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Iron Age Polities

Iron Age sites yield occupational debris from Early Iron Age (550-870 AD) and Middle Iron Age (c. AD 1000-1200) down to the Late Iron Age (1500-1800 AD). Evidence of the Late Iron Age (ca 1500-1800) is prevalent in the Suikerbosrand and Keyterskloof area. Stone kraals and remnants of stone dwellings, iron age tools, weapons and decorative beads, manufactured from iron and copper, have also been found. The Late Iron Age can be linked to rock art found in the district. A variety of petroglyphs (rock engravings) occur on the farm Waldrift and is known as the Redan rock art site. The 244 engravings identified at the site represent a few animal figures and many unusual geometric designs. The images are drawn with outlines only and were engraved by means of pecking with a sharp instrument. The geometric images are particularly interesting because of their unusual nature and symmetry. Similar engravings have also been found on a small island near the Ascot Bridge in Vanderbijlpark. The images are mostly of animals and are fairly true to life. Elephant, Eland and Rhino have been identified.

The cultural resources of the Limpopo-Shashe basin are generally associated with Iron Age settlements of around 1200 AD. The similarity of ivory objects, pottery remains and imported glass beads excavated at different sites that spread across the modern international borders of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe attests to the cultural affinity of the people that lived in the Limpopo-Shashe basin during the Iron Age.

Apart from numerous mines, some of which were being successfully reworked, ruins of stone buildings had been found in several hundred distinct places. Few of these have been explored systematically, but investigations in 1905, though confined to a small number of sites, determined at least the main questions of date and origin. The fanciful theories of popular writers, who had ascribed these buildings to a remote antiquity, and had even been so audacious as to identify their founders with the subjects of King Solomon or of his contemporary the queen of Sheba, were seen to be untenable. J. T. Bent’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892) was by then interesting only for its illustrations, and his theories were obsolete. Positive archaeological evidence demonstrated that the “Great Zimbabwe” itself, the most famous and the most imposing of the misnamed “Ruined Cities,” was not built before medieval times.

The Iron Age archeological sites of Mapungubwe, K2 , Leokwe and the Schroda site in the Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa, and the Mmamagwe site in Botswana are amongst the best-studied Iron Age sites in southern Africa . They represent the Zhizo, K2 and Mapungubwe Iron Age cultures that existed in this region roughly between 600 AD and 1300 AD. Small Iron Age sites postdating this period have also been recorded in the area, including stonewalled sites on hilltops and Khami-type ruins.

Mapungubwe is renowned for the golden rhino and is believed to be the precursor of Great Zimbabwe, the most remarkable Iron Age site in southern Africa. The Mapungubwe landscape was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in July 2003. Other important archaeological sites are at Toutswe Mogala and Mmamagwe in Botswana. Several sites are also situated on Sentinel Ranch and Mapela Hill in Zimbabwe.

At several archaeological sites, such as Mapungubwe and Thulamela in the Limpopo Valley, there is evidence of sophisticated political and material cultures, based in part on contact with the East African trading economy. These cultures, which were part of a broader African civilisation, predate European encroachment by several centuries. Settlement patterns varied from the dispersed homesteads of the fertile coastal regions in the east, to the concentrated towns of the desert fringes in the west. The farmers did not, however, extend their settlement into the western desert or the winter rainfall region in the south-west. These regions remained the preserve of the Khoisan until Europeans put down roots at the Cape of Good Hope. Currently, aided by modern science in uncovering the continent’s history, which forms part of the African Renaissance, South Africa is gaining a greater understanding of its rich precolonial past.

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 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.

In the last seventy years, archaeological excavations have unearthed a bountiful harvest of Indian-made goods which tells a forgotten-story of maritime trade which existed between Asia and Africa, between India and South Africa, when the Iron Age Indian ancestors engaged their African partners who lived in the royal palaces of Mapungubwe where gold was mined and smelted in the 10th century AD as well as the ancient forbearers in the Great Zimbabwe and other centres of African civilisations.

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Page last modified: 25-10-2012 15:44:18 ZULU