South Africa - 'The Myth of the Empty Land' by Shula Marks, 1 January 1980, South Africa

26 January 2015

Shula Marks examines the abundant archaeological evidence, much of it recently gathered, for the widespread settlement of South Africa before 1488 when Portuguese sailors first reached the Cape.

For over 1,000 years before the Dutch arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, Iron Age farmers and Late Stone Age peoples had been living in the interior of South Africa. Yet the South African Government's allocation of only 13 per cent of the country's land to its Bantu-speaking inhabitants as 'homelands' was justified historically on the grounds that at the time the whites moved into the interior to settle, large areas were empty of inhabitants; further, the Bantu-speaking population, far from already being resident there, were themselves moving southwards to occupy the same 'empty land'.

Most human groups have their myths of origin, explaining and justifying the contemporary distribution of power and resources in society. It may be true that in Britain, as Sir Robert Birley remarked in his 1974 Bowra Memorial Lecture in Cheltenham, 'our past history may be interesting to us, but it does not matter very much'. In a society as deeply divided as that of South Africa, by contrast, the past is not simply some neutrally observed and politely agreed set of 'facts'. It is a series of fiercely and indeed at times obsessively contested myths.

Three myths in particular form part of the white man's justification for his rule and for his position of power and privilege in the contemporary Republic. The first holds that the present-day Bantu-speaking (Black) African inhabitants of South Africa, who today constitute nearly 80 per cent of the population, are relatively recent arrivals in the subcontinent; their advent barely predates that of the Europeans in the mid-seventeenth century; and they swept down into southern Africa from the north in a series of waves devastating the earlier Stone Age inhabitants, who incidentally are rather left out of any further account for that reason. The second holds that the present-day location of the Bantu-speakers in South Africa is both a simple reflection of these original migrations and of the Mfecane, as the wars that devastated the interior of southern Africa as a result of the rise of the Zulu kingdom in the early decades of the nineteenth century are known. The third holds that these 'waves of migration' represented separate tribal groups whose differences to this day are so marked that were the firm hand of control of the white man removed they would tear one another apart in an even more fearsome, twentieth-centuryMfecane .

Earlier versions of the first of these myths, that by some curious coincidence the first Bantu-speakers crossed the Limpopo River at precisely the same time as the first Dutch settlers set foot on the Cape of Good Hope, and that up to that time South Africa was 'empty' of inhabitants, may no longer be proclaimed in quite such unambiguous simplicity. Nevertheless, more sophisticated variants of these myths still permeate the history textbooks used in South African schools and the propaganda put forward sedulously by the South African Department of Information. They have even crept into textbooks used in British schools and on to British television.

Despite the abundant scientific evidence conclusively disproving these views they persist, for they form part of the ideological justification for apartheid . Under this form of social organisation some four million whites hold power over the lives of the more than twenty-four million African, Coloured (i.e. people of mixed descent) and Asian inhabitants of the Republic of South Africa. Central to apartheid is the exploitation of African labour through the establishment of a system of migrant or more correctly oscillating labour, based on the division of South Africa into two sectors. The first, the so-called ‘white areas’, comprises some 87 per cent of the land, including all the major industrial and mining centres. The second, the so-called 'Bantu homelands', formerly known as 'native reserves' and often called Bantustans comprises a mere 13 per cent of the land. The allocation of 13 per cent of the land to 70 per cent of the population is conveniently legitimised by alleging that these are the same lands that the Bantu-speaking Africans occupied when they first swept into South Africa, or had inhabited after the Mfecane , at the time white farmers made their way north into the 'empty veld' in the 1830s.

