Who are the Hottentots?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

"Hottentot" is a deprecating term for the Khoikhoi people of South Africa, who once roamed vast stretches of this region of the world along with the livestock they farmed. Khoikhoi means "people people," and this ethnic group had been living in South Africa for thousands of years before colonists arrived. The appearance of European colonists radically changed life for the Khoikhoi, all but eliminating their tribal existence. Today only small numbers of the so-called Hottentots still exist, typically in very small and sometimes nomadic communities.

The Khoikhoi are a native people in South Africa.
The Khoikhoi are a native people in South Africa.

The term "Hottentots" is believed to be derived from the Dutch word for "stammer." The Dutch used this term to describe the Khoikhoi they interacted with, referencing the Khoisan language spoken by the Khoikhoi, which includes sounds which would seem quite alien to Europeans. The Khoisan languages are famous for including clicks and staccato pronunciations which are markedly different from European languages. Describing their encounters with the native people of Africa, the Dutch referred to them as "Hottentots," and the name stuck into the 20th century, at which point most people abandoned it, terming it offensive.

The Khoikhoi pastured livestock, moving them to take advantage of the change of the seasons. This differed from their related Khoisan neighbors, who used hunting and gathering to support themselves. It is believed that the Khoikhoi practiced intensive farming in South Africa, shaping the land to suit their needs and developing their own unique culture, separate from that of other Khoi peoples.

When colonists arrived, they quickly displaced the native people they termed Hottentots, establishing their own farms and ranches and utilizing Africa's natural resources in a variety of novel ways. Some of the displaced Khoikhoi actually ended up as servants or slaves in the houses of the colonists, while others were subsumed into neighboring tribes. Although Khoikhoi communities were greatly disrupted by colonialism, a few small settlements endured, and they continue to farm and take care of livestock as they have done for centuries in Namibia and South Africa.

Like many native peoples, the Khoikhoi were treated as lesser beings by the colonists, who used their different appearance to discriminate against them. For the Khoikhoi, being called Hottentots was probably rather demoralizing, as it denied their centuries-old identity as people. Discrimination against native Africans, especially nomadic peoples, continues to be a problem.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


It has been on the Internet for years - they are Wuta-Ntota's. Some would spell it Wute-Ntota's. They are a Nguni group. The word means "menders of fences" literally! The "Ntota" means "Mender" and it is the source of the Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Swathi) word "Madoda". For crying out loud, when will Africans dump the colonial crap masquerading as "history"?


I have never heard their language, but have heard it described. I imagine that to the untrained ear it would likely sound like gibberish.

Author James Michener wrote one of his long historical-fiction novels, "The Covenant," about South Africa. In the early chapters of the book, he describes in great detail the Hottentots and other indigenous peoples of the region - fascinating stuff, how they lived their lives and interacted. Then the story moves on to settlement and colonization by Europeans - first the Dutch Boers, and then the English. This is an incredible book, probably Michener's best in my humble opinion.

Post your comments
Forgot password?