Early people of the Cape

The San or Bushmen

  • Archaeologists have found evidence that Stone Age people lived at the Cape over 500 000 years ago. They hunted large animals like sabre-toothed cats and giant buffalo. These later became extinct.

  • 100 000 years ago the people of the Cape were physically modern like ourselves, and hunted with specialised stone tool-tipped spears. Shell necklaces were being worn by 70 000 years ago at Blombos Cave near Stillbaai on the south coast.

  • By 20 000 years ago stone tool using hunters, similar to the Bushmen lived throughout South Africa. Like the more ancient people before them, they depended entirely on what animals they could hunt (including fish and seals at the coast), and the veld plants they could gather. We call this a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.








  • Today some anthropologists call these very early inhabitants of South Africa the San and others call them the Bushmen. People disagree about which name is more respectful to use.

  • Family groups or clans of about 20 people had a territory within which they lived and found their food. They sheltered in caves or temporary reed shelters and wore clothes made from the skins of animals, using ochre and ostrich eggshell beads for decoration.

  • The San knew which plants to eat and which were good for medicine. Their shamans were healers and rain-makers. San healers would go into trance. They believed that in this state they could visit the land of the spirits from whom they would obtain healing powers. In many of the caves throughout South Africa one finds San rock art which provides clues to their beliefs and rituals. Much of the art was probably a record of the shamans’ visits to the spirit world.

What's in a name?








Khoekhoen herders
  • Around 2000 years ago the first sheep arrived at the Cape. A few cattle probably came some centuries later, but by the time the first Europeans visited the Cape in the 15th century there were people known collectively as Khoe or Khoekhoen who had large herds of both cattle and sheep.

  • The Khoekhoen lived in clan groups known around the area of Cape Town as the Gorachoqua and the Goringhaiqua. Their language was similar to that spoken in northern Botswana, so archaeologists believe that this was where they may have originally come from. They were nomadic people who moved their camps seasonally between the coast and the interior. When they were at the coast they hunted seals, and used the fat mixed with ochre as body paint.








  • The best grazing for livestock was the Renosterveld. The soil was richer and there was more grass than in the Fynbos or Strandveld. The herders burned the veld to encourage grass to grow to feed their animals. The fires also stimulated geophytes to grow. They collected and ate these as vegetables.

  • Livestock was a source of individual wealth for the Khoekhoen. Cattle provided milk, and sheep meat. They also hunted wild game, fished and collected shellfish which meant they were in competition with San hunters for resources. Their livestock competed with the indigenous game animals for grazing.








  • The San did not traditionally own animals but regarded all animals as theirs to hunt. They occasionally hunted sheep and cattle and this led to conflict with the Khoekhoen.

  • They built dome-shaped “matjieshuise” or mat-houses which could be carried on the backs of oxen, using bent poles covered with reed mats.

  • In 1655 Jan Van Riebeeck recorded 5000 to 6000 Khoekhoen living near Cape Town. Although these numbers of people with their sheep and cattle had an impact on the environment, being nomadic allowed the veld to recover each year before it was grazed again. This nomadic lifestyle was relatively sustainable in the Western Cape environment.

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Click the buttons to find out more about the history and development of Cape Town:
Early people of the Cape
Settlement and Expansion
Urbanisation and Apartheid
Post-Apartheid developments and challenges