If it can also be shown that these same Africans are 'tribally' divided and have been so since time immemorial, then their division into nine 'ethnic' or 'national' groups, each of which has been granted its own separate 'homeland' can also be justified by history. In exchange for 'self-government' in the 'homelands', Africans forgo any rights in the common areas of South Africa even if they have lived and worked outside their particular 'homeland' all their lives. Outside of the 'homelands', the vast majority of Africans are tolerated only as 'units of labour', ministering to the needs of the white man. In terms of apartheid philosophy, they are increasingly defined as 'foreigners'. To show how this is done it is worth quoting at some length from a recent publication issued by the Director of Information at South Africa House in London, entitled South Africa: Intergroup and Race Relations, 1970-77 a Political Backgrounder :

'The population of South Africa is heterogeneous and multinational.... 'The country has a population of about 4,320,000 Whites, 2,434,000 Coloureds... 764,000 Indians and the following Black Nations: Zulu... Xhosa... Tswana... North Sotho... South Sotho... Shangaan... Swazi... Vends [sic - should read Venda] ... Ndebele and other... Foreign Blacks....

The Black peoples are primarily of mixed Hamitic [a concept which is of extremely dubious validity and has been jettisoned by most historians outside of South Africa] and Negroid descent…they have only their skin colour in common, for, in most if not all other aspects, their way of life, traditions and languages are divergent....

Several centuries ago the Black people migrated southwards in three main streams from the vicinity of the Great Lakes in Central Africa.... The first noteworthy contact on an appreciable scale between the south moving Black peoples and the Whites took place in the Eastern Cape Province [sic], about 700 km from Cape Town and only about 120 years after the first Whites had arrived in Cape Town in 1652....

After the frontier wars of the 18th and 19th centuries and large scale depopulation of the interior as a result of the wars of genocide committed by the Zulu King Chake [sic] the Whites and Blacks by and large retained the respective White and Black homelands into which the country had come to be divided....

After 1834 there was a historic movement by White farmers into the largely empty highland interior of South Africa to escape British colonial rule in the Cape Colony....

Unlike the Black peoples, who speak nine major languages and who are also divided by culture as well as by language, the Whites speak only two languages (Afrikaans and English) and in culture and socio-political systems are a homogenous, single nation....'

Who would have guessed from this that when visitors to South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century wrote and spoke of racial conflict they were referring to the differences between English and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, and that the differences between them is still as great as between any two of the so-called 'Black Nations'?

So much for the myths of South Africa's past. What does its recent research tell us? In order to understand the history of southern Africa, and indeed of Africa, before the advent of literate observers (in the case of the coastlands of South Africa from the late fifteenth century onwards; for the interior, not until well into the nineteenth) we have to turn to the findings of archaeologists, linguists and anthropologists, Over the past ten or fifteen years, scholars in these disciplines, together with the historians, have begun to assemble a picture of South Africa's past which is dramatically at variance with the official version. Although there are still innumerable uncertainties and blurred edges, the evidence, especially from archaeology, has nonetheless transformed our understanding of the peopling of southern Africa and of the countless adaptations made by the earlier inhabitants of the sub-continent to master their environment. Most revolutionary has been the development of the radio-carbon dating techniques which have enabled us radically to reinterpret the past 2,000 years of its history.

In the 1920s and 1930s South Africa led the way in research on early man and the Stone Age, but it has only been relatively recently, and in part in response to developments north of the Limpopo, that South African archaeologists have begun to investigate sites dated to the last couple of thousand years. These cover the final stages of the Late Stone Age and the advent of what is termed the Iron Age, a dramatically new departure which saw the introduction of agriculture, settled villages, iron-using and pottery and which seems also to be associated with the arrival in the sub-continent of a new people of negroid physical character. As more and more carbon dates have been processed from the Early Iron Age sites which stretch in a thin scatter over southern, central and eastern Africa, so it has become apparent that the first Iron Age farmers south of the Limpopo River as to the north of it, arrived there early in the first millennium AD, and not, as had been previously assumed, relatively late in the second . The earliest dates we have for the Iron Age in South Africa go back some 1,200 years before the Portuguese first rounded the southern tip of the continent in search of the kingdom of Prester John and the fabled riches of the East in 1488. Excavations at Silverleaves and Eiland in the northeastern Transvaal, and Enkwazini near St. Lucia Bay on the Zululand coast have given dates for Iron Age settlements as early as the third to fourth centuries AD. These dates are remarkably close to the first Iron Age dates north of the Limpopo in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, as well as for Zambia and Malawi.

A South African archaeologist, Ray Inskeep, has recently described these Early Iron Age farming communities in his beautifully illustrated volume, The Peopling of Southern Africa , thus:

'They were cultivating pennisetum [a cereal crop] and in all probability a variety of other plants. By the fifth century populations were established in large villages of pole and thatch houses with plastered walls and floors. Their technology included the smelting and smithing of iron and copper, the manufacture of elaborate pottery, the carving of shallow bowls or dishes from soapstone, and the carving of bone and ivory. Salt was extracted from alkaline mineral springs by evaporation in soapstone dishes. The localised nature of such industry combined with the importance of the product almost certainly resulted in its being traded. Some form of trading with the East Coast is suggested by the occasional Indian Ocean seashells that turn up in so many sites.'

There is no way the archaeological data can tell us what language the newcomers spoke. And here it is important to remember that race, language and culture are independent of each other. Linguistic research, however, indicates that it is highly probable that they spoke a Bantu language or languages related to those spoken in southern Africa today. Contrary to the propaganda of the South African Department of Information, the vast majority of Africans in the Republic speak languages of one of two reIated language families. In the coastlands they speak one of the closely related Nguni languages; in the interior one of the Sotho- Tswana family. Together these form part of what the linguists call the South Eastern Bantu language family. Linguistic evidence suggests that these began to develop around AD 1000 at the time of the coming of the later Iron Age in southern Africa. If in the absence of written records, we cannot prove conclusively what languages were spoken nearly 1,000 years ago, archaeological evidence shows a remarkable continuity in the cultural record of many of the later Iron Age sites from the tenth to eleventh centuries onwards. This corresponds closely with what can be learnt about the traditions in settlement patterns, pottery and life-style of the groups from the historical records, or indeed in some cases from contemporary observation. Moreover from about 1500 it is often possible to attribute sites to particular historic groups on the basis of their oral traditions, as Tim Maggs has shown in his pioneering study, Iron Age Communities of the Southern Highveld . By that time, the Iron Age population would appear to have stabilised within its natural ecological frontiers, that is in those areas with soils and rainfall suited to the cultivation of cereals as well as stock-keeping.

The clear divide which marks off the sites of the later Iron Age from those of the Early Iron Age is largely shown by the sharp change in the nature of the pottery that was produced as yet the archaeologists' most important diagnostic tool. In Natal, and probably elsewhere, there seems to be a change, too, in the location of sites from along the water-courses and valley bottoms to the ridges overlooking the river valleys. Also by about 1500, extensive stone building characterised these later Iron Age sites on the highveld. Probably most important of all, it seems highly likely that the later Iron Age was marked by a far greater emphasis on cattle-keeping and perhaps milking than had been the case earlier on. Although there is clear evidence of cattle in the Early Iron Age, in most areas they are far more abundant and apparently a far more frequent item of diet from about the eleventh century onwards. The presence on many of the sites of clay figurines of cattle attests perhaps to their social significance.

We do not really know how and why there was this relatively sudden and rapid spread of cattle-keeping in the later Iron Age. From more recent oral histories, however, we know that there could be a relatively rapid dispersion of cattle-keeping groups which hived off from parent settlements for political, social or economic reasons, and it seems likely that similar processes were at work in this period. Cattle may have been quite central to the spread of new groups of people. This is suggested by the abundance of cattle bones found at some of the most impressive of the later Iron Age stone-built sites in southern Africa, such as Mapungubwe on the Limpopo, Great Zimbabwe in southwest Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and Manukweni in western Mozambique, all roughly dated to between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Clearly these were the sites of a ruling class, while the abundance of bone belonging to young cattle killed in their prime at Manukweni in particular suggests an almost conspicuous consumption of prime beef!

