South African History Podcast – Episodes 6-11 taking us from Mapungubwe to van Riebeeck

From Mapungubwe to the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, the series explores the history from various perspectives.

When Mapungubwe emerged from the increased trade between central south Africa and the East Coast seaboard including ivory, skins and eventually, gold around 1000AD. 

Unlike areas of Africa further north and north west, slave trade did not impact this region for a number of reasons. The main is distance. Each mile further south from the main Arabian, Asian and European – then American centers of slavery meant was a threat to the survival of those unfortunate souls seized as slaves by intermediaries. 

So Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe were not crucial in the trade of humans over the centuries, their power lay in goods rather than people. 

We heard too how by the start of the eleventh century Mapungubwe culture had shifted from the Complex Cattle Pattern where each settlement featured a large cattle kraal in the centre – to something very different. 

The spatial expression of status and the greater social distance between elite and commoner was expressed through the trade and storage of valuable products that replaced cattle as items regarded as most important. 

While ivory had been traded for hundreds of years, gold became extremely important to the Mapungubwe people. Gold plated rhino statuettes, a bowl and scepter have been found in the grave or what we think was a royal cemetery on the Mapungubwe main settlement hilltop. 

In more modern Shona ethnography, the black rhino is a symbol of political power and leadership so there is some speculation that the golden rhino found in the grave pointed to an important burial site. These royal burial sites are also smothered in some thing else … thousands of gold and glass trade beads. 

The area today would not really be able to sustain large-scale grain production. The location of elite and commoner settlements here throughout the tenth to the thirteenth centuries AD sheds light on how the scale of agricultural production was achieved. 

It’s all geography of course. Besides finding a place where water flows, these people also setup their settlements near alluvial gold that was washing down the rivers draining the gold rich geology of the Zimbabwe plateau to the north.  So these folks were looking out across a landscape that had gold, and an extensive flood plain close to the Limpopo River just upstream from the junction with the Shashe River.

Development of the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni in Southern Africa

Combine this with a continuing trade to the southeast African coastline and particularly Europeans from the 1500s, what Simon Hall calls the historical anonymity that veils much of the first millennium starts to slip. 

It is now that we can begin tracing the origin of the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni speakers. Cultural remains of people who are regarded as those of ancestral Nguni speakers first appear around 1100AD along the coastal regions of KwaZulu Natal, while Sotho and Tswana speakers are linked to Bushveld habitats north and south of the Soutpansburg from about 1300AD. 

As with our other links, its all about pottery, ceramics if you like, and other cultural items. 

Starting 1000 years ago, we begin tracking these people as they migrate over the land – leaving their homesteads to be covered by hundreds of years of South African weathering only to be unearthed by some lucky person in the 20th or 21stCentury. 

Stand back for a moment and consider our journey so far. First we heard about the geological change, then climate shifts, then we covered the earliest known hunter-gatherer people who left their mark on the land over 100 000 years. The earliest farmers migrated to southern Africa around 2000 years ago, then by 500 years ago pastoralists’ could be found in the Karoo with their sheep and dogs. 

Cattle begin arriving around 500AD and pastoralists dominate the west of the country with its arid conditions suited to livestock but these people did not work iron like those in the East – the wetter summer rainfall areas. 

By 900AD the central region is trading with East African ports, which leads to larger empires if you want to use that word which can be found by 900 through to 1300AD. 

It is now that the more modern people of South Africa can be identified more precisely, the Nguni, the Sotho, the Tswana. 

Standing back once more and looking from above so to speak, its clear that the Sotho and Tswana people populated South Africa from North to South. 

But the Nguni people on the other hand are a completely different kettle of fish. We know enough to say there is no continuous record of settlements and homesteads between the early farmer phase of the Ntshekane as they’re known and these pioneer Nguni folks.

What this means in a nutshell is that although there were ancient people who farmed living in KwaZulu Natal, they were not the same as the new arrivals who spoke a form of early Zulu and eventually isiXhosa. 

