Chapter 1 - The First Farmers

For a moment let's consider history as a journey through time and space. For much of this journey the road on which we are travelling seems to be straight and the way ahead clear. The journey is predictable - we know where we have come from and where we are going. Then suddenly everything changes. A new road intersects with ours; it seems to offer a better way forward but it is very different from the one on which we are travelling and therefore appears risky, even unsafe. Perhaps the clear sky becomes dark with thunder clouds, different travellers appear on our road, obstacles are thrown across our path and we have to look for ways to get around them. We struggle to find a way to continue. Sometimes we fail; at other times a fresh, safer, more satisfying, peaceful, profitable road is found and the journey continues. These moments of opportunity, obstruction, conflict and then resolution can be seen as a turning points in our journey through time and space - turning points in history.

When using this metaphor, we have to remember one very important fact: that there is no agreement on where and when the important turns were made. No one disagrees that our road through history has been full of twists and turns. The debates are about which were the important ones.

The turning point selected depends on the particular point of view. A religious person might choose the life of Christ or Mohammed; someone with a Eurocentric viewpoint might choose the arrival of the first Portuguese sailors, Jan van Riebeeck, or the establishment of British rule at the Cape. Others believe that the most important turning points can be found in economic factors and the development of new technologies.

I want to examine two crucial turning points in South Africa's journey through time. Neither are brief moments or specific events in time. Rather, they are historical processes made of complex series of events. Even though these processes were long and slow, there can be no doubt that they changed the direction of our history. In this chapter, we look at the arrival of farming in South Africa. The next chapter will look at globalisation.

Eurocentric- regarding European culture as superior and more important than others

Why was the change from hunting to farming significant?

Hunter-gatherer societies are those in which people are organised into nomadic groups that live by hunting, fishing and gathering wild food.

There is widespread agreement that one of the most important turning points in world history occurred when our ancestors stopped depending on hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants, and started raising animals and growing domesticated crops. For millions of years, indeed for most of human time on earth, our ancestors have been hunters and gatherers.

That is, they were organised in small bands and followed wild animals and plants as they moved and matured with the changing seasons.

Radical changes began to develop some 10 000 years ago when, in different parts of the world, groups of people began to develop farming skills. This agricultural revolution - that is, the domestication of plants and animals - was absolutely fundamental to the development of human organisations. Without agriculture, society cannot develop the settled communities necessary for the concentrations of population and towns upon which civilisations depend.

The agricultural revolution took place when groups of people stopped depending on hunting and gathering, and started domesticating plants and animals. Domestication means taming, nurturing and breeding plants and animals. Especially where crops were concerned, this meant that people had to become less nomadic and establish a more settled pattern of life. Societies tended to become more complex.

Farming societies are more complex in terms of organisation than hunting ones. There is greater specialisation as individuals develop the special skills needed by the society. Administrative and political hierarchies begin to emerge. Without the surplus products supplied by agriculture, societies cannot develop trading networks or a rich material culture. The agricultural revolution was not, of course, a sudden event but a long process. It lasted thousands of years, as animals and plants were selected and slowly adapted to different environments and needs in different parts of the world at different times. Experimentation, as well as luck and accident, played a part in this process. The increased production made possible by agriculture created an environment for other changes.

For example, pottery was developed to store and prepare food. Also very significant were the discoveries of how to smelt and forge metal as weapons and agricultural implements. The need for accurately recording and storing information was a spur towards numeracy and literacy. Increased agricultural production led to increased population, larger and socially-differentiated societies, greater surpluses, trade, and the development of more efficient means of transport and communication.

An apartheid view of South African history:

Most apartheid history books began with the arrival of whites at the Cape in 1652. Then…



“ Meanwhile, several Bantu tribes were migrating southwards along the east coast. This population movement was in the form of successive waves as the peoples involved responded to the push and pull of economic conditions and tribal conflict. Originally settled in the regions of the great lakes of Central East Africa, these migratory tribes simply moved to wherever nature offered most and enemies threatened least. The concept of permanent fatherland, geopolitically defined, was practically unknown. . . . Roughly a century after the establishment of the Cape settlement their southwesterly migration and the north-easterly expansion of White pioneers would culminate in an epoch-making contact situation.”

Source: South Africa 1974, Official Yearbook of the Republic of South Africa. Johannesburg, Perskor, pp.124-5.

How did apartheid create a turning point that didn't exist?

Let us look briefly at how the arrival of farming in South Africa was explained by apartheid's historians. Apartheid ideology stated that South Africa did not have an African population; instead, it had a number of different ethnic groups - Zulu, Tswana, Sotho and so on. Blacks and whites, said apartheid historians, had an equal claim to the country, but to different parts of it. History was used to justify these claims. Most official South African history books produced by the apartheid government began with the arrival of whites in 1652. Blacks, it was argued, arrived in South Africa at roughly the same time, and the two groups met in the 1700s in the Eastern Cape.

This view of history is completely invalid. It is an example of what happens when powerful forces in the present use history to justify the

existing situation instead of exploring the past on the basis of evidence. Apartheid historians believed that Africans “migrated in waves”; like some form of wild animal they were driven by conflict over the basic needs to sustain life; they had no sense of location and property; and they arrived in southern Africa to meet white pioneers who had arrived a century earlier.

This meeting is presented as a turning point, one that would lead to what was later known as the “Black problem”. While we reject this racial myth, the question remains: what is the origin of African societies in southern Africa? We know that first peoples were hunting peoples - known as San or, in the popular literature, as Bushmen. At some time in the past other peoples moved in - farming people. While we must reject the still deeplyheld idea that Africans migrated from the north more or less at the same time as whites arrived in the country, how are we to explain the movement of these black farmers into South Africa? These are not easy questions to answer. For insights we depend upon the skills of those who specialise in the study of the past - historians and archaeologists.

Archaeology means much more than just finding buried remains of past societies. The objective of archaeologists is to use these artefacts in order to construct a picture of the life of the people who made them and the society in which they lived. This involves a large range of techniques, all of which have to be based on very careful excavation of the archaeological site.

What sort of archaeological evidence exists?

Because we are dealing with a time before writing and documents existed, it is upon archaeologists that we depend for our knowledge of the first farmers. Archaeologists are trained scholars who reconstruct the past by carefully analysing the remains of a society's material culture. This includes things like pots, weapons, stone or iron tools, clay figurines, the grains and the bones left over from the food they ate, ashes and rubbish heaps (middens), their own bones and burials, jewellery and art, beads and glassware. The remains of buildings, walls, foundations, fireplaces, temples and cemeteries are excavated, examined and analysed. They are carefully removed from the earth, measured, dated where possible, and compared with other evidence. It is slow and careful work - like an immensely complicated detective story in which scientists apply their knowledge and their skills to this fragmentary evidence in order to recreate the lives of people who lived in the distant past. The painstaking work of archaeologists was used to attack apartheid interpretations of South Africa's history. It enables us to answer some questions about the arrival of farming in South Africa.

historians- people who study mostly, but not only, written records of the past

archaeologists- people who study mostly, but not only, the material objects our ancestors have left behind them

artefact- an object made by a human being

excavate- in archaeological terms, to carefully remove earth from an area in order to find the buried remains of a culture

We know, for example, that hunting and gathering people - the San - made up the aboriginal population of south-east Africa. We know that pastoralism (the keeping of cattle and sheep) was present in the north-west of the country more than 2 000 years ago. We know that by about 400 AD, farming societies - growing crops as well as raising livestock, and with a distinctive pottery - had come into being in a huge belt stretching from modern Kenya and Tanzania, through Mozambique, the eastern Transvaal and Zululand to the Eastern Cape. These people kept close to the coast and in the drier river valleys. Another similar group kept to the west. This group produced pottery heads - often called Lydenburg heads; they were probably used in rituals, and have attracted great attention as early examples of a South African artistic tradition. All groups used metals. Because of the presence of iron at their sites, the time in which they lived is referred to as the Early Iron Age.

These people were the ancestors of the present African population. Of course, we cannot be sure that they were the direct ancestors and that an unbroken line connects them with the present. However, we do know that they represent the first development in South Africa of the basic features of the material life of African societies - domesticated stock in the form of cattle, sheep and goats; cereals in the form of millet; pottery; settled homesteads; metal working.

A turning point in South African history had been reached - the slow, complicated but irreversible change of direction from small bands dependent on hunting to large, settled farming societies.

How can the evidence of language help us understand history?

The material evidence of the arrival of new forms of economic organisation about 2 000 years ago is supplemented by evidence drawn from the African languages of the region. Of course, we cannot be sure what language these first farmers spoke, but linguists do recognise that the structure of various African languages in the southern part of the continent is very similar, and that many of the words are closely related. They call this great family of African languages Bantu.

Historians of language suspect that the close links between Bantu languages confirm the theories of archaeologists that new African cultures and societies, based on farming and metal-using, spread into the southern half of the African continent, 2 000 or more years ago. Some of these skills and technologies had developed in Africa; others had spread into Africa from south-east Asia. The environmental obstacles caused by the dryness of the Sahara Desert and the wet, unhealthy stretches of equatorial forest held up the spread of farming and animal keeping for centuries. However, well over 2 000 years ago these environmental obstacles had been overcome, as indicated by the rapid spread of farming in the southern part of the continent.

