Indigenous edible plant use by contemporary Khoe-San descendants of South Africa's Cape South Coast

J. C. De Vynck, B. E. Van Wyk, R. M. Cowling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)


There is evidence that hunter-gatherer societies of both the Middle and the Later Stone Ages in the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) used many plant species, particularly those with underground storage organs (USOs), as sources of carbohydrate. In the CFR, USOs - mostly monocotoledon geophytes - are particularly diverse and abundant. However, little is known about which species were targeted by hunter-gatherers. Here we use, for the first time in the CFR, ethnobotanical methods to survey the use of indigenous edible plant species amongst contemporary people of Khoe-San descent, in an attempt to gain insight on hunter-gatherer resource use. Specifically we surveyed 18 participants living in rural areas around Still Bay. They identified 58 indigenous edible plant species (from a potential list of over 140). The identified species had 69 uses, almost half of which were for fruit and a quarter for vegetable foodstuffs. Plants bearing USOs comprised only 12% of uses. As a group, species that produced fruit had the highest popularity, followed by nectar producing species and lastly plants with USOs. The popularity of this last-mentioned group was largely underpinned by the strong preference for the tubers from two Cyphia species. Knowledge of edible geophytes belonging to the Iridaceae was low, despite that these species were widely documented as important carbohydrate sources in the ethnographic, historical and archaeological literature. Shrubs were the most frequent growth form 34% of edible plant species identified by the survey group. Geophytes and trees both comprised 21% of species identified. Species of Thicket Biome affinity dominated the sample (52%) followed by the Fynbos Biome (38%); wetlands contributed the remainder at 10%. The diverse array of different biomes, each with their own suite of edible plant resources, would have been important for sustaining hunter-gatherer communities on the Cape south coast. With the exception of the edible apical meristems of palmiet (Prionium serratum), which occurs rarely in the study area, the survey failed to identify species that could have formed a staple source of carbohydrate for the pre-colonial Khoe-San peoples of the Cape south coast. This is almost certainly due to the loss of hunter-gatherer lifestyles after colonisation in the 1700s and the concomitant introduction of cereal crops.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)60-69
Number of pages10
JournalSouth African Journal of Botany
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016


  • Cape Floristic Region
  • Carbohydrates
  • Geophytes
  • Growth forms
  • Plant use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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