The Shashe-Limpopo basin and the origin of the Zimbabwe culture

Around 900, Zhizo farmers living in what is now Zimbabwe moved into the Shashe-Limpopo basin where modern South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet. By this time Swahili, Arabic, Indian and Indonesian merchants involved in the Indian Ocean trade system had begun to show an interest in the resources of the Sofalan hinterland, that is, the country inland of the Mozambican coast. These resources included ivory, iron and gold.

Map of Mapungubwe and related sites

The Zhizo move was probably driven by a desire to take advantage of the growing trade. At that time the Limpopo valley was too arid for regularly successful agriculture, but it did support herds of elephants. Indeed, most Zhizo sites in the basin are situated on high ground away from the more arable soils where the elephants would have roamed. The Zhizo chief most likely lived at a large site known today as Schroda, which probably housed up to 500 people and contains substantial quantities of ivory. Other remains include glass beads, cowrie shells and the remains of carnivores, possibly hunted to obtain pelts for export. Schroda was most probably a point of export of trade materials to the coast in the vicinity of Vilanculos Bay, and from there to distant lands. In return, Zhizo people received glass beads, cloth and other exotica.

The wide distribution of Zhizo glass beads in southern Africa indicates that Zhizo people used trade goods to acquire both export materials and agricultural produce to supplement their own farming efforts. Intriguingly, Zhizo glass beads do not occur in great numbers in Swahili sites farther north along the east African coast. It seems likely that the key trading partners of the Limpopo Zhizo were Indonesians and Madagascans of Indonesian descent, rather than traders using the monsoonal wind system that facilitated trade between Africa,Arabia and India. Indonesian merchants could have sailed directly from southeast Asia toMadagascar and the Africa coast in about a month using the equatorial trade winds, and a variety of data suggests that they did so.

Schroda’s burgeoning wealth attracted the attention of Kalundu people further south, who moved north around 1000 and took control of the region. This movement is archaeologically recognisable from the appearance of Kalundu ceramics throughout the Shashe-Limpopo basin. These people established a capital at a site we call K2, which at its largest housed up to 1 500 people. In the following 200 years, K2 leaders accumulated enormous wealth in the form of trade goods, and changed the way in which wealth was distributed insociety. In contrast to the wide dispersal of trade goods in Zhizo times, K2 leaders introduced a tight control on trade goods, so that in their imported form they were largely retained by the elite. Local specialists, for example, melted and recast imported glass beads into larger ‘garden rollers’ and it is these that were dispersed through trade and social networks in the interior. The extent of their distribution shows that K2 was at the centre of an enormous sphere of interaction.

Control of the trade allowed K2 leaders and their associates to accumulate wealth different from traditional forms such as cattle. However, wealth in trade goods would certainly have been complemented by wealth in cattle, which would have been consistent with their status in society and allowed them to participate in conventional exchange relationships. In time, the leaders probably came to possess virtually all the cattle in the chiefdom. The archaeological evidence shows that around 1150, the central cattle pen at K2 fell into dis-use and was covered over by the growing court midden. In other words, the organisation of space at K2 was altered so that it no longer conformed to the Central Cattle Pattern. This probably indicates that cattle became the exclusive property of the elite; that ordinary people, commoners, no longer had access to power through the accumulation of cattle. The K2 elite had created a separate, royal category for themselves: class distinction had evolved.

The success of the K2 elite was aided by an improvement in the climate, which permitted an intensification of agricultural production in the basin and provided critical support for a rapidly growing population. Further, a particular combination of riverine and topographical features in the basin allowed for floodplain agriculture, at least in years of high rainfall. In this sense, the Limpopo was the Nile of South Africa. Also, the increased complexity of K2 society was reflected in a more complex management of the land and other resources. Specialists focused on crop production on the lands either side of the river (by now the elephants had been driven away!), or on management of livestock, or on pottery or garden roller bead production. Among these specialists were descendents of the original Zhizo people. While most had been driven westward by the Kalundu takeover, those who stayed behind retained their own identity within the dominant K2 polity. Their distinctiveness was perhaps possible because K2 people regarded them as ‘First People’, with a special connection to the land. As such the Zhizo descendents seem to have become specialists in crafts, cattle herding and ritual. First People status, however, would have excluded them from political power; rather, it would more likely have been a resource exploited and manipulated by the K2 leadership.