One of the seven terracotta heads known as the 'Lydenburg Heads', found in the late 1950s.

We must also note that this was a spread of skills, techniques and technologies - which does not necessarily imply a spread or migration of people. Skills can spread among and through people, without the people themselves moving.

Bantu or African?

The apartheid authorities, unwilling to use the word African, used the word Bantu instead - for example, the Bantu Affairs Department, Bantu Education and so on. As a result, today many people deeply resent using Bantu instead of African. But there is a scientifically-correct way to use the word Bantu - to refer to the Bantu languages of the southern part of the continent. Used in the scientific, linguistic sense, Bantu refers only to the family of African languages, not to a group of people. South Africans will have no difficulty in seeing the connections in the following words from the Bantu language family. The name of the language is followed by the word for people in that language.

People Name of the language
Duala bato
Herero abandu
Kongo bantu
Mongo banto
Rwanda abantu
Shona wanhu
Tio baaru

The languages we speak carry within them extremely important information about our histories - if we have the skills to interpret the linguistic evidence. Linguists have identified shared patterns in the structures and the vocabularies of different languages which suggest that they are related. Bantu is the largest African language family. The name was first used by the linguist W.H.I. Bleek who came to realise that a large number of the African languages he was studying shared many similar features. For example, they were structured around a system of roots with related prefixes, and many of these roots were clearly related. For example, the root ntu is used in many languages to mean person or people.

The existence of related languages occupying a huge, contiguous block of territory is interesting not only to linguists but also to historians. It suggests that these linguistic connections reflect historical ones - that the people who speak these related languages have an historical connection as well. Realising this, linguists have developed a number of theories which suggest where the first Bantu speakers originated, the direction in which they moved and when this movement probably took place.

The main difficulty for the historian, however, is obvious. In oral societies there is no direct evidence for what language was spoken in the past.

linguist- a person who is skilled in or who studies languages or linguistics

linguistics- the scientific study of language and its structure

contiguous- sharing a common border; next or together in sequence

Nonetheless, the close connections between the Bantu languages does suggest that their spread is in some way linked to the farming revolution and the use of metals. The balance of the evidence does suggest that there is an important connection between these two historical phenomena. This can be taken as evidence that the road of history turned sharply in southern Africa about 2 000 years ago with the arrival of farming skills.

What is the evidence of space?

One of the most interesting theories put forward by archaeologists in recent years is that the settlement patterns of the farming societies in southern Africa, from their origins to modern times, are organised around a similar set of principles. This is called the Central Cattle Pattern (CCP). Some of its main features are as follows:

settlement patterns – the way a society organises its living space, homes, villages, cattle enclosures, meeting places, rubbish dumps and burial sites

  • Houses are built around a central cattle enclosure to form a homestead. This reflects the central importance of cattle.
  • Grain is stored and important men are buried in this enclosure.
  • The central cattle enclosure is the space of male authority. In or near it, men meet formally.
  • The entrance to the homestead is at the lowest point.
  • The house of the male homestead head is opposite the entrance and is dominant within the homestead.
  • The houses of the wives are to the left and the right of the head of the homestead in order of seniority.

There were many variations on the CCP theme. However, it is argued that the huge towns of the largest political groupings in the southern African past as well as the smallest homestead were, with all their variations, organised around this pattern.

Summing up

In apartheid South Africa, it was taught that black and white farmers arrived at roughly the same time - the white farmers moving up from the south and the black farmers moving down from the north - to meet in the eighteenth century. This argument implied that black and white were both comparative newcomers and had equal rights to the land. Apartheid history also stated that the first blacks were already divided into ethnic groups and that therefore the different homelands or Bantustans of the apartheid era had historical justification. The archaeological discoveries of the Early Iron Age disprove all this, showing that the first black farmers arrived at least a thousand years before the first whites, and that there is no evidence that modern ethnic or linguistic divisions were present at that early stage of history.

Many questions still have to be answered about the exact way in which these changes came about. Did farming come before metals? What was the relationship between the hunters and the farmers who replaced them? Did pastoralism arrive before agriculture? To what extent were these pastoral skills independent of specific populations? Was it a case of the existing population learning and adapting to these new skills, or was it a case of an existing population being replaced by new populations? Despite these questions, the archaeological evidence about South Africa's first farmers is clear and the dating is decisive. Two thousand years ago a turning point was reached in the history of most of South Africa's peoples. Evidence for this can be found in the cattle, sheep and goat bones, the cereals, the pottery and the iron-smelting sites of the first farmers. These are the African ancestors of most South Africans. Their societies developed into the powerful African societies that confronted the first white settlers three and a half centuries ago.

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Author: 
Jeff Guy1