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South Africa - Early Inhabitants

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. The discovery of the skull of a Taung child in 1924; discoveries of hominid fossils at Sterkfontein caves, a world heritage site; and the ground-breaking work done at Blombos Cave in the southern Cape, have all put South Africa at the forefront of palaeontological research into the origins of humanity. Modern humans have lived in the region for over 100 000 years. Africa had undergone several dry periods during the past 100 000 years which generally coincided with ice ages. This had the effect of making large tracts of the interior uninhabitable and early human populations were forced into coastal pockets.

In February 1925 Prof Raymond Dart announced the discovery of the first ape-man at Taung (Northwest Province) with these profound words:”The specimen is of importance because it exhibits an extinct race of apes intermediate between living anthropoids (apes such as chimpanzees) and man.....”. The Makapansgat Caves and neighboring archaeological and fossil sites are situated in the Northern Province. The caves are of great importance as they provide a record of hominid occupation from australopithecine times through the Stone and Iron Ages. The Makapansgat Valley is the oldest of the sites, spanning an age of between 3,32 million years to 1,6 million years ago. This site has yielded many thousands of fossil bones, amongst which were found remains of the gracile Australopithecus africanus.

There is particularly convincing evidence of the widespread use of marine resources along the south-western Cape, which would have been cut off from the rest of Africa during arid times by the expansion of the Kalahari and Karoo deserts. Hundreds of shell middens have been discovered and in many of these are the remains of artifacts that indicate a shift in human behaviour towards a more culturally aware state of being. Among the artifacts are the now famous Blombos piece of ochre which is one of the oldest artworks in the world and decorated ostrich egg shells which may have been used as water containers.

The small, mobile bands of Stone-Age hunter-gatherers, who created a wealth of rock art, were the ancestors of the Khoikhoi and San of historical times. The Khoikhoi(n) and San (the “Hottentots” and “Bushmen” of early European terminology), although collectively known as the Khoisan, are often thought of as distinct peoples. The former were those who, some 2 000 years ago, adopted a pastoralist lifestyle herding sheep and, later, cattle. Whereas the hunter-gatherers adapted to local environments and were scattered across the subcontinent, the herders sought out the pasturelands between modern-day Namibia and the Eastern Cape, which, generally, are near the coast.

From the evidence of San Rock Art, it is clear that the San were around before the Khoi and the Nguni. They tended to be inland rather than coastal dwellers and lived by hunting and gathering. Stone tools have been found in many of the shell middens along the coast, which indicates that many forays were made to harvest shell fish. It has been suggested that the Khoi (Hottentots) arrived down the west coast of Southern Africa. They were a pastoral people who displaced the San, but do not seem to have occupied much of the area east of the Kei. Most of the place names for natural features in this area are of Khoi derivation. In the Buffalo City area, Nahoon, Gonubie, Qenera, Kwelera, Quigney and Chalumna are a few examples.

The term Iron Age is used by African archaeologists to refer to the advent of subsistence patterns based on farming and follow directly on the Stone Age. Mining activities in South Africa date back a long time. Iron was mined in the Soutpansberg during the Iron Age, as was copper during the 8th century of Phalaborwa. In the eastern Transvaal, the indigenous inhabitants mined and traded for centuries in the gold they found there.

The Iron Age is characterised by the production and use of metals as well as characteristic types of pottery. Iron Age people moved into southern Africa by c. AD 200, entering the area either by moving down the coastal plains, or by using a more central route. It seems more likely that the first option was what brought people into the study area. From the coast they followed the various rivers inland. Being cultivators, they preferred the rich alluvial soils to settle on. These Iron-Age peoples lived in small, hardy, communities in a huge variety of social organisations speaking many languages. Most were small kingdoms, deeply conservative; they were geared to survival in Africa’s fickle climate.

The Southern Nguni peoples arrived in the Buffalo City area during the 7th century and Buffalo City lies within the area which became known as Xhosaland. The Xhosas were a branch of the Southern Nguni and trace their lineage to an ancestor named Xhosa. Archaeologists have recently made exciting discoveries of early man in the Eastern Cape and it is clear that much more needs to be done. The dating of the pottery found at the farm, Canasta Place, already pushes the previously accepted date of Xhosa-speakers in this area from the 16th to the 7th century.

Stone-age artefacts and more recent Iron Age implements at many sites provide evidence of a very long and almost continuous presence of humans in the area making up the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Early inhabitants were San hunter-gatherers who left numerous rock-paintings scattered across the region, while Bantu people entered about 800 years ago, gradually displacing the San. Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists began arriving in southern Africa, bringing with them an Iron-Age culture and domesticated crops. After establishing themselves in the well-watered eastern coastal region of southern Africa, these farmers spread out across the interior plateau, or “highveld”, where they adopted a more extensive cattle-farming culture.

Chiefdoms arose, based on control over cattle, which gave rise to systems of patronage and hence hierarchies of authority within communities. Metallurgical skills, developed in the mining and processing of iron, copper, tin and gold, promoted regional trade and craft specialisation.

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Page last modified: 25-10-2012 15:44:17 ZULU