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.

Iron Age1 : The time period when weapons and tools were made from Iron

The first farmers’ attitude to the land The Khoikhoi and the San

When the first farmers began to move inland, they started to change the environment they lived in. They chopped down trees and tall grasses and burnt them to use as fertilizer for their crops. This system is called “slash and burn”. The area that the trees and grass were taken from was cleared to plant crops and build settlements. They planted crops, built huts and walls to keep cattle and protect them. The farmers stayed in an area for a long time so that their crops could grow, but sometimes they had to move to new areas because the land became overgrazed. 

Overgrazed3 : If the land has too many animals feeding on it then there is no time for the grass to grow back.

The first farmers meet the Khoikhoi and San

The first farming communities had a lot in common with the Khoikhoi herders. Both groups ate shellfish when they lived at the coast, both hunted animals and both needed grazing land for their cattle. The Khoikhoi and the first farmers helped each other in times of hardship. They bartered for things they needed in times of famine or drought. Bartering4 involves exchanging items or services without using money. The Khoikhoi accepted the first farmers into their communities - they brought iron tools and weapons as well as new farming methods. The Khoi taught the first farmers to make medicine from plants and shared their religious ideas.

First farmers in Southern Africa Farmers lived differently to hunters and gatherers. They had to stay in one place long enough to plant and harvest their crops. They built permanent homes near their fields. Archeologists have found the remains of many iron-age villages. These remains show us that most of their houses were circular and made form either mud bricks with grass roofs or domeshaped woven from grass.

Farmers lived in large groups and many people were needed to work in the fields. People lived, with their families, in homesteads. Inside the walls of the homestead were huts where the people lived, separate areas to store food, areas to keep the cattle as well as communal areas where people ate or socialized. The people in farming communities all had different roles and responsibilities. Some people had more power than others. Some villages formed chiefdoms5 where they had a leader or chief. The whole community would work together at harvest time and help each other when times were hard. The Chief6 would control the community’s trade with outsiders as well as ensure goods were distributed amongst the community to benefit all. Chiefs often demanded tax which was paid to him for living under his protection.

Roles of men, women and children

Men and women had different roles and responsibilities. Although the first farmers grew crops and kept cattle, they also had to hunt wild animals. Men and boys were responsible for hunting as well as looking after and tending to the animals and protecting the tribe members from wild animals. Women looked after the crops and took care of weeding in the fields. They also cooked, cleaned and collected water. Children did not go to school; they learnt their roles and skills from adults in the community. In their teenage years, children went through initiation 7 - a ritual to be accepted in to the community. There was always a lot of secrecy around these rituals of initiation.

The crops and livestock of the early African farmers.

The first farmers grew two types of crops; sorghum and millet. These grains could be ground into a powder to make porridge or beer. After the Europeans arrived in the 1500s, the early farmers introduced wheat and maize to Africa. (We eat bread made from wheat and porridge made from maize).

Grains were stored in baskets above ground or in underground pits. Farmers still had to hunt wild animals to feed their families. The early farmers were subsistence farmers . This means that they only grew enough for themselves. If the harvest was very good, they may have bartered with other groups. The early farmers also grew some fruit and vegetables. The early farmers kept animals. They kept chickens, sheep, goat and cattle. Eggs, milk and meat from these animals were an important part of their diet.


Cattle were a very important part of African farming life. They were important for the following reasons:

• Cattle were a source of meat, milk and leather.

• Owning cattle was a sign of wealth and status in the community.

• Cattle were used for important events, such as slaughtering a cow at a wedding or a funeral. Cattle were also used for two other important customs. The Mafisa System: This was when cattle were lent to other people for breeding purposes, but the owner could take back their cattle whenever they wanted to. The owner could also ask for the milk from their cow. Men who had large numbers of cattle showed their power by lending cattle. The men who borrowed the cattle had to give respect to the people they borrowed cattle from. Bride-wealth or Lobola: This was when a husband made a payment to the wife’s family, usually paid in cattle. This payment made the marriage official. Today people still pay Lobola as a sign of respect.

Objects of the first farmers

Tools and weapons from iron and copper 

The early African farmers used iron to make spear tips, hammers, hoes and axes. They also made ornaments and jewelry from iron and copper. Iron ore is found in rocks in many parts of Africa. The first farmers mined the iron ore and figured out how to turn the ore into liquid metal through a process called smelting . The farmers made smelting furnaces - a closed structure to heat the rocks to a high temperature to turn them into a liquid. Skilled men would take the liquid Iron and shape it into tools and weapons. Women were not allowed near the furnaces.


Archeologists have found many examples of pottery made by the first farmers. Clay pots, cups, plates, beads and ornaments have all been discovered. A very famous example of Iron Age pottery is the Lydenburg heads. The shattered pieces of seven heads were found and were stuck back together. Archeologists have discovered they were made in about 500CE. No one is sure what they were used for. They could have been used as ornaments or in ceremonies such as the initiation ceremony into womanhood.


The first farmers were involved in trading networks inside Africa and with people from other parts of the world. Trading networks are routes where trade happened and along which people travelled to trade. People from the middle-east traded along the east coast of Africa from about 100-200CE. Archeologists have found seashells, beads and glazed pottery far inland. Traders from India brought the first bananas coconuts to Africa. In return, Africans traded ivory, gold and steel. Early traders did not use money. They used beads made from ostrich eggshells, iron, gold or glass as a type of money. Salt was trade in bars or cakes and copper traded in thin wire.

Further reading
- The First Farmers in Southern Africa

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