan groups or results in female members leaving their tribes after marrying non-Khoisan men, appears to be long-standing."

Khoisan people required men from one clan to marry women from other clans. Khoisan villages consisted of more than 100 people living in cone-shaped huts. The villagers were men from the same clan with their wives and children. Villages were united into groups known as tribes or hordes.

Khoisan-speaking people were decimated by European colonialists, their lands stolen and cultures suppressed. In 2012, South African President Jacob Zuma said the Khoisan suffered the most of any group under European colonialism. "It is important to remember that the Khoisan people were the most brutalized by colonialists who tried to make them extinct, and undermined their language and identity. As a free and democratic South Africa today, we cannot ignore to correct the past," he said, as reported in South African History Online

Khoisan populations were wiped out by war and smallpox. European settlers stole much of their land. As herders and hunters, the Khoisan needed large areas to graze their animals, hunt and gather food. Their population was further decimated by loss of livelihood due to land theft. Though much historical Khoisan territory is now farmed, some Khoisan still live their traditional lives of hunting and gathering or herding.

Featured image: ‘Khoisan busy barbecuing grasshoppers’, 1805, by Samuel Daniell. ( Wikipedia)

By Mark Miller


rbflooringinstall's picture

Leave it to European colonialists to ruin a race of people.

Peace and Love,


Just to update: The bushman as is depicted in this article, no longer exist. There may be a few who still live as they lived many years before the coming of the Bantu and subsequent European but these would be in a very remote part of the Namib/Kalahari desert and would not have had much outside contact.. They have been decimated and have largely assimilated into the current society structures. Very few, if any, roam the desert in a loin cloth. It strikes me that these people must have been pushed to want to live in and survive in such a harsh environment. This desert is real desert. In many areas there is simply no vegetation of any kind.

They extrapolate based on estimates of the frequency of changes in certain chromosomes or alleles.

Whether these estimates produce accurate results, we have no idea, because we have no other dating system to compare it to.  

Same with the estimates of when the Ice Age began.  We actually don't have accurate knowledge on it, despite all kinds of different statements made as fact in articles, like this, which said 22,000 years.

Tom Carberry

I struggle with this branch of science because I find it hard to understand how they extrapolate backwards through time to come to these conclusions, fascinating though it is. 

What is clear, particularly with the excellent additional remarks taken into consideration relating to their more recent history, is that they are clearly a people of great resolve and fortitude. Guillaumé's point rings true when one considers how fragmented our western societies have become; the Khoisan live with out any of the basic social and material safeguards we see as vital, but seem vibrant and strong in their sense of identity. 

I think that BCS is correct in saying that "the demise of the Koisan is a bit misleading"  I think that which also misleads in this article is that the photo "Member of a Khoisan tribe herding livestock" by his dress he is of the Himba people and not Khoisan. The Khoisan as far as we know did not herd. This, in my view, provides a point of an alternative discussion of the accuracy of this article .   

We, and I, know so little.

I feel humility and have other mixed feelings when I see the food and circumstances which these people survived and thrived upon.

Unless one has been to the Namib and has absorbed with totaly unfettered feeling, we do not have the words to describe the land and the country. The country is hostile and out of phase with the western mind and way of life.











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