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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