Iron Age Kingdoms of Southern Africa

Our ancestors survived by hunting wild animals and gathering berries and roots. The women usually gathered food while the men hunted. Source: museums.ncl.ac.uk

The Iron Age

Before the Iron Age in southern Africa most people were nomadic and survived by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. Most chiefdoms were small in size and people did not regard land as property. This resulted in fairly harmonious co-existence as no tribe needed to be or was sufficiently more powerful to conquer another. Some scientists say this was helped by the abundance of resources. Food and water were readily available and people simply followed the animals they hunted as the seasons changed. This made the nomadic life more practical than settling in one place.

As agriculture grew people settled in villages and towns and gathered together their cattle in a kraal in the centre of the settlement. Their societies became more organised and political leaders emerged. Source: Nasson, B. (ed). Turning Points in History: Book 1: Ancient Civilisations and Global Trade. Johannesburg: STE.

Around 10 000 years ago, in different parts of the world, people began domesticating animals and plants. These were the first agricultural skills developed by our ancestors. They didn't have to rely on the availability of wild animals or plants any longer but could produce their own food. Farming allowed people to settle in towns. As towns grew and developed, society became more complex, paving the way for more sophisticated administration and politics.
Now that communities could cultivate plant crops and raise livestock, especially cattle, they sometimes had too much of both. This surplus became the object of trade. Groups began to exchange their products for goods they couldn't produce themselves. Trade routes were established and ivory and gold from Africa was traded for cloth, glass beads and other luxury products from afar.

The new age

The Iron Age is so named after the materials used at the time to make tools and weapons. It followed the Stone and Bronze Ages but developed at different times in different parts of the world. In East Africa people produced steel as early as 500 BC. In Europe, this development happened only in the 1700s AD. Technology in Africa was therefore long advanced before the arrival of European colonisers.

Image: Some Iron Age tools found in southern Africa. Source: www.edunetconnect.com

Iron Age technology was transmitted across Africa by Bantu-speaking people who migrated to the south from North and Central Africa. Their language and culture mixed with those of the groups they met, which is why many African people are Bantu-speaking. They also brought iron smelting technology and agriculture to these groups and founded great kingdoms like Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe and Thulamela.

Last updated : 12-May-2016

This article was produced by South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011

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