History of South Africa

Southern African Societies to ca. 1600

The Earliest South Africans

The oldest evidence in the world documenting the emergence of humankind has been found in South Africa; fossils of the earliest hominids (Australopithecus africanus ) date back at least 2.5 million years, and remains linked to modern Homo sapiens date back more than 50,000 years. Roughly 20,000 years ago, South Africa, still in the grip of the world's last Ice Age, was occupied by people now known as San. Remnants of San communities still survive today as so-called Bushmen (now considered a pejorative term) in the Kalahari Desert. The San, who developed their society over thousands of years in isolation, speak a language that includes unique "click" consonants, are smaller statured, and have lighter skin pigmentation than the Bantu speakers who later moved into southern Africa. However, older notions that such differences indicate that San are a distinct "race" of people have now been discredited and replaced by arguments that all the black inhabitants of South Africa are closely related, sharing a common gene pool, and that any physical differences among them can be attributed to geographical distribution and extent of contact rather than to race.

San obtained a livelihood from often difficult environments by gathering edible plants, berries, and shellfish; by hunting game; and by fishing. Gathering was primarily the task of women, who provided approximately 80 percent of the foodstuffs consumed by the hunter-gatherer communities. Men hunted, made tools and weapons from wood and stone, produced clothing from animal hides, and fashioned a remarkable array of musical instruments. San also created vast numbers of rock paintings--South Africa contains the bulk of the world's prehistoric art still extant--which express an extraordinary esthetic sensibility and document San hunting techniques and religious beliefs. The rock paintings also demonstrate that considerable interaction took place among hunter-gatherer communities throughout southern Africa.

The primary social unit among the San was the nuclear family. Families joined together to form hunter-gatherer bands of about twenty to fifty people. Men and women had equal status in these groups and there was no development of a hereditary chiefship, although the male head of the main family usually took a leading role in decision making. Such bands moved about the countryside seeking foodstuffs, sometimes remaining for long periods in particularly productive environments, sometimes splitting apart and joining other groups when food was scarce. Because they made such limited demands on their environment, San managed to provide a living for themselves for thousands of years. Population numbers did remain small, however, and settlement was generally sparse.

Approximately 2,500 years ago, some San in the northern parts of present-day Botswana acquired fat-tailed sheep and long-horned cattle, perhaps through trade with people from the north and the east, and became pastoralists. Their descendants, called "Hottentots" by early Dutch settlers, are now more accurately termed Khoikhoi, "men of men," or Khoi, in their own language. Although Europeans often considered San and Khoikhoi distinct races culturally and physically, scholars now think they are essentially the same people, distinguished only by their occupations. Differences in size--Khoikhoi are generally taller than San--are now attributed to the greater protein intake of pastoralists. Moreover, occupational status could often change in an individual's lifetime: San hunter-gatherers who found a particularly well-watered and fertile area might well acquire livestock through trade, settle down, and become relatively sedentary Khoikhoi pastoralists; pastoralists in times of drought or other ecological disaster might turn to hunting and gathering to survive.

Because the southern Cape is fertile and well-watered, many Khoikhoi settled along the coast between the Orange River and the Great Fish River. With the greater and more regular supplies of food that they derived from their herds, Khoikhoi lived in larger settlements than those of the San, often numbering several hundred people in a single community. Still, as pastoralists, Khoikhoi moved with the seasons among coasts, valleys, and mountains in search of pastureland. Such movement contributed to the fissiparous nature of Khoikhoi society, in which groups of people, usually in patrilineally related clans, periodically broke away and formed their own communities. The larger size of Khoikhoi communities as compared with those of the San did, however, lead to the development of more hierarchical political structures. A Khoikhoi group was generally presided over by a khoeque (rich man). The khoeque was not an autocrat, but rather could only exercise power in consultation with other male elders.

The Khoikhoi engaged in extensive trade with other peoples in southern Africa. In exchange for their sheep and cattle, they acquired copper from the north and iron from Bantu-speaking Africans in the east and fashioned these metals into tools, weapons, and ornaments. They also acquired dagga (cannabis) from the coast of what is modern-day Mozambique, cultivated it themselves, and traded it for other goods. With San, too, they bartered sheep and cattle products for game and hides.

By 1600 most of the Khoikhoi, numbering perhaps 50,000 people, lived along the southwest coast of the Cape. Most San, their numbers practically impossible to determine, lived in drier areas west of the 400-millimeter rainfall line (the limit for cultivation), including present-day Northern Cape province, Botswana, Namibia, and southern Angola.