The Mapunguhwe period

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Origin Of Farming In South Africa Settlement Organisation And Society

For some years now, archaeological research has focused on understanding how these various technical aspects of early farming were integrated into a particular way of life. To do this, archaeologists examined settlement organisation. A relationship between social and settlement organisation exists throughout the world. For African farmers in South Africa there is, firstly, an underlying regularity in the way in which traditional homesteads

Hollow ceramic head

Fragments of a hollow ceramic head dating to the 800s.

are organised. Secondly, complex relations exist between the spatial code in the homestead (how it is organised) and other symbolic codes. In other words, traditional settlement patterns reflect and make statements about, for example, the roles of men and women, differential control of resources, kinship relations, social hierarchies, and the relationship with the ancestral world.

Archaeologists have captured the essence of homestead organisation in an idealised model called the Central Cattle Pattern. In this pattern, wives live in houses arranged in ranked order around a central area containing cattle pens and a court. Each wife stores grain from her fields in granaries in the courtyard of her house, but grain controlled by the homestead head is stored in the central area. Ceremonies such as weddings take place in the central area and important people are buried there, usually in or close to the cattle pen. These are generally men related by blood to the homestead head, though this status can be extended to other deceased family members (in the case of political leaders, for example). The central area is a male area, where men gather and do men’s work; access by women and their movement within it is controlled. By contrast, the residential zone is associated with women. Men, of course, sleep and act in the residential zone, and houses are typically divided internally on gender lines, but this does not change its association.

Central Cattle Pattern homesteads are built only by Eastern Bantu speakers who are patrilineal (descent is through the father), have hereditary male leadership and a preference for bridewealth in cattle, and hold particular beliefs about the role of ancestors in daily life. Thus, the presence of the pattern today and in the archaeological past indicates the presence of people with these interrelated cultural attributes. Since archaeological research shows that the Central Cattle Pattern existed among both Kwale Branch and

An artist’s impression of the hollow head’s

An artist’s impression of the hollow head’s

Kalundu Tradition people, so must the associated gender, kinship and power relations have existed. To argue for similarity at this deep cultural level between the present and the past does not deny history, as some scholars might think. Instead, it provides a context within which people made history.

The Central Cattle Pattern also provides a context for the interpretation of enigmatic remains from the first millennium AD. The 800s site of Ndondondwane in the Thukela valley yielded the remains of at least four hollow ceramic ‘heads’, with crocodilian ‘beaks’ or snouts and bulging eyes. Some are large enough to have been worn by a person, and this was possibly their purpose.

The artifacts bring to mind the extraordinary Lydenburg heads, now also shown to date to the 800s rather than 500 as previously believed. Ray Inskeep and Tim Maggs noted that when new, ‘with fresh white slip, or paint and glittering specularite, [the Lydenburg heads] must have been dramatic objects to behold’. Details of the sculpted mouths on four of the seven heads link them strongly to rites of passage. These contain evenly spaced peg-like teeth, separated into two groups by a gap in front. The gap probably represents dental mutilation suffered by young people in their teenage years, which served to mark them indelibly as adults. Human skeletal remains show that the lower four and two central upper incisors were extracted, and the upper lateral incisors and neighbouring canines were chipped to create rough points. This representation of the operation, and the context of the Ndondondwane heads, suggests that these remarkable artifacts were part of the initiation paraphernalia used in premarital schools held in the central part of the settlement.

Some sites have yielded broken ceramic figurines of human females, with featureless heads and stubby limbs, prominent navels and protruding buttocks, or a combination of these features. Some have rows of impressions and incised lines possibly representing scarification, other marks seem to represent genitalia. Available data show that the central court midden was a common, but not the only, place of discard. It would seem that the figurines were deliberately broken, which is a practice typically associated with rites of passage – the breakage symbolises an irreversible change in an individual’s status. Perhaps the figurines were used as props in lessons where young people learnt proper adult behaviour.

