Polokwane

Prehistory of the Polokwane/Pietersburg area

Two places are of particular heritage interest in the Polokwane area: the BaKoni Malapa Museum south of the stadium and Makapansgat in the mountains to the southwest.

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A tall bare dome of granite dominates the museum complex. Known as ‘mother of reeds’ locally, this name shows that Bambo Hill once had ritual significance. In addition to the name, pottery of at least four different time periods lies scattered on the bare dome. Furthermore, the dome is difficult to access: a smooth, two-metre ledge shows how supplicants climbed to the top. These features are explicable in terms of traditional rainmaking.

In the recent past, rainmaking activities were part of the normal agricultural cycle. In September, at the beginning of the cycle, chiefs would send a black goat to their professional rainmakers, instructing them to replenish their rain medicines and repair their work areas. Their working areas were often called ‘rain kraals’ and located at the back, or just behind their homesteads. These locations are part of a front-secular/back-sacred dichotomy inherent in the Central Cattle Pattern (see prehistory of Durban). Various people assisted the rainmaker. Young girls, for example, spread rain medicines on the fields. Later, family heads would take burning cattle dung from the capital to their homes in the belief that the dark smoke would call the rain clouds to all corners of the chiefdom. This system appeared to work most of the time, but when normal rituals and medicines consistently failed, and droughts persisted, rainmakers climbed special hills to ‘pull the rain down’. These special hills, such as Bambo above the museum, are characteristically steep sided with difficult access, as well as too small and awkward for normal settlement. Bambo Hill, the ‘mother of reeds’, was therefore used as a last resort in times of severe drought.

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The saddle of the hill, below the rainmaking site, contains stonewalling characteristic of Southern Ndebele. The front/back axis follows the organisation first developed at Moor Park in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands (see prehistory of Durban). This type of settlement is on record in the Waterberg to the west, dating to the mid 17th century. Presumably, some of those people shifted over to the Polokwane area at about that time. Various groups in the area, such as the Sebietela and Kekana, are probably their descendants. The Sebietela were Sotho-ised, but Kekana retained their original Nguni language. All these people claim Musi as a legendary leader.

Below the hill stands a large stonewalled complex that belongs to the Badfontein Type. This settlement was occupied by the Ledwaba, a group of Northern Ndebele who claim Langa as a legendary leader. When the Ledwaba entered the area in the early 19th century, they found the Sebietela to the south and the BaKoni ba Matala, another Langa group, to the north. The ethnographic component of the museum concentrates on BaKoni material culture.

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The second heritage site of interest is the famous Makapan’s Cave, or Makapansgat. Makapan (more correctly Mugombane) was chief of the Kekana Ndebele in 1854 who took refuge in a large cave to escape a Boer commando sent as reprisal for the murders of several Boer families. There are various versions of who was to blame and what happened later during the month-long siege. European versions emphasise the murders and retaliation, while African versions are concerned with the disruption in the chieftainship. Whatever the precise truth, the episode was part of African resistance to Boer encroachment. The remarkable preservation within Historic Cave, as it is called, provides a unique record of this troubled period. Historic Cave is a modern opening in an extensive dolomite deposit that also contains ancient caverns. The ‘Cave of Hearths’, next to Historic Cave, is one of the few in South Africa to contain Earlier Stone Age deposits (see Prehistory of Southern Africa). Typical handaxes and cleavers were exposed by lime mining at the beginning of the 20th century. Concentrations of darkened bone were thought to be hearths dating to the Middle Stone Age, hence the name. Archaic humans were clearly making fire by this time, but new research shows that the concentrations were not hearths but the result of manganese staining.

Lime mining a short distance away exposed older deposits. Some three acres of calcified soil inside an enormous cavern contains fossilised hominids and other extinct fauna. Excavations have yielded several specimens of Australopithecus africanus, representing about a dozen individuals: part of a pelvis showed that they were bipedal. The damage to bones in the Australopithecine deposit was the inspiration for Raymond Dart’s osteodontokeratic culture (bone, tooth and horn): he proposed that teeth were used as saws and scrapers, and long bones as clubs. Although no longer acceptable, Dart’s interpretation was highly influential at the time. Recent research shows that animals, such as hyenas, leopards and porcupines, were responsible for the accumulations. Various studies have helped to reconstruct the environment. Evidently, Australopithecines preferred to live in forest and forest margins, rather than open savannah.

Finally, analyses of stalagmites from Cold Air Cave in the limeworks have provided a particularly precise record of climate change over the last 25 000 years. Alternating layers of speleothems represent wet and dry, warm and cold, episodes. To celebrate Makapansgat’s importance to all these fields, and to provide greater protection, it was added to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in 2003.

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


References:
• Loubser, J.H.N. 1994. Ndebele Archaeology of the Pietersberg area. Navorsinge van die Nasionale Museum Bloemfontein (Human Sciences) 10: 61-147

Last updated : 11-Aug-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 04-Jul-2011

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