The Arrival of Bantu-Speaking Africans

Bantu-speaking Africans, whose descendants make up the overwhelming majority of the present-day inhabitants of South Africa, had moved south of the Limpopo River by about 1,500 years ago. Farmers who combined knowledge of cattle-keeping and slash-and-burn (swidden) cultivation with expertise in metal-working, the Bantu speakers came from West Central Africa north of the Congo River near present-day Cameroon. Historians and archaeologists now argue that this movement took place not in any single great migration but rather in a slow southward shift of people throughout sub-Saharan Africa that resulted from the gradual drying up of the Sahara beginning about 8,000 years ago. The southward movement involved not the conquering hordes previously imagined but rather a moving frontier of farmers seeking new fields and pastures who interacted with pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, sometimes trading, sometimes incorporating people in client relationships, sometimes fighting for access to the same crucial resources. The farmers settled throughout southern Africa east of the 400-millimeter rainfall line and as far as the southwestern limits of cropping along the Great Kei River.

The Bantu-speaking farmers chose to minimize risks rather than to maximize production in their use of the environment. They kept large herds of cattle and invested these animals with great material and symbolic value. Cattle provided a means to acquire and to display considerable wealth, and they were used for significant social and political transactions, such as bridewealth compensation (lobola ) and tribute demands. Cattle were also valued for their milk and for their hides, but they were seldom killed for their meat except on ceremonial occasions. Hunting of game continued to provide a major source of protein, while additional supplies came from domesticated goats and sheep. Bantu speakers also cultivated a range of indigenous crops, including millet, sorghum, beans, and melons along with other grains and vegetables. Those close to the sea collected shellfish and fished. By utilizing such a great range of food sources, the farmers spread their risks in a difficult ecological system constantly subject to drought, disease, and crop failure.

Still, the accumulation of large herds and the cultivation of extensive fields produced greater concentrations of population and considerably more stratification among Bantu speakers than among their San and Khoikhoi neighbors. Archaeologists have found evidence of settlements established more than 1,400 years ago comprising several thousand people each. Toutswe, in eastern Botswana, consisted of a series of communities built on large flat-topped hills with fields cultivated below and cattle pastured locally. The residents smelted iron and engaged in extensive trade with people as far east as the Indian Ocean. Similar large communities emerged at least 1,000 years ago just south of the Limpopo River where Bambandyanalo and then Mapungubwe arose as significant early states (both situated at the intersection of the present-day borders of Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa). Cultivating extensive fields and holding large numbers of cattle, the residents of these states also produced finely worked gold and copper ornaments, hunted for ivory, and engaged in extensive long-distance trade. They were generally presided over by chiefs who held considerable--although never total--power; elders always had to be consulted about major decisions. Compared with the smaller-scale communities of San and Khoikhoi, the Bantu-speaking societies were marked by greater degrees of stratification: of old over young, men over women, rich over poor, and chiefs over commoners.

There were, however, significant differences between the settlement patterns and the degree of political centralization established by Bantu speakers who settled inland and by those who lived closer to the coast. The inland Bantu speakers, termed Sotho-Tswana on the basis of their dialects, concentrated in greater numbers around water sources and trading towns. By the late sixteenth century, a series of powerful hereditary chiefs ruled over the society known as the Rolong, whose capital was Taung. The capital and several other towns, centers of cultivation and livestock raising as well as major trading communities, had populations of 15,000 to 20,000. By contrast, the Bantu-speakers termed Nguni, who settled on the coastal plains between the Highveld and the Indian Ocean, lived in much smaller communities and had less hierarchical political structures. Moving their cattle often in search of fresh pastureland, they lived in small communities scattered across the countryside. In many cases, a community identified itself on the basis of descent from some ancestral founder, as did the Zulu and the Xhosa. Such communities could sometimes grow to a few thousand people, as did the Xhosa, the Mpondo, the Mthethwa, and others, but they were usually far smaller.

By 1600 all of what is now South Africa had been settled: by Khoisan peoples in the west and the southwest, by Sotho-Tswana in the Highveld, and by Nguni along the coastal plains. Portuguese travelers and sailors shipwrecked along the coast in the seventeenth century reported seeing great concentrations of people living in apparent prosperity.

South Africa History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress