Prehistory of the Nelspruit area

Lying just below the escarpment, Nelspruit is the capital of a region with important Iron Age remains. Stonewalled settlements scattered along the escarpment represent the movement of various Nguni speaking people. One type of walling, known as Badfontein, is associated with the Koni, the Sotho name for people of Nguni origin. Long stone-lined cattle tracks link dispersed homesteads sited among agricultural terraces. The circular arrangement of the homesteads, as well as associated rock engravings, show that Badfontein settlements emphasized the centre/side axis of the Central Cattle Pattern (see prehistory of Durban), that is, people related by blood (the male cattle area) versus marriage (the female residential zone). This emphasis characterises Nguni people from northern KwaZulu-Natal. Another settlement feature points to another Nguni trait. In Badfontein settlements, the cattle track leads to a central enclosure with an exit on the opposite side; cattle driven outside to the right enter a byre on the up-hill side, while another byre on the down-hill side is accessible from the left. This arrangement parallels the left-hand house/right-hand house division so prominent among Nguni.

A second type of stonewalled settlement also occurs on the escarpment. In this case the arrangement emphasises the front/back axis similar to that developed at Moor Park in the midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. This type of settlement can be associated with Southern Ndebele. As a rule, people who have retained the Nguni language are called Ndebele, while Koni are people who adopted Sotho. Both Koni and Ndebele settlements are currently under investigation. They both may have first appeared in the Nelspruit area in the early 17th century.

Other African farmers lived below the escarpment some 1000 years earlier. Construction activity for the new Mpumalanga legislature next to the Riverside shopping complex uncovered the remains of at least two if not three farming settlements stratified one above the other. The oldest remains date to the 6th century and include a cattle byre that encompassed several storage pits containing characteristic pottery. Nearby was a burial from a higher level. Throughout southern Africa, people who organised their settlements according to the Central Cattle Pattern had a positive attitude about the role of ancestors in their daily lives. As a result, the homestead for the living was also used as a cemetery for the dead. Usually, the dead were buried in areas associated with them while alive: men in the cattle byre; women at the back around their grain bins; children in the courtyard where they played; and infants (such as stillborns) under the hut floor because they never experienced life outside the house. Places such as the Riverside Early Iron Age site have been central to the debate about the antiquity of cattle as bride wealth.

For Further Reading:

  • Huffman, T.N. 1998. The antiquity of lobola. South African Archaeological Bulletin 53: 57-62.
  • Maggs, T.M. 1995. Neglected rock art: the rock engravings of agriculturalist communities in South Africa. South African Archaeological Bulletin 48: 32-36.

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