For people of the later Iron Age cattle were not only of major importance for the welcome addition they provided in the form of meat and especially milk, they also provided a new way in which wealth could be accumulated and stored. They were the main way in which bride wealth was exchanged in the majority of the southern African societies, so that control over cattle meant in turn control over women, and over their productive and reproductive capacity. Historically, in most of the southern African Bantu-speaking societies, there was a rigid division of labour; while women carried out most agricultural production, men handled the cattle, and milking and herding were taboo for the women. From this time on one can talk of social stratification within Iron Age settlements (made possible by the accumulation and storing wealth in cattle) and thus too of incipient, if not actual, state formation.

Probably the most densely settled area of South Africa in Iron Age times was the southern Transvaal, between the plateau basin and the Vaal River, with its well-watered grasslands suitable for both stock-keeping and fairly extensive agriculture and its rich iron resources. Today this is the heartland of 'white' South Africa. In the Magaliesberg, lateritic reefs provided shelter against the cold of the highveld winter nights, while the climate was healthy for both man and beast. Thousands of ruins of stone walling and enclosures revealed in aerial photographs attest to its former population, although it is impossible to estimate the density at any given time, for the ruins are the product of hundreds of years of building and rebuilding. The majority of these stone walls seem to date from about the middle of the second millennium AD. There are still parts of the highveld where similar techniques are employed today. The stone settlements spill over, too, onto the southern highveld at about the same time, and seem to have swiftly reached their ecological limits against the 50-60 cm rainfall isohyet, beyond which agriculture without a knowledge of irrigation was not feasible.

Even in Early Iron Age times we have seen that smithing and smelting of metals was important, particularly of iron. In the later Iron Age it would appear that certain groups developed into specialised metal workers and, especially where the environment was otherwise unsuited to agriculture or cattle-keeping, traded in copper, iron or even tin and alluvial gold in exchange for grain or stock and women. The Phalaborwa people of the eastern Transvaal, whose Iron Age culture shows continuities from the ninth century to the twentieth, were famed as copper smelters, for they lived in a land 'where the hammer is heard, the lowing of cattle is not there, there the hammer resounds'.

At the thirteenth-century site of Mapungubwe fine gold ornaments and beaten gold bowls were discovered. When Vasco da Gama arrived at the mouth of the Limpopo River in 1488 he called it the Copper River, so ornamented were the local chiefs and their wives with copper neck-rings and bracelets and anklets.

Along the southeast coast, neither stone buildings nor metal ornaments were as much in evidence. When the Portuguese rounded it in the late fifteenth century they encountered a people who planted millet, herded cattle, lived in the beehive shaped huts which are still a familiar part of the landscape (though rapidly disappearing) and who were ruled over by chiefs whom they called 'inkosi'. This is the present-day word in Nguni for ‘chief’. And again, although the contemporary Nguni-speaking people probably only appeared in the later Iron Age, we now know that they were preceded by and developed from Early Iron Age people with many similar characteristics whom they probably absorbed.

As yet, however, we know far less about both the Early and the later Iron Age in the eastern Cape, although Early Iron Age pottery similar to that found in Natal has now been found as far west as the Chalumna River. Whereas on the treeless highveld Iron Age communities expressed their identity in stone, here along the coastlands where huts were built of wattle and daub, and fencing too was made of vegetable matter, the remains are far less immediately visible. The inhabitants of the tenth-century Iron Age site at Blackburn near the Umhlanga Rocks in Natal lived in beehive shaped huts like the corbelled stone huts of the Orange Free State, but with walls of grass or matting on a light frame of sticks tied to a central post. This was only shown after careful excavation, a. the site was very difficult to find in the first place.