Generally, ceramic figurines are few in number, but this is not the case at the 900s site of Schroda in the Limpopo valley. Here, a single excavation unit

A hollow ceramic head from the Lydenburg Heads Site

A hollow ceramic head from the Lydenburg Heads Site

yielded over 2 000 fragments. As on other sites, the Schroda figurines occurred in two contexts. A particular stylised female form was widely distributed on the site. These were probably fertility ‘dolls’ kept by girls and women. Others were concentrated in the central area, close to the cattle pen. These include anthropomorphic figures, non-domestic and fantasy animals (including birds), and phallic shapes, all made of coarse clay, as well as domestic animals and phalli, made of fine clay.

It is worth noting that today it is the responsibility of chiefs to convene communal rites of passage such as premarital schools. Given the evidence for the Central Cattle Pattern and its associated relations of authority, it is probable that this was also the case in the first millennium AD. This would indicate that the sites of

Ceramic fi gurines

Ceramic figurines dating to the 700–800s.

Ndondondwane, Lydenburg and Schroda represent the settlements of chiefs. In the Schroda case, the figurines were probably used in premarital schools for girls.


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The origin of farming in South Africa

KwaZulu-Natal Pot

Pot from KwaZulu-Natal in the Kalundu Tradition, dating to the 600–700s. The decoration consists of a band on the rim (much of it broken away), multiple bands in the neck and pendant triangles on the shoulder. It is an example of the most complex decoration of this period. Here the potter gave the triangles special emphasis by scraping away clay so that they stood proud of the surface.

African farmers first settled in what is now South Africa about 1 700 years ago, bringing a new way of life to the southern reaches of the continent. Farming was originally developed by their ancestors in the vicinity of modern Cameroon and Nigeria, between 2 000 and 4 000 years ago. From there, people spread eastwards and southwards, skirting the tropical forest, which did not provide the right environment for their crops and animals. Their movement was probably driven at least in part by a search for new agricultural lands and iron-ore sources. Farming communities reached what is now northern Angola and East Africa by the early centuries of the first millennium AD. From there people continued to spread southwards into savanna environments with good grazing, arable soils and adequate rainfall for crops such as sorghum, millets, and various legumes and cucurbits.

This section deals with African farmers in South Africa, from their first settlement through to 1800. For space reasons, it excludes discussion of their interaction with huntergatherers, although there is much evidence for this. Written reports of African farming life appear only after 1500. For the most part, therefore, their history must be elucidated by archaeological investigation: indeed, there can be no South African history without archaeology.

Pottery of the Kwale Branch style shows that the first farmers in South Africa were descended from people who had lived in East Africa. They settled in the eastern parts of the subcontinent from around 280; sites are recorded in southeast Zimbabwe, near Tzaneen, in the Kruger National Park and in Swaziland and Mozambique. By 400, they had spread south into the coastal parts of KwaZulu-Natal, reaching the middle South Coast.

Other farmers, descended from people who had moved from West Africa into Angola, settled in South Africa from around 550. These people can be identified by Kalundu Tradition pottery. All early Kalundu Tradition sites in South Africa contain evidence, on the pottery, of interaction with Kwale Branch people. Merged styles and borrowed decorative elements occur in varying degrees. This interaction most likely included marriages. We do not yet know the implications of this for the evolution of language.

Four distinct ceramic style clusters evolved out of Kalundu-Kwale interactions. By the late 700s, the makers of these four clusters had spread into bushveld environments to the southernmost limits of the summer rainfall region, near modern East London. The Kalundu pottery style dominates in all four clusters and it is tempting to accept that this signifies a domination of the Kalundu language. The emergence of the four style clusters and their subsequent diverging history suggests a linguistic differentiation that sharpened through time.

As a rule, farmers selected river- or lakeside locations for settlement. Sites can be as much as five to ten hectares in area, frequently with dense concentrations of artifactual remains. Many have evidence of long or multiple occupations. The surrounding bushveld provided wood for industrial and domestic use and offered year-round sweet grazing, while farmers in some areas probably exploited the summer grazing potential of grasslands on the higher ground above the valleys. Crops included bulrush millet, finger millet and sorghum. Evidence from KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere in southern Africa indicates that pulses (Bambara groundnuts and cow peas) and cucurbits (African melons and gourds) were also cultivated. Wild plants were also exploited for food; carbonised marula seeds, for instance, are common on several sites.

