Pre-colonial Farmers

According to historical linguistics, the Bantu language family originated in West Africa, along the border of present day Nigeria and Cameroon. Generally, the evidence suggests that between 200 BC and AD 200 the ancestors of Eastern Bantu-speaking people moved out of this homeland into East and Southern Africa. These people cultivated sorghum and millets, herded cattle, sheep and goats and manufactured iron tools and copper ornaments. As a rule these homesteads were sited near water and good soils that could be cultivated with iron hoes. Because metalworking represents a totally new technology, some archaeologists call this period the Iron Age. The first 900 years are known as the Early Iron Age (EIA), while the people themselves are sometimes referred to as Early Farming Communities (EFC).

As agriculturalists, these farming people lived in semi-permanent homesteads comprising pole-and-daga (wattle and daub) houses and grain bins arranged around animal byres. This arrangement, known as the Central Cattle Pattern, was characteristic of Eastern Bantu speakers who preferred cattle for bride wealth, traced their blood from their father, practised male hereditary leadership and had a positive attitude about the role of ancestors in daily life.

One EFC settlement near Lydenburg yielded artefacts related to the spiritual world. Seven ceramic heads had been deposited in a deep storage pit some 1200 years ago. These helmet sculptures each had eyes, a mouth and other human-like features. Two were large enough to cover a person’s head, but the others would have been mounted on poles. These sculptures were most likely used in initiation ceremonies of some sort. Replicas are on display at the Lydenburg Museum and the originals are at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town.

Throughout the Iron Age, climatic fluctuations played a significant role in structuring human geography. When EIA people first entered southern Africa, the climate was warmer and wetter than today. Between about AD 700 to 900 the climate was colder and drier than at present, and EIA farmers would have retreated to more optimal areas. The climate became better again sometime during the Middle Iron Age, between AD 900 to 1300. At about AD 1700, however, the ‘Little Ice Age’ reached its nadir, and its impact upon human population was particularly severe.

Besides these changes, Iron Age farmers had to contend with unpredictable droughts. When the droughts were particularly severe, from 3 to 5 years in a row, rainmakers would perform special rituals on special hills, and the common people would follow with various cleansing rituals. Evidently, some people had to burn their grain bins down and build new ones on top. These burnt structures are not as common as archaeologists once thought, and they can now be used as a cultural proxy for severe drought. The ultimate cause of the droughts was probably El NiÁ±o-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) activity because this is the most important mechanism driving climatic variability in the Southern Hemisphere. According to data from South America, ENSO activity was particularly frequent during the last 2500 years.

Climate and geography played a significant role in the development of greater social complexity in the Limpopo Valley. Located at the junction of Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, the Shashe and Limpopo rivers became the ‘Nile of South Africa’ during the Middle Iron Age. Regular flooding at this time made intensive agriculture possible. The resultant population increase, along with surplus trade from the Indian Ocean gold and ivory trade, led to the development of marked social classes and sacred leadership at Mapungubwe. As a result, Mapungubwe was the first indigenous civilisation in southern Africa, predating even Great Zimbabwe. The famous gold rhinoceros from Mapungubwe is a national icon and the inspiration for South Africa’s highest civilian award. Because of its significance to African prehistory in general, the Mapungubwe landscape became a World Heritage Site in 2003. The landscape is also a National Park and accessible to the public. Its new interpretive centre won an international prize. Treasures from Mapungubwe are also on display at the Mapungubwe Museum, University of Pretoria. Another facility in Pretoria, the National Culture History Museum, displays a large number of clay figurines from an early initiation site near Mapungubwe.

Shortly after the abandonment of Mapungubwe (about AD 1300), the ancestors of the present day Sotho-Tswana moved south from East Africa. Archaeologists have recorded the earliest Sotho-Tswana sites, characterized by a ceramic style called Moloko, in the Limpopo Province. Somewhat later, Sotho-Tswana people moved south into a large part of Gauteng and the Northwest Province. About 100 years earlier, the ancestors of Nguni-speaking people had moved from East Africa into the KwaZulu-Natal region. These Late Iron Age farmers left huge numbers of stonewalled settlements throughout South Africa.

Southern Nguni built the first stonewalling in about AD 1300 in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. Known as Moor Park, this first walling stands in defensive positions on hilltops and spurs. The front-back orientation of these settlements conforms to the shape of the terrain. Somewhat later (about AD 1450), a few Northern Nguni moved up onto the Free State highveld and built circular settlements. The best known are near the hill Ntsuanatsatsi (the legendary place of origin of the BaFokeng), which has given its name to the walling type. Somewhat later still, these Nguni people moved across the Vaal River into the hilly areas of Gauteng and the North West Provinces, introducing the practise to Sotho-Tswana people. By the late 18th century, Western Sotho-Tswana had created the Molokwane type, best known from the site with the same name west of Rustenburg. Some Molokwane settlements were huge aggregations, housing up to 20 000 people. From this time on, urban settlements became characteristic of Sotho Tswana life.

The huge Sotho-Tswana settlements were also a characteristic of the unusual period known as the difaqane (or mefacane) ”• the time of trouble. The causes of the difaqane are controversial. Formerly, historians began the period in 1821 when the Hlubi moved out of KwaZulu-Natal and attacked the Tlokwa on the plateau. In this interpretation, Shaka of the Zulu was one of the prime causes. Recent work, however, has shown that Shaka was a result, not a cause, and that causal processes had began a few decades earlier among the Sotho-Tswana as well as Nguni. The causal processes included an extended period of high rainfall, the introduction of maize and consequent population increase, competition for the ivory trade in the Sotho-Tswana area, competition for cattle in KwaZulu-Natal, hunting on horseback with guns in the Karroo and finally, a serious drought that lead to an agricultural collapse. Oral traditions of widespread famine, cannibalism and total annihilation of enemies at this time indicate an ecological imbalance between people and resources. In response to this chaos, Sotho-Tswana tended to live on hilltops and aggregate into large settlements for mutual protection. These defensive moves may have begun as early as 1780.

At about 1826, Mzilikazi moved into the Magaliesberg to escape Shaka. Mzilikazi’s entry into Gauteng marks the beginning of the Historic Period.


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