One of the essential themes of both the Early and Later Iron Age is that of the interaction between the immigrant Iron Age farmers and the Late Stone Age hunter-gatherers and herders of southern Africa whom they encountered. South Africa was not an 'empty land' even when the first Iron Age cultivators and cattle-keepers arrived, any more than it was when the first European settlers stepped ashore at Table Bay. For millennia, Stone Age hunter-gatherers in southern Africa had followed their time-honoured way of life, closely attuned to the rhythms of nature and climate of their environment, capable of exploiting every nuance of its micro-ecology, able to sustain life in situations which modern man with his much vaunted technology still finds inhospitable and hazardous. So finely were their social needs attuned to their way of life and the potential of their natural habitat that the anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, has referred to the hunter-gatherer communities of the Stone Age as 'the original affluent society', while Professor Inskeep talks of the Late Stone Age as 'a way of life perfected'. This perhaps romanticises the nature of Stone Age societies though it is a necessary corrective to an earlier literature which portrayed Stone Age people as archetypal savages. But the magnificent rock art left by Stone Age people in southern Africa with its rich symbolism, together with their finely honed tool kits that were so well adapted to their way of life and environment, do show the amazing versatility and flexibility of the hunter-gatherer bands which once lived all over the sub-continent.

Even before the arrival of the Iron Age farmers nearly 2,000 years ago, however, this way of life had begun to change. Some time between the first century BC and the first century AD, it would seem that some of these Late Stone Age people acquired the sheep and pottery whose presence is attested in a series of sites along the Cape's south and west coast. Although it used to be thought that this again was the result of the migration of yet another earlier 'wave' of 'Hamitic' type people from the Great Lakes of Central Africa, both the linguistic and physical anthropological evidence suggests that these new herders differed little except in terms of their material culture from the indigenous hunter-gatherers. Again, however, the crucial question of how and when and from whom some of the hunter-gatherers adopted a new way of life will never be answered conclusively although again there is much evidence in the historical records of adaptations by hunter-gatherers to stock-keeping and even on occasion to agriculture.

It was these hunter-gatherer and herder peoples whom the Dutch first encountered at the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century and whom they labelled Bushmen and Hottentots, terms which were intended to be as unflattering as they sound. For the Dutch, like the Portuguese explorers before them, contrasted these Late Stone Age people unfavourably with the negroid peoples they had already met along the west coast of, Africa, and whose settled villages and orderly political life as well as their willingness to trade seemed a long way away from the nomadic and technologically simple way of life of the people of the western Cape. Partly because the terms Bushman and Hottentot have become even more pejorative in contemporary South African parlance than they were in seventeenth-century Dutch, African scholars prefer now to call the herders by the term they used of them- selves Khoikhoin: 'Men of men'; and, rather less satisfactorily, to refer to the hunter-gatherers as 'San', which is what they in turn were called by the Khoikhoin. For the two groups together, particularly when it is not clear precisely what the way of life was that was being followed or the language being spoken, the composite term Khoisan proves a happy invention.

For over 1,000 years before the Dutch arrived, then, Iron Age farmers and Late Stone Age people had been living in close juxtaposition in the interior of southern Africa though not down in the southwest corner where the winter rainfall climate was less suited to the Iron Age way of life and crops. Although we know relatively little about their relationships in the Early Iron Age, there are important clues both in the archaeological record and in the processes which literate Europeans began to record in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as in oral tradition. Thus at the remarkably well preserved Iron Age village site of Broederstroom in the Magaliesberg (not far from present-day Pretoria), which dates back to the fifth century, we seem to have evidence of very close relationships indeed. Although Broederstroom clearly falls within the definition of an Iron Age site, as the numerous huts and the five smelting furnaces so far excavated affirm, out of the many animal remains, relatively few represent sheep, cattle or goats. The vast majority of bone comes from hunted wild animals. Equally there would appear to be far more ostrich eggshell beads and Late Stone Age type points and link-shafts than there are iron beads or artefacts, even taking account of the difficulties of preservation in an acid soil. While the skeletal material from Broederstroom is described as 'negroid' rather than 'Khoisanoid', no plant remains or grindstones have as yet been recovered from the site. All this suggests quite strongly a fusion and interaction of cultures rather than any straightforward total replacement.

