All living people are of African descent. It was in Africa that the life of our ancestors who looked like the people of today began hundreds of thousands of years ago. Novelists, filmmakers and artists have tried to imagine what their lifestyle must have been like, but we have no modern analogue for such a remote period. What we do know is that some of these people left eastern Africa at least 80 000 years ago and populated the rest of the world.
For this book, we begin the story with a small sample of fossil bones that have been left behind and preserved by chance to give us an idea of what our oldest ancestors looked like. Between about one and three million years ago, a lineage of primates, now known as australopithecines, lived close to present-day Johannesburg. Later, from about 1.8 million years ago, South Africa became home to early humans whose anatomy was closer to ours. They and their descendants have lived here ever since and their history has become part of the landscape.
This chapter traces the evolution of humankind and discusses ways of interpreting our ancient past. It looks at the great migrations, when the first people left the warm African habitats and spread out into Eurasia. It sketches in broad strokes what happened after that.
By 14 000 years ago, hunter-gatherers, ancestors of the people known today as San or Bushmen, were widely dispersed through southern Africa. The switch from stone to iron happened in North Africa 3 000 years ago, and by 2 500 years ago the first sedentary peoples settled in sub-Saharan Africa, bringing with them agriculture, metal-working and pottery. By 2 000 years ago there was a massive revolution in lifestyle in southern Africa. The Khoikhoi in the northern part of what is now called Botswana acquired livestock from the Bantu-speakers moving into the area, and the Khoikhoi themselves migrated southwards to what was to become South Africa.