The first farmers in Southern Africa

When, why and where the first African farmers settled in Southern Africa

What is farming?

Farming is the practice of breeding animals or growing crops for food or clothes. Human ancestors stopped relying on hunting and gathering for food and began farming about 10 000 years ago. This change affected the way society worked as people began living in larger groups because of the availability of food. Towns and cities developed and people had to learn new skills for living in a larger group, like trading extra food, building roads to travel on, finding different ways to transport things and ways of communicating between groups.

Who were the African farmers?

The African farmers that moved to southern Africa were Bantu-speakers and were the ancestors of many South African people. Like the hunter-gatherers and herders they also arrived here hundreds of years before any Europeans.

The Bantu-speaking farmers who moved here from North Africa decided that South Africa was a good place to settle because of plentiful summer rain, ideal to grow crops.Source:

These farmers brought more new ideas and skills to the east of southern Africa, just like the Khoikhoi and their herds of animals. They introduced crop cultivation, metal tools, Bantu languages and village life to the eastern part of the country. It is believed that they came here because it was a summer rainfall area and good for growing crops.

African farmers lived in larger communities than the San or Khoikhoi because more people were needed to look after herds of animals and to work the land. The areas they lived in could also support larger groups because it wasn't as dry and hot as the western part of southern Africa. They built their villages around a cattle kraal and were ruled by a chief or king.

Crop farming was new to the area and the earth was fertile. Most of the farmers only planted and harvested enough food for them. The men still hunted, but also herded cattle, goats and sheep. Crops provided daily food and were essential to the farmers' survival. It was the women's work to tend the fields. Men helped them to clear the ground and tools like the hoe, and later the ox-plough made the work easier.

The ox-plough not only changed farming techniques, but also the role of women in communities. Source:

The ox-plough was brought to southern Africa by European settlers and it replaced the hoe as a tool to clear the ground. It also changed the society of African farmers. The plough had to be pulled by oxen, but women were not allowed to handle cattle. This meant that the women could no longer work in the fields and that men could take over that job. This weakened the position of women in this society.

The plough also made it possible for farmers to plant more crops, but this would require more land. The land belonged to the community and some members had the right to plant and harvest crops to feed the group. Some farms were larger than others, but everyone had a right to land.

Cattle were important to African farmers because they were so useful. They were a symbol of riches and power and was used as “lobola”, or bride price.Sources:

African farmers had much larger herds of cattle than Khoikhoi farmers, but their animals were also very important. The cattle didn't belong to the group, but were the property of individuals. They were a symbol of power and wealth because they provided milk and meat, skin for clothes, and horns for containers. Their droppings were used as fuel for fires and for plastering walls and floors in houses. They were used as a form of money to pay fines or for “lobola”, or bride price. When a young man wanted to marry a girl he would have to give the girl's father a certain amount of cattle.

Where did they come from?

Bantu-speaking people also migrated to southern Africa from further north. Source:

African farmers arrived in southern Africa around 250 AD, which is about 1 000 years ago, from further north in Africa. They were Bantu-speaking people and lived in an era that archaeologists call the Iron Age.

For a long time many people believed that African farmers arrived in South Africa at the same time as European settlers, but new research proves that they were here hundreds of years before the Europeans.

Attitudes to land

Evidence shows that  there was  contact between the hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers in southern Africa. There is evidence that the African farmers traded with the other two groups and even hired some of them as hunters and herders. They paid them in beads and animal hides. Some of the farmers even married Khoikhoi and San partners and their languages mixed. That's why some Bantu languages, like Xhosa, have clicks similar to the Khoikhoi and San languages

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