General South African History Timeline: Pre-1500

Modern Humans evolve in Africa, including South Africa and the first African people begin to settle in South Africa. Hundreds of years later the first Europeans set foot on South African soil for the first time.

BP = Before present, calculated backwards from the date AD 1950

4 000 000 BP
Australopithecus: 'southern ape'. These proto-human hominids walked upright and had longer thighs and shorter arms than other primates. The earliest species were partially tree dwelling. Australopithecines roamed the African Savannahs from 4 to 1.5 million years ago.
3 000 000 BP
The discovery of the oldest complete fossilised hominid or human-like skeleton in South Africa, announced on 9 December 1998, proves that Australopithecus africanus roamed the area much further back than was estimated before. The skeleton has been dated at between 3.22 and 3.58 million years old by the Geomagnetism Laboratory at the University of Liverpool.
2 500 000 BP

The skull of 'Mrs Ples' and the Sts 14 skeleton, belonging to the species Australopithecus africanus and discovered at the Sterkfontein Caves in 1947, indicate that distant relatives of mankind inhabited the area at the time. The age of the fossils are estimated to be 2.6 to 2.8 million years. These fossils support the theory that mankind evolved from Africa.

2 000 000 BP
Homo habilis makes the first stone tools in Eastern Africa. Note: Homo habilis meaning 'handy man', this species, with an increased brain size, lived from about 2.2 to 1.8 million years ago and was the first member of the genus Homo who made tools.
Homo habilis makes the first stone tools in Southern Africa.
1 500 000 BP
Homo ergaster (homo erectus) spreads through Africa. Note: Homo ergaster lived 1.8 million to 500 000 years ago.
1 000 000 BP
Homo ergaster (homo erectus) leaves Africa. Some individuals left Africa about 1 million years ago and spread to southern Europe, Russia, the Near East, India, Indonesia and China. They were hunter-gatherers and made stone tools such as hand-axes, cleavers and choppers.
200 000-100 000 BP
The evolution of Homo sapiens in Africa. Note: Homo sapiens means 'wise man'. They lived about 500 000 - 100 000 years ago throughout Africa, southern Europe and Asia. Their brain size was similar to that of people today, but shape of the brain suggests they did not think as we do.
115 000 BP
Homo sapiens present in South Africa.
14 000-15 000 BP
Dated rock paintings reveal that Ancestors of the San hunter-gatherers are widely distributed in Southern Africa at this stage.
4 000 BP
Iron Age (North Africa)
500 BP
Settled Iron Age communities in sub-Saharan Africa (agriculture)
2200 BP
It is estimated that some San groups in present-day northern Botswana acquire domesticated livestock and became pastoralists (Khoikhoi). They move south, and their new socio-economic order leads them to be anthropologically described as Khoikhoi hunter-herders.
2 000 BP
Khoikhoi herders reach the southern tip of Africa.
c. AD 200
Farming communities acquainted with the use of iron, and regarded as the forebears of Bantu-speaking people, establish themselves south of what becomes known as the Limpopo River.
Start of the southern African Iron Age period.
c. 400 AD
Early Iron Age people settle in what is now known as Kwa-Zulu Natal.
c. AD 500
Early Iron Age people develop a new form of pottery. This form is best represented in pottery fragments that have been assembled and subsequently become known as the Lydenburg Heads.
c. AD 600
Iron Age people settle along the south-eastern seaboard as far as Mpame, in the region later to be known as the Transkei.
c. AD 600
Beginnings of the Late Iron Age in the Southern Africa region lead to a greater concentration of settlement on the central Highveld of Southern Africa.
c. AD 800 - 1400
Larger farming communities of the Iron Age settle in the Limpopo River area, marking the settlement of Nguni-speaking people in South Africa (later split to form Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi and Ndebele groups). Their move down to South Africa from areas in West Africa (mainly) was possibly driven by too dry a climate there during the Medieval Warm Epoch, between 900 and 1290.
c. 1030 - 1290
Middle Iron Age people begin to establish what is now known as the Mapungubwe kingdom. The Southern Terrace below Mapungubwe hilltop that was inhabited from around AD 1030 to 1290 was rediscovered by archeologists in the 1930s.
c. 1300 - c. 1500

Nguni communities settle along the south-eastern seaboard and in the Drakensberg interior.The Highveld interior becomes populated by Sotho speaking people (later split to form South Sotho (Basuto and Sesotho), the West Sotho (Tswana), and the North Sotho (Sepedi))

The Khoisan are established as the dominant power in the Southern and South-Western Cape regions.
1460
Portuguese navigators, representing the interests of the Portuguese Royal House and merchants eager to find a sea-route to India around the south coast of Africa, reach the coast of Guinea, West Africa.
1483
Diogo Câo, a navigator acting under the instruction of the Portuguese King John II, reaches the mouth of the Congo River.
1485
Câo puts ashore at Cape Cross, north of present-day Walvis Bay.
1487
The Portuguese explorer Batholemeu Dias sails down the coast to reach southern Angola. He later lands at present-day Walvis Bay and soon after at Lüderitz Bay.
1488
Dias succeeds in circumnavigating the Cape, naming it "Cabo de Bõa Esperança" or the Cape of Good Hope. This is a major breakthrough in the search for discovering a sea-route to India.
1495
With the ascension of Manuel I to the Portuguese throne, the Royal House of Portugal strengthens its support of the scientific maritime investigation into finding a sea trade route to India.
1497
Vasco da Gama is mandated to expand on Dias' discoveries. Da Gama departs from Targus on 8 July 1497, heading an expedition consisting of two ships, São Rafael and São Gabriel . They sail along the southern African coast on the way to India.
They put foot on South African soil for the first time on 8 November at present-day St. Helena Bay on the west coast and encounter the first Khoi-Khoi. Da Gama gives the following description of them in his diary: 'The inhabitants of this country are tawny-coloured. Their food is confined to the flesh of seals, whales and gazelles, and the roots of herbs. They are dressed in skins, and wear sheaths over their virile members. They are armed with poles of olive wood to which a horn, browned in the fire, is attached...'
Further east Da Gama and his crew sight the Natal coast on Christmas Day and name it "Terra do Natal", which is Portuguese for "Land of Birth" (Christmas).
1498
Da Gama reaches the mouth of the Limpopo River during the first weeks and lands 85km north of it, where he meets the first Black people, probably a Tsonga society living north of the Limpopo. Next, he goes ashore at the northern branch of the Zambezi delta, where he encounters Moslems. He crosses the Indian Ocean with the help of the famous Arabian pilot, Ahmad ibn-Mayid, and reaches India via the Cape of Malabar, thereby establishing the Portuguese monopoly of the sea trade route to India.

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