And this interface exists also in the later Iron Age. At the eleventh to twelfth centuries site at Bambandyanelo, near Mapungubwe, although the artefacts and pottery are clearly Iron Age, the skeletal material has, on the contrary, been categorically labelled 'Bush-Boskopoid' or large 'Khoisan'. While there is considerable disagreement over the classification, it is fresh warning of the independence of race, language and culture. At Oliefantspoort a later Iron Age site of the eighteenth century, the Iron Age remains still contain a very large stone content even though, unlike the many other sites where this is the case, there is no sign here of a prior Late Stone Age settlement underlying it. Although the date is so late, there is little doubt that it represents part of a much more widespread process whereby Late Stone Age people became incorporated and absorbed by Iron Age societies, whether through conquest, clientship or concubinage. It may well be that part of the apparent population expansion on the highveld in later Iron Age times was the result of the adaptations and assimilation of the earlier population into the Iron Age way of life.

Contrary to much of the mythology which dwells on the inveterate hatred between the 'Bantu' and the 'Bushmen', and indeed between the different 'nations' of Bantu-speakers enumerated by the South African government, there is much evidence in the archaeological as well the linguistic record of long and peaceful interaction between them.

Cattle-keeping is so important a feature of both Sotho-Tswana and Nguni society that it is startling to learn for example, that the words for cattle, milk and sheep in these languages derive either from Khoikhoi, or from a source which is common to both. Much of the very rich and detailed vocabulary describing cattle is probably similarly derived. The clicks characteristic of the South Eastern Bantu languages, that are unique to this family, also bespeak a long and intimate relationship between Khoisan and Bantu-speakers. Oral tradition in many areas recalls the intermarriage even of Bantu-speaking chiefs with Khoisan women. The picture of Chief Molhebangwe of the southernmost Tswana people, the Thlaping, drawn in 1800, whose mother was a Khoikhoi is a fine illustration of this.

The very name of the major Nguni group in the eastern Cape, the Xhosa, named after their eponymous founder- leader, contains a click. This provides only a hint of the complex variety of relationships established in that area between groups originally practising a very different mode of existence. This is not to say that amongst these relationships there was not war and plunder and competition for resources. But ethnic frontiers which were sometimes most visible when they met at ecological frontiers did not have the salience they have been given in twentieth-century Africa and indeed elsewhere where the emphasis has changed from being a search for followers to a scramble for scarce resources.

It is very often through the work of historians on documentary sources and from anthropologists on contemporary societies that archaeologists are able to gain insight into the processes which may have been at work in the past - though in the southern African context it would be unwise to extrapolate from the very changed circumstances of a highly industrialised capitalist society in which 'tradition' has been invented and manipulated by government and others in very particular kinds of ways for at least fifty years. Yet what is exciting about the current mood of some of the archaeology in the Republic is its attempt to come to terms with these social processes. If, like this article, the starting point was to counter a mythology, the debate has moved a great deal on from what Marc Bloch once called 'the vain pursuit of the idol of origins'. Recent work has been marked by its attempts to understand the complex relationship of man to his environment, and the interface between different socio-economic and cultural patterns discernible in the archaeological record.

What is impressive when one looks at the archaeological record is the flexibility with which groups of people responded to new stimuli and adapted and changed in relation to each other. Even more than history, perhaps, archaeology is the record of the successful: we see little of the false trials and errors, the failures to adapt and respond. Nevertheless, at different points in time and space we can see albeit imperfectly these processes of change at work. Inevitably the archaeologist remains firmly tied to the material data: there are limits to what this can say about social relationships, political power and stratification in society, let alone about man's hopes and dreams and fears - although the beautifully tanged arrowheads and inspiring cave paintings of the Late Stone Age, and the elegantly shaped pottery and finely wrought walls of the Iron Age still speak to us across the years. But while there are many questions that remain unanswered and are perhaps unanswerable, recent research has provided a radical reinterpretation of South Africa's past: a reinterpretation which challenges so many of the preconceived stereotypes which still serve to legitimate the Republic's apartheid policies today.

Shula Marks is Reader in African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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