However, it does mean that the origins of both the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni speakers appear to be broadly related. The impetus that was behind the movement must have come from the north of the Limpopo. 

Mystery about main cause of southward expansion

The frustrating thing is we just don’t know why they began moving south from the areas as far north as Lake Malawi except because of what is known as fission within kin groups. 

Khoe farmers as well as Dutch settlers also followed a form of Fission – which means sons of powerful men leave the homestead to setup their own settlements away from their parents. They moved into virgin territory at times – at others they would bump into existing ancient farmers and coopt them – or fold them into the new culture. 

Once they were established in South Africa distinctive Sotho/Tswana settlements appear between the 14th and fifteenth centuries spreading south. 

These Sotho and Tswana were actually part of a new frontier farming community – as strange as that may sound to the modern ear. There is not a great deal of oral history about the first century or two of this intermingling where the ancient first farmers were overtaken by the Sotho and Tswana. 

There is a subtle incorporation of some early iron Age decorations into the style of Sotho/Tswana pottery and in eastern Botswana we know they shared the landscape at first. 

The fifteenth century was a busy time – and not just for the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni people’s beginning to spread around southern Africa. 

Further afield, in Europe, moves were afoot that would have a cataclysmic effect on global history – it was the time of Portuguese and Spanish expansion. Soon thereafter to be followed by the Dutch, French and English. 

The arrival of the Portuguese

In Episode 6 and 7 we heard how Portuguese explorer Bartolemeu Dias had rounded the Cape and landed at Mossel Bay in November 1488. He was the first person to sail around the continent to the South and his journey revolutionized commerce in Europe – and southern Africa. 

Dias dropped anchor in Mossell bay and as his men filled their water barrels, they were approached by Khoe herders who were nearby. 

There appears to have been some sort of confrontation, stones were thrown, and when the Portuguese fired back with a cross bow, one of the Khoe herders had been killed. 

This was an ominous sign for future relationships. The first contact between Europeans and traditional Khoe herders ended in violence. It is not clear exactly what set this off but neither group could speak the other’s language which didn’t help. 

Dias sailed onwards to Algoa Bay, then satisfied he’d rounded the tip of Africa, sailed home again passing Cape point and the future location of Cape Town on the way back. 

As he journed home and just beyond the southern tip of Africa, Dias’ ships were hit by gale force winds and a major storm – so naturally  he gave the Cape the name “Cabo de Todos los Tormentos” or Cape of Storms. 

When he returned to Portugal King Joåo was delighted to hear about the route, but not exactly pleased with the name –  but he had a good eye for public relations and ordered it  changed to “Cabo de Båo Esperanza” or Cape of Good Hope – a name which remains in use to this day. I ended last episode by explaining how name changes are a natural human compulsion and King Joao was no different. 

Dias then tried to drum up support for another expedition down South but he faced a challenge. Other explorers were more interested in a direct route westwards across the Atlantic to the New World – the Spanish were dominating this route and were already plundering South America and King Joao rejected Dias’ plans for more Cape exploring. 


By 1500 the ancestral Tswana settlements were well established below the 5000 feet contour line of South Africa and to the north of the southern grasslands of the Free State. 

These folks built their homesteads along the lower reaches of hills closer to the rivers whereas the older people, the first farmers, tended to build their homes a little higher. They were still utilising the central Cattle pattern layout. The preservation of these earliest Tswana sites is poor and yet we have found evidence of sorghum and millet agriculture. 

IT was a mixed farming system here in a well-resourced habitat. Some of the more interesting finds are around Marico in North West province where early Sotho and Tswana are also backed up by the Hurutshe oral tradition 

The Barolong were associated with this region too and predate the time when increased population meant a fission process that led to the formation of the BaRolong. Most of these early 1500 Sotho/Tswana homesteads appeared to be self-sufficient.

They are also missing a core ingredient which is always found in south Africa when people are linked to the eastern ocean trade network.

Glass beads. 

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