For meat, communities were heavily dependent on domestic cattle, sheep and goats, while chickens probably supplied an occasional meal. Hunting was generally of limited dietary significance; people hunted primates, carnivores, various ungulates, larger mammals such as elephant and hippopotamus, and smaller mammals like pangolin, water mongoose and hare for dietary interest, ritual and social requirements, and simple recreation. Hunting was more important in areas with poor grazing; people living in what is now the Kruger National Park focused on large, herd animals and at only a single first millennium AD site did the contribution of domestic meat equal that of hunted meat. Livestock in this area was most likely retained for social use – in exchange relationships, for instance.

Rivers were exploited only rarely for food, but people within reach of the coast made use of resources in the intertidal and near-shore zone. For example, sites 25 kilometres inland of modern Durban contained marine fish and shellfish remains. Harvesting trips to the coast would most likely have been timed to coincide with spring low tides. On the shore, the opposite end of the harvesting cycle is preserved in middens (refuse heaps) containing shellfish remains, ceramics, hearths and fire-stones. The extent to which inland visitors to the coast actively fished is unknown; perhaps they acquired fish from people in the coastal belt who were practised in the exploitation of marine and estuarine resources. The species identified include those easily trapped in estuaries, and black and white musselcrackers – landed today with some difficulty using lines off rocky promontories.

People and pottery styles

Settlement organisation and society

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About The Authors Andrew Manson

Andrew Manson formerly Professor of History at the University of North-West, Mafikeng, has published widely in the fields of Natal and Zulu history and aspects of South Africa’s western highveld. He is co-author of The Hlubi Chiefdom in Natal/Zululand: a History.

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KhoiKhoi Pastoralists Trading With Europeans

Though Khoikhoi themselves did not apparently smelt metals, the earliest Portuguese visitors attest that they used copper for jewellery and valued iron as tips for their spears; both metals probably reached the Cape through long-distance trade with Bantu speaking peoples in the interior. Khoikhoi also traded dagga (marijuana). Long standing demand for these three goods would form the basis of trade with European mariners, particularly the English and the Dutch, who began to call regularly at Table Bay on their way to and from Asia in the 1590s.

At first Khoikhoi were willing to trade large quan tities of cattle and sheep desperately needed by hungry European sailors. In return they received small quantities of iron, copper and tobacco (apparently used as a mild dagga substitute). However, they rapidly learned that Europeans valued cattle far more than metal trinkets and tobacco; the price of livestock in Table Bay accordingly rose steadily, prompting some European sailors to resort to outright theft. In the long history of spasmodic trade and conflict at Table Bay, enormous opportunities presented themselves to those Khoikhoi who could master European languages. Two of these – Harry and Doman (See Three Khoikhoi interpreters) – would play central roles in the politics of the new settlement Jan van Riebeeck founded in 1652.

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KhoiKhoi Pastoralists The Khoikhoi And The San

The instability in Khoikhoi society was further intensified by the nearby presence of San. Some San groups frequently attacked the Khoikhoi, sowing terror by firing off poisoned arrows normally used to hunt great game, and stealing and frequently slaughtering Khoikhoi livestock.



Yet many so-called San also lived peaceably in or on the fringes of Khoikhoi societies, serving Khoikhoi as hunters, guides, or spies and soldiers in time of war. Khoikhoi hired some as herders and took some as wives. In many areas, notably the southwestern Cape, the boundary between Khoikhoi and San became increasingly unclear. Newly impoverished Khoikhoi were often called San, and San who had prospered were absorbed into Khoikhoi lineages and polities. The coexistence of hunting and herding societies throughout the region created opportunities for upward mobility for enterprising San, and provided the safety net of an alternative lifestyle for newly impoverished pastoralists. But easy passage from herding to hunting would also accelerate the rapid crumbling of Khoikhoi society when it was confronted by Dutch colonialism.

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KhoiKhoi Pastoralists Polities Of The Khoikhoi

Illustrations of khoikhoi

Three illustrations of Khoikhoi. The Khoikhoi were descendants of huntergatherers who had acquired livestock centuries earlier and expanded with their pastoral economy throughout southern Africa. To the east they were probably absorbed into Bantu-speaking societies over the centuries. They also lived near the San and sometimes joined the San when they lost their livestock, reverting to hunting and gathering.

