The term Khoisan is actually a unifying term for two similar groups: the foraging San and pastoral Khoi.
One thing you might notice is their surprisingly light skin tone for being a southern African group. They’re also rather short, averaging from 4’9” to 5’4” with long legs and torsos, which distinguishes them sharply from their darker skinned Bantu and Bayaka (if anyone knows a better term for this ethnic group, please tell me. It was the best generalized name I could find aside from the distasteful “Pygmies” and I’m still not sure if it’s neutral enough to not be offensive) neighbors with their characteristically shorter torso shapes. In what I consider to be their most beautiful characteristics, they are noted for their high, broad cheekbones and epicanthic eye folds.
Genetic studies have shown that the Khoisan are likely to be the first ethnic group to split from the rest of Homo sapiens as we spread across the globe. It should be noted that this does not mean that they represent an archaic, under-evolved subset of humanity, as they like the rest never stopped evolving over time.
Linguistically, they’re also different from their neighbors in having their own language group, which developed the unique and famed click consonants that Bantu languages later adopted. There are also vast differences in their languages over a relatively small region, which provides evidence that they were the dominant culture in south western Africa before Bantu people moved in around 2000 BCE, whose languages are all comparatively similar in the same region. So, essentially, the Khoisan languages had time to split from their common ancestor dramatically in the region, while the local Bantu languages’ common ancestor hasn’t had as much time to do so in the region, if that makes a bit more sense, before Dutch arrival in 1642.
This population is probably most famous for the women’s significantly increased likelihood of steatopygia, or large deposits of fat around the buttocks as well as an extended (3-4 inches) labia minora. Women with these developments are considered very beautiful by their people, but were considered oddities by Europeans. Predictably, at least two of these women were taken around Europe as side show attractions, known as “Hottentot Venuses”. The most famous was Saartjie (Sahr-kee) Baartman (a name in Afrikaans after Dutch settlement), known as “Sarah” to English speakers. She was orphaned after a commando raid on her village, so her birth name is unknown. She was kept as a slave by Dutch farmers near Cape Town until her owner’s brother suggested she be taken to Europe for exhibition, promising her wealth. She was taken around Britain in 1810, shortly after the 1807 Slave Trade Act, which created a controversy, as abolitionist groups pressured unsuccessfully for her release. She was questioned in front of a court and stated that she was not under restraint and would collect half of the profits, though there is evidence of coercion. Soon, she was sold to a Frenchman and was put on a more pressured exhibit for fifteen months by an animal trainer named Regu. During this time she also posed for scientific paintings nude to show her genitalia, which she previously had refused to do. When her exhibit lost popularity in Paris, she became an alcoholic and earned a living with prostitution until her early death in 1815 from an unknown illness— possibly small pox or syphilis. Her skeleton, preserved brain, and preserved genitals were put on display until 1974. After decades of legal battles, her remains were finally returned to Africa were she’s buried on the top of a hill near her home in 2002.
Trailer for Vénus Noire, a French-language 2010 film about Saartjie.