History of South Africa podcast – Episode 3: 6000 year-old hunter-gatherer ochre and the first Bantu farmers arrive in Southern Africa

This episode we’re moving forward into the early stone age as it’s known and much of our story covers the period after the last ice age which ended 10 000 years ago.  

Prior to this the oceans had subsided as ice covered much of the world – leading to the coastline along the Indian and Atlantic seaboard of South Africa moving around one hundred kilometers out to sea beyond today’s beaches.

That poses a challenge as we investigate origins of man and woman on the sub-continent. Much of the archaeological evidence is now under hundreds of feet of sea water way offshore.

We do have some material inland, as well as the shellfish middens that began to appear much later in the record which allows us to piece together an increasingly accurate picture of what was going on.

South Africa’s prehistory has been divided into a series of phases based on broad patterns of technology. The primary distinction is between a reliance on chipped and flaked stone implements which is referred to as the Stone Age which begins with the peolithic period 2.5 million years ago – that’s the early stone age.

The middle stone age starts 150 000 years ago and ends around 30 000 BC, while the late stone age ends 2000 years ago.

That is when new people arrived in South Africa who had the ability to smelt iron weapons and tools – the Iron Age had arrived with these farmers from central Africa.

The first peoples of the region predated both the San and Khoe and of course we have no clear idea of their language. But we do have Mitocondrial DNA evidence and cultural artifacts.

First, let’s consider Hunter-gatherers who foraged along the seashore for shells and fish, and cooked seafood over fire -the original people of this land.

As there are a lot of hollowed caves along the South Eastern coastline of South Africa, many were extended and improved by the people living in them.

These caves in the sea cliff some high above sea level providing an extremely safe environment against enemies or predators. And it was in this relatively warm environment that new born babies could stay in the crib for at least one year without having to fend for themselves; thus it is believed that modern humans started to deliver helpless infants kept safely in these crevices.

Human language was developing at the same time. Specialists say it is plausible that the frequent use of the tongue to  produce click sounds contributed to the unique mandible of modern humans. As I explained last episode, the most diverse range of sounds humans make is by those who speak the San and the original Khoe languages which leads linguists to summise this diversity indicates these are directly linked to the earliest languages spoken by humans.

These hunter-gatherer societies which lasted tens of thousands of years were going to find their lives  changing inexorably from around 2000 years ago.

That is when sheep and then cattle, as well as domestic plants including sorghum and millet first spread to southern Africa.

They were brought into the region by people who migrated from the north, from central and central west Africa. By analysing the remains we have a much more accurate picture of what daily life was like than you’d expect considering we don’t have written evidence.

The Chifumbaze Complex – origin of pottery and iron in Southern Africa. Note how both meet around the Limpopo River.

The evidence however, is stored in the science of archaeology.

And so some of these hunter-gatherer units were transformed into a mixed society as the pastoralists and farmers spread. Others retained their ancient ways.

These new people brought new ideas.

The herders, to be technical, are people who maintain domestic stock and are mostly mobile – moving from graving area to grazing area.

Pastoralists and farmers, on the other hand, are more sedentary and mix agriculture with the use of domestic animals.

This differentiation will become clearer as we go along this journey together. But it is crucial because the history of South African followed a trail based on the interaction of these types of people.

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