How do we find out about the past? For recent events where there was personal involvement, memory can be relied on. To know about events earlier than this, elderly relatives and friends may be able to recall their experiences of that time. Books and films also inform about the past.

How do the writers of these books and the makers of the films find out about thousands or even millions of years ago, times that are forgotten to living memory, and for which there are no written records? How, for example, do we know all this fascinating information about the origin of people?

The distant past can be studied by means of archaeology. Archaeologists try to find the answers to certain questions about people in the past. To do this they look for evidence of the people they are interested in. This means looking for places or sites where people lived and left behind traces of this life.

It is almost impossible for people who have spent some time at a place not to leave evidence of their passing. Paths, flattened sleeping spots, fireplaces and other remains, including rubbish, give many clues about the people and their activities.

Rubbish can be precious

Rubbish and other remains are considered precious by archaeologists. Archaeologists carefully dig up the rubbish and other remains left behind by people living many thousands of years ago. This includes things like the fossils of plants, skeletons of animals as well as stone or metal objects. They know that, in almost all cases, the oldest material will be at the bottom and the most recent on top.

Things which have been left exactly where people dropped them are said to be in "primary context". By making maps of the material left on a site, archaeologists can suggest how different people used their living space e.g. where they slept, cooked and made tools. Sometimes it is possible to work out what people ate, how they adapted to their environment, how they treated each other and even what they believed in.

Everyone in society creates rubbish, builds shelters and uses tools, which may survive through time. So, archaeology can tell us as much about ordinary people as about rulers or famous people and, as much about everyday life as about great events.

Archaeologists, like other people who study the past, select information which helps them to answer the questions about the past. Different archaeologists ask different questions about the past. Knowledge of history grows and broadens as more archaeologists find answeres to new questions.

Evidence of human settlement in Southern Africa

Archaeological evidence shows that Southern Africa has one of the longest records of human activity anywhere in the world. Until very recently, school students in South Africa only learnt about the history of the last few hundred years.

This was because school histories about South Africa generally relied on written documents. Most of these documents tell us about the spread of European settlement around the world dating from about AD 1500. By concentrating on these documents, school histories have often left out fascinating information about the history of this country before the arrival of the European settlers.

The full story begins millions of years ago. Archaeologists provide information about the various human societies that developed in South Africa over time. They have constructed this story from the tools, buildings, rock paintings, iron and copper furnaces and other things that were made by people and that have been buried in the South African soil for thousands of years. These things are the material remains or the material culture of the societies that lived here.

A roadway of time for the people of Southern Africa

The table below contains information about different stages of human development in Southern Africa from about 1,5 million years ago. The material culture or artifacts that people made and left behind has helped archaeologists put together a picture of how people lived.

The earliest stone tools in Southern Africa date to 1,5 million years ago. They were simple stones from which flakes were removed. These sharp-edged tools, or even the flakes that were chipped off, were used for cutting. Evidence of Early Stone Age communities shows that they lived mainly in caves near to rivers.
In Middle Stone Age times, between about 150 000 to 30 000 years ago, people made long blade-like and triangular stone tools, some of which were probably used as spearheads. Middle Stone Age people along the coast ate shellfish from about 120 000 years ago. There is little evidence up to this time of the making of ornaments.
Late Stone Age tools appear about 30 000 years ago. These consist of smaller, finer tools - rounded scrapers, adzes* and segments which were put onto wooden handles. Later Stone Age people, like their ancestors,were hunter-gatherers who did not live in settled communities. They hunted with bows and poison-tipped arrows from about 14 000 years ago. There is a great deal of evidence of rock art, ornaments and burials with grave goods, such as shells and beads, like those used by the San* in more recent times. About 2 000 years ago, herders with domestic sheep and, later on, cattle arrived in the south-western Cape. They made tools out of pottery and bone, as well as stone tools but had no knowledge of iron smelting. They were the Khoikhoi* - the ancestors of the people the Europeans encountered when they reached the shores of Southern Africa in 1488.
About 1 800 years ago, Iron Age farmers who lived in more settled village communities, with crops, domestic animals, pottery and knowledge of smelting metals began spreading through Southern Africa. Some Iron Age communities became wealthy states. These people were the ancestors of the modern-day Africans* of Southern Africa. The Iron Age in Southern Africa lasted until about 100 years ago.

It is important to realise that the periods of history listed in the previous table describe a way of life. So it could happen that people followed different ways of life at the same time in different parts of the country e.g. a Stone Age way of life and an Iron Age one have existed alongside each other in certain areas. And over time, one or both of these ways of life would change.

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