The first farmers

For a period of time that is almost impossible to imagine, all the inhabitants of Southern Africa were Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Then about 2 000 years ago (100 BC), the Khoikhoi herders came South, bringing sheep with them. The way of life of the Khoikhoi herders soon came into conflict with that of the San hunter-gatherers.

The wheel of change had begun to turn. In about 250 AD, African farmers came to Southern Africa from further North. Archaeologists call this period of history the Iron Age. Like the Khoikhoi, the Iron Age farmers also had domestic animals and pottery. These farmers brought with them four important new items:

Ӣ Bantu languages

ӢCultivation of crops

Ӣ Settled village life

Ӣ Metal tools

These four changes influenced the way most people lived in the eastern part of the country.

The origin and settlement of African people in Southern Africa

This feature describes the lifestyle of the newcomers and shows how the arrival of African farmers brought a new way of life to South Africa.


Generations of South Africans have been taught that African farmers moved South around the same time as the early settlers from Europe moved North and East. Recent research challenges this.

It shows that Iron Age societies existed throughout the Eastern part of the country centuries before the arrival of the settlers. They chose this area because it is a summer rainfall area which is suitable for growing crops. These farmers who brought the Iron Age to this part of Africa were Africans who spoke Bantu languages.

The cultivation of crops

With the arrival of the African farmers in Southern Africa came the spread of crop farming. Martin West, in his study of this period, points out that all the African peoples were subsistence farmers to begin with. This means that each family had to produce enough for its own needs by its own labour.

Although the men still hunted for extra food, the African people were mainly herders of cattle, sheep and goats, an cultivators of the soil. This was very different from the way of life of the San hunter-gatherers who did not produce food or keep cattle.

The importance of cattle

As with the Khoikhoi, cattle had great importance in these societies. Looking after the cattle was the work of the men. The cattle kraal was the social centre of the village, the meeting place for men and a place that women were usually not allowed to enter!

The herds of African farmers were larger than those of the Khoikhoi. With the Khoikhoi, cattle belonged to individuals. Those who owned the most cattle had the most power. Martin West explains why cattle were valued so highly in African farming communities. Cattle were a considerable source of food, though more for milk than for meat. They also provided many valuable by-products such as skin for clothing and hide and horn for containers. Dung was used for fuel and for plastering walls and floors. Within these societies, cattle were also the main source of wealth and the medium of exchange. Bride wealth (lobola/bogadi) was calculated in terms of cattle. They were also used to pay fines and to ensure the goodwill of ancestral spirits.

Women's work

Even though cattle received so much attention, survival' depended on the cultivation of crops which was the work of the women. Men might help with heavy tasks such as clearing ground, but even this they regarded as a favour. The wooden hoe, later replaced by one of iron, was the main tool women used to till the fields. This made their work much easier.

Using the land

In order to farm, you need land. Land belonged to the community but individuals were given the right to use it. The chief, as head of the community, gave out the land and took it back, though he usually got advice from his headmen before he did this. Everyone had the right to some land but some people had more land or better land than other people.

Larger settlements

"Farming is hard work and takes a lot of time; livestock cannot be left to roam while people are busy with their crops. These tasks require a lot of man and womanpower," argue Malherbe and Hall. "And, in areas where cultivation is practised, the land can support greater numbers of people. Therefore, farmers usually form larger groups than herders or hunter gatherers do."

Crop production also led to a more settled village life. It became necessary to stay in one place, close to your crops, for longer periods of time Sturdier, more permanent houses were built and people were able to keep more possessions. These include clothing, mats, tools such as hoes and baked-clay pots for cooking, storm food or carrying water.

In most cases, Iron Age villages were made up of homesteads. A homestead consisted of a circle of houses or huts built out of poles covered with thatch and sometimes mud plaster. These huts were arranged in either a semi-circle or a full circle around the cattle kraal.

According to Malherbe and Hall, "in farming communities, the people responsible for storage of food and seed held a great deal of power over other people: they could become kings and chiefs, or important headmen. Other people needed to serve them and be loyal and obedient if they wanted to share in the food supply."

Seasonal migration

Living a more settled lifestyle did not mean that these farming communities did not move around at all. According to Malherbe and Hall, villages moved to a new area every few years when the richness in the soil had been used up. Similarly, farmers with cattle had to move according to the seasons to make sure that their livestock obtained as much fresh grazing as possible in the spring and summer months.

This seasonal moving is called "transhumance" and allowed land that had been heavily farmed or grazed time to rest. This movement was very different from that of hunter-gatherers, who regularly moved to new areas, digging for plants and capturing wild animals where and when they were available.

The spread of iron working and pottery production

Iron was by far the most commonly used metal during the Iron Age. Iron smelting spread Southwards from Central and East Africa. Iron tools were very important to the early farmers of Southern Africa. This was especially true of hoes and other implements that could be used to cut down trees and bush, break up the soil, weed the fields and harvest the crop.

Pottery production was also a very important feature of Iron Age society. Pots were used for cooking and storing food. Archaeologists often find pieces of pottery when they are excavating sites. Differences in pottery styles have helped archaeologists to tell one group from another, work out migration routes and make links between different groups.

Relationships with Stone Age groups

There is evidence to suggest that the Iron Age people traded with and also employed some of the Stone Age people, both the San and Khoikhoi to hunt and herd for them. In exchange for their labour and for items like beads and animal skins, the hunter-gatherers could have food and iron implements. Some farmers intermarried with the Khoikhoi and the San. In some areas, words and click sounds from the languages of the San and the Khoi became part of the Bantu-speaking languages. Material objects of the San and the Khoikhoi are often found on Iron Age sites. This shows that, on the whole, these groups must have lived together peacefully.

It is possible that cattle-keeping Khoikhoi made their way north to the grazing lands in the highveld and became part of the growing communities of African farmers.

However, evidence of conflict between African farmers, the Khoikhoi and the San comes from San rock paintings in the Eastern Cape dating from the early 19th Century rock paintings showing large warriors armed with spears attacking smaller figures armed with bows and arrows. They show the clash between two ways of life hunter-gathering and settled agriculture that occurred in some parts of the country.

African farmers introduced new things into Southern Africa. These new things caused other things to change.

The ancestors of today's African people in Southern Africa

Most of South Africa's African people are from four Bantu language groups:

Nguni, Sotho, Tsonga and Venda. These groups all shared the basic elements from the Iron Age way of life.

The two largest of these language groups, the Nguni and the Sotho, are today subdivided into a number of different languages. The table that follows shows what these subdivisions are.








South Sotho

North Sotho (Pedi)

Much historical information about these groups has come through the oral history recounted by the people themselves. A great deal of this information concerns the past of particular royal families.

Another very important source of evidence about the origins of African people in Southern Africa is archaeology. Because it deals with material culture, it can tell us little about particular leaders or events. Instead, it gives us information about the way of life of the ordinary people in a village.

The case study that follows is based largely on archaeological evidence that has been found in Gauteng.

The ancestors of the Tswana people: A case study using pictures

The pictures and information linked here are based on archaeological research done in and around Johannesburg by Professor Revil Mason. As far as we know, the earliest African people in this area were the ancestors of the Tswana people. Click hereto view the scenes. Lots of things can be discovered about the way of life of the ancestors of the Tswana people in 1600 AD, about 200 years before Europeans first arrived in Gauteng.