Prehistory of the Bloemfontein area

The origin of South Africa’s judicial capital goes back to the mid 19th century when Major H.D. Warden established a British outpost in the then Transorangia. Among other reasons for the outpost was the danger posed by armed Khoe (Korana) and groups of mixed ancestry (Griqua). According to one interpretation, the city takes its name from Jan Bloem II, the leader of a Griqua group.

In about 1823, the missionary Rev Burchell hired armed Griqua to protect BaThlaping living at Dithakong, about 300 km northwest of Bloemfontein. These BaThlaping were some of the first Sotho-Tswana people to have been met by Europeans from the Cape (about 1801). The word ‘Dithakong’ means ‘place of walls’ and refers to a large concentration of stonewalling on a hill above the 19th century settlement.

Literally, thousands of similar stonewalled settlements lie scattered across the highveld of the Free State. The oldest type of walling stands near the hill known as Ntsuanatsatsi, the legendary place of origin of BaFokeng (see prehistory of Durban). Although Tswana-speaking now, new archaeological research indicates that the Fokeng moved up from northern KwaZulu-Natal and were originally Nguni speaking. Type N walling, as it is known, emphasises the centre/side axis expressed through concentric circles: the inner circle encompasses cattle byres and the men’s court, while the female residential zone of beehive houses and grain bins constitutes the outer circle. An outer wall sometimes incorporates small stock enclosures because these animals are associated with women. This type of walling first dates to the 15th century.

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According to oral traditions, Tswana people from the west moved across the Vaal River, found BaFokeng at Ntsuanatsatsi, and assimilated them. Archaeologically, this interaction created another type of walling, called Type V, named after Vegkop near Heilbron. Among other things, this type of settlement includes the famous ‘corbelled huts’ that captured the imagination of early travellers. Located on the edge of the central cattle area, these low stone huts served mostly as huts for herd boys. In a few places, adults may have lived in larger examples.

The Sand River Nature Reserve contains several stonewalled settlements accessible to the public. In addition to stonewalling, the Bloemfontein area is well known for the Middle Stone Age site at the Florisbad hot springs. Mineralised soil around the eye of the spring has preserved fauna and stone artefacts dating from about 280 000 to 120 000 years ago. The skull of an archaic human is about 260 000 years old and various specimens of extinct fauna such as the giant buffalo are remarkably well preserved. Examples of the fauna and stone tools are on display at the State Museum in Bloemfontein (

This paper was written for SAHO in 2010 by Prof TN Huffman from the Archaeology Department at the University of the Witwatersrand.

• Maggs, TM 1976. Iron Age Communities of the Southern Highveld. (Occasional Publication 2) Pietermaritzburg: Natal museum.
• Kuman, K., Inbar, M. and R.J. Clarke 1999. Paleoenvironments and cultural sequence of the Florisbad Middle Stone Age hominid site, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 26: 1409-1425.

Last updated : 11-Aug-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011

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