/ 30 April 2020

Unearthing the neglected role of hunter-gatherers in social transformation

Image 2
Inside Koaxa Shelter there are at least 16 animal species that have been painted, including lion, hyena and locusts.


Little more than 700 years ago, near the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, southern Africa’s first kingdom appeared. Several events preceded this. Around CE 350, the first farming communities began moving through the region. Closer to CE 900, Zhizo farmers, named after their ceramic type, settled in the valley and began trading with the interior of southern Africa and along the east African coastline. This trade provided local and international wealth in the form of glass beads, cloth, rhino horn, ostrich feathers, salt and crafted goods. 

A hundred years later, Leopard’s Kopje farmers moved into the valley and took over political authority, curated wealth, established social elites and established ritual authority through their chief. Further changes over a 200-year period eventually led to the establishment of Mapungubwe, southern Africa’s first state-level society and urban capital. 

Surveying the landscape from atop Mapungubwe near to where the golden rhino was found in a royal grave.

Seldom acknowledged are hunter-gatherers’ participation in these social transformations.

Hunter-gatherers are generally viewed as passive members of local society who often existed on the outskirts. Excavations at several sites in eastern Botswana and northern South Africa, however, revealed contradictory evidence. Archaeologists have found an array of wealth items, craft remains and even indicators of social status among local hunter-gatherers. But, we want to know more about their lives at a time when state-level society arose.

Looking across the detailed painted sequence inside Koaxa Shelter with giraffes, loin clothes and kudu all visible.

A project that myself and a team have launched through the University of Pretoria and with support by the National Research Foundation and Palaeontological Scientific Trust aims to explore the roles hunter-gatherers played in local economies. Our goal is to better understand their contributions to larger social and political systems and learn more of their ways of life in the valley.

One site that has given us incredible insights into hunter-gatherer history, and is soon to be re-excavated, is a shelter called Little Muck. It is located on the edge of the Limpopo River’s floodplain in South Africa’s Mapungubwe National Park. It was first described by archaeologist Ed Eastwood and named Tudwa Shelter, which means giraffe in Tshivenda, after two beautiful giraffes painted on the site by its hunter-gatherer occupants. Also painted on the back wall are faded elephants, kudu, humans in procession and loincloths.

The shelter was excavated in the late 1990s by a team of archaeologists from the University of the Witwatersrand led by Simon Hall. Their aim was to explore the social relations between the shelter’s occupants and a nearby farmer settlement called Leokwe Hill. They excavated an archaeological sequence that had not been identified at any other site in the area. Uniquely, the shelter contained an extraordinarily large number of stone scrapers. Even when all other artefacts declined in density, stone scrapers increased, suggesting that associated activities were more important than any other.

It was first thought that the scrapers were for hide production. An examination of wear along the stone scrapers’ edges, however, showed that rigid materials were also being worked, such as bone and wood. Little Muck’s occupants became craft specialists, producing a variety of goods during the first millennium CE. They traded these goods with farmers for ceramics — and possibly their contents — beads and metal.

Two faded but very detailed San paintings of giraffe in Little Muck Shelter.

At Dzombo Shelter, across the Limpopo River in Botswana, another interesting and unusual assemblage was excavated. Here, over the same period, stone tools associated with hunting increased disproportionately compared to all other finds. These tools, known as backed tools, were also investigated for fracture patterns consistent with hunting damage. It was shown that hunting activities increased at the same time as the appearance of trade wealth. Like Little Muck, those living at Dzombo shifted their behaviour to suit trade with nearby farmers by increasing hunting intensity in order to trade in wild game products.

Not all hunter-gatherers changed. Those living at Balerno Main Shelter, also in the Mapungubwe National Park, used the site as an aggregation camp from 1220 BCE until it was abandoned in about CE 1300. Aggregation was a period in the year when different groups would meet at a camp and perform various activities that they wouldn’t usually perform, such as gift giving (trade), marriage, rituals like the trance dance, feasting and hunting expeditions before splitting up into their smaller groups again. We see this archaeologically in the large accumulation and variety of artefacts at some sites as well as in the amount of subsistence remains. 

At Balerno Main, despite interactions with farmer communities, hardly anything changed at all; the site was used in basically the exact same way from before farmers arrived until its abandonment. Farmer relations did not affect hunter-gatherer society among those using Balerno Main.

Although only three of the sites that have been studied are mentioned here, they show flexibility in hunter-gatherer society. Where in some contexts they maintained their traditional values, in others they capitalised on their skills and knowledge sets to access parts of the local economy. In this way, they used their abilities to empower themselves within larger socio-political and economic networks. It importantly shows that they also maintained their own degree of autonomy; they were not subordinates, as has been suggested in other areas, and were even able to obtain important wealth items.

Redressing the history of hunter-gatherers counteracts earlier views advanced by colonial settlers, missionaries and travellers. In many cases, these portray an image of degradation and cultureless-ness. We are finding, however, rich cultural sequences in the archaeological record that supplement hunter-gatherer histories. In the middle Limpopo Valley area, hunter-gatherers were participants in complex social organisations and contributed to these systems. Acknowledging their important roles in South African societies provides more clarity in an often overlooked history relating to modern San ancestors. Through our research, we hope to highlight their legacy.

Tim Forssman is a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria. He has a D.Phil (Oxford) and his research interests include forager-farmer interactions, forager economies, trade dynamics, landscape archaeology and rock art.