Term 2: The first farmers in Southern Africa

Iron Age tools. Source: www.krugerpark.co.za

The first farmers in southern Africa were Bantu-speakers and archaeology shows that they entered southern Africa between 2 000 and 1 700 years ago This topic focuses on the life of the first farmers of southern Africa and the ways we can find out about them.

The term ‘Iron Age’ is a convenient label for this period, as people made tools from iron, however, all the other facets of these societies should not be ignored. Archaeologists therefore use terms such as ‘agriculturists’ or ‘farmers’. The entry of farmers did not end the occupation of hunter-gatherers. They in fact shared the landscape, in some instances there were cases of intermarriage and cultural interaction (all the clicks in the Nguni languages, for example, are derived from Khoisan languages).

Iron Age societies were highly fluid, flexible and had a great capacity for change. People could move, shift and change their affiliation if they were not happy. The popular idea that Bantu-speaking people lived in ‘tribes’ is incorrect and the term must be avoided, as it assumes societies were static and unchanging. Instead, ‘chiefdom’ is a better term, but it must be remembered that chiefdoms were fluid and flexible. They came and went, and political power and citizenship changed constantly.

Indigenous societies were politically, strategically, economically and technologically innovative before the colonial period. The myth that so frequently surfaces is the contrast between societies with writing (‘civilised, progressive, innovative’), with indigenous societies (“tribal, mired in a static traditionalism”).

The classroom will focus on: when, why and where the first African farmers settled in Southern Africa.  The first section will look at the interaction with the Khoisan, specifically the principle of generous acceptance of other people. This was important in the Iron Age. In order to maintain their political power, leaders had to accept strangers and integrate them into their own societies.

The second section will investigate how early African farmers lived in settled chiefdoms. The class will look at the social, political and economic structures prevalent at the time. Roles of men, women, boys and girls were different. Men focused on metal work, women worked on the day to day activities and children were economically active from an early age and took pride in contributing to the well-being of the community. In their teens they were initiated and educated into the responsibilities of adulthood.

A culture of co-operation was significant in the Stone Age. Examples include communal work parties during the ploughing season and lending new member’s calves for a year or two as agriculture (crops and livestock) was an integral parts of chiefdoms. This ensured the well-being and good social relations of the community as a whole.

Last updated : 23-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 19-Jan-2012