In most areas of southern Africa, including the southwestern Cape, the pastoral Khoi khoi lived near hunter-gatherers who kept neither cattle nor sheep. The hunters were called ‘San’ by the Khoikhoi, ‘Bushmen’ by the Dutch. Some Khoi – khoi who lost their livestock in times of war or disease fled to the frontier regions and joined San bands, reverting to hunting and gathering, and sometimes attacking the livestock of other Khoikhoi. Many of those whom the colonists called ‘Bushmen’ were in fact former Khoikhoi. For this reason, scholars sometimes find it convenient to refer to hunters and herders together as ‘Khoisan’.

Khoisan languages, characterised by implosive consonants or ‘clicks’, belonged to a totally different language family from those of the Bantu speakers. In contrast to the San, who spoke highly divergent languages, the Khoikhoi spoke closely related dialects of the same language. From present-day Port Elizabeth to the present Springbok, the Khoikhoi were organised in approximately twelve chiefdoms that the Dutch called ‘nations’. Some were ruled by male figures (called ‘kings’ or ‘captains’ by the Dutch), but others had no leaders above headmen of small clans.

Though Khoikhoi had no standing armies and no military leaders apart from their chiefs, they seem to have engaged in frequent wars. European observers were deeply impressed by their dexterity in battle and by their skilful use of weapons. Wars were often triggered by cattle theft, murders, and by the abduction of prominent women – provocations that led to vendettas that would smoulder and flare up over the generations. Khoikhoi fought pitched battles, using assegais, bows, stones and darts as offensive weapons; they massed their oxen together as defensive ramparts and drove them forward as flying wedges to gore and trample the enemy.

Such battles, though apparently not very bloody, often resulted in significant transfers of herds and flocks from the vanquished to the victors. In other cases – as, for example, when they faced Dutch soldiers armed with muskets – the Khoi khoi could resort to guerrilla tactics, characterised by swift and overwhelming attack on the enemy’s herds.

Before the Dutch arrived, the Cape Khoikhoi herded their cattle and sheep, and also hunted game, in a favoured region of Africa far from cultivating socie ties that elsewhere would have competed with them for use of well-watered land. Although the Khoikhoi slaughtered cattle only on special occasions, their livestock provided them with milk, their principal source of nutrition, and also skins to make clothing, bags, bottles and other implements. Livestock served, too, as a means of transport and warfare, and the source of prestige and power.The pastoral economy was occasionally a source of abundant wealth for Khoikhoi individuals and communities. But it was also a source of instability. As herders, the Khoikhoi had to move constantly in search of fresh pasture; the basis of their wealth was not land, but the animals themselves. Because livestock was frequently stolen – and also vulnerable to drought, disease, and war – wealth fluctuated dramatically among Khoikhoi as groups and individuals rapidly acquired, and rapidly lost, their herds and flocks.

Khoikhoi society seems to have been rather individualistic, with well-grooved channels of upward and downward mobility. While political power was in theory inherited on the basis of kinship, the rise of rulers was more decisively determined by their ability to amass livestock for themselves and to protect the livestock of their followers.

Cape Khoikhoi

The Cape Khoikhoi and where they lived

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The KhoiKhoi pastoralists

Khoikhoi woven baskets

Khoikhoi artifacts as drawn by Anders Sparrman in his book A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope from the year 1772 to 1776.

The Khoikhoi (called ‘Hottentots’ by early white settlers) were descendants of huntergatherers who had acquired livestock centuries earlier, probably in modern Botswana. Supporting a growing population through their pastoral economy they expanded fairly rapidly throughout southern Africa. Those moving into high rainfall areas to the east were probably absorbed over the centuries into Bantu-speaking societies that both kept cattle and cultivated crops; those moving southward and westward tended to retain their purely pastoral economy.

When European settlement began in the mid-seventeenth century, Khoikhoi groups called the Namaqua were

Khoikhoi bracelet

Khoikhoi bracelet

settled in modern Namibia and the north eastern Cape; others, including the Korana, along the Orange River; and others, including the Gonaqua, interspersed among the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape. But the largest concentration of Khoikhoi, numbering in the tens of thousands, inhabited the well-watered pasturelands of the southwestern Cape. These ‘Cape Khoikhoi’ would be the first African population to receive the brunt of white settlement.

Polities of the Khoikhoi

Khoikhoi and the San

Trading with Europeans

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The meaning of rock art

There is overwhelming evidence that the hunter-gatherer rock paintings and engravings of southern Africa illustrate the metaphors, conventions and practices of a San religion or belief system that persists to the present day in surviving communities in Namibia and Botswana. It was the glue that bound San families and communities together.

The main source of information on San beliefs in South Africa comes from records made in the 1870s of the customs and beliefs of the /Xam San from the Northern Cape. The records were compiled by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, who interviewed /Xam men in prison in Cape Town for stock theft and other crimes. Their testimony is very similar to accounts of San interviewed by anthropologists in the twentieth century.

Khoikhoi finger painting
Khoikhoi finger painting

As the ground-breaking research of David Lewis-Williams has shown, animals in rock paintings were important in San beliefs in much the same way as the lamb is a symbol in Christian beliefs and the eagle is important to Native Americans. The eland was believed by the San to give them access to super natural power for healing sick people, making rain and controlling game animals. Other animals, such as the elephant in the Western Cape and the kudu in Limpopo, had similarly powerful connotations.

Supernatural power was obtained by trained medicine people, or !gi:ten, who learned over many years how to control it by entering a trance-like state through dancing and singing. Many of the paintings show processions of people dancing, sometimes wearing karosses (cloaks), sometimes carrying sticks or fly-whisks made from the tails of animals. Women are often shown dancing, too, or clapping their hands. Bags with tassels, shown next to the dancers or processions, were used to carry medicine or herbs such as buchu that helped them to enter a trance and could be used to heal the sick. Mood-altering drugs such as dagga (marijuana) were not generally used.

Paintings and engravings of people with animal heads, or animals with human legs are a multilayered metaphor. They illustrate the sensation experienced by !gi:ten in trance, who feel as if they are becoming the animals that give them supernatural power. Death is the metaphor that medicine people use for trance because they feel as if they die and then come alive again.

Ultimately, however, the power of the spirit world was not enough to protect them and rock paintings of soldiers in red coats firing guns at fleeing San as a medicine person lies in trance to one side are a powerful reminder of the events that brought about the end of the Stone Age in South Africa.

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Hunter-gatherers Of South Africa Rock Art As A Record Of Spiritual Beliefs

Recent rock paintings

Recent rock paintings of people in colonial dress, with horses, mules, guns and wagons.

Rock art by LSA hunter-gatherers can be found in the form of paintings or engravings in almost every district in South Africa. There is no comprehensive list of all sites, and many have not been recorded, but it is estimated that there are at least 20 000 to 30 000 sites and well over a million individual images. Although many are not well preserved, collectively they represent a remarkable record of the beliefs and cultural practices of the people who made them. Most were created by San hunter-gatherers, but Khoikhoi herders and Iron Age farmers added to the collection.

Northern Sotho rock art

Northern Sotho rock art

The hunter-gatherer paintings were generally made with a brush or with a reed ‘pen’ and have fine lines and delicate details. They were mostly made with red ochre, but yellow, purple, white and black were also used. Most paintings used one colour (monochrome) but some are painted with two (bichrome) or several colours (poly chrome). Where the paint is blended from one colour to another, it is referred to as shaded polychrome. Not only did the hunter-gatherers make paint that has lasted thousands of years, they were gifted artists who expressed complex ideas in elegantly simple ways. They were also responsible for the older tradition of rock engravings in the Karoo.

Khoikhoi herders who brought sheep and cattle into this part of South Africa within the last 2 000 years were probably responsible for the most recent phase of painting, in which the paint was applied with a finger instead of a brush. The colours are mostly monochrome and the subject matter is frequently non-representational patterns with symbolic meaning. As the Khoikhoi settled on the land formerly occupied by hunter-gatherers, the San gradually stopped painting as their numbers and cultural activities declined.

Iron Age farmers contributed paintings and engravings in the Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng and North West provinces after they settled there more than 1 000 years ago. Their paintings were also made with a finger or very broad brush and are closely connected to initiation of young men and women.

Khoikhoi fi nger painting from the Carnarvon District, showing patterns used during girls’ initiation rites.

Khoikhoi fi nger painting from the Carnarvon District, showing patterns used during girls’ initiation rites.

Dating rock art

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