/ 22 August 2021

Pottery dating reveals the origins of Venda

Safrica Archeology Culture History
Potted history: Sian Tiley-Nel (right), chief curator of the Mapungubwe collection and assistant Helma Steenkamp. Photo: Stefan Heunis/AFP

Six hundred years ago, in the Limpopo Valley, before colonially imposed borders separated Great Zimbabwe from South Africa; in a time before 11 official languages were attributed to South African people, a new culture was born. 

New research, published in the South African Journal of Science in July, has revealed, for the first time, how the emergence of two separate cultures came together to create Venda, as a language and as a culture, in the ancient state of Mapungubwe.

Professors Thomas Huffman, now retired, from the University of the Witwatersrand School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, and Dr Stephan Woodborne from iThemba Labs teamed up to track the origins of the ancient Mapungubwe state, and what came thereafter. 

Using pottery dating, cutting-edge carbon dating techniques, baobab tree rings and other methods, their research has revealed how the Venda culture was born out of two other cultures, probably when these cultures met at initiation schools.

The Iron Age state of Mapungubwe straddles what we now call Zimbabwe and South Africa, about 75km north of Messina in Limpopo. Huffman and Woodborne have written that it was initially occupied by the descendants of modern-day Zimbabwe, Shona-speakers, and that Mapungubwe was abandoned around 1320AD. It was abandoned for a variety of reasons, including environmental factors like droughts.

It remained unoccupied for about 80 years until the Sotho-speaking people moved in, probably from East Africa. Later, Kalanga speakers (a language also known as Western Shona) moved in from Zimbabwe to reclaim their ancestors’ previous home.

Unique pottery crafted by the Venda people combines both Icon pottery of the Sotho people, and the Khami pottery of the Kalanga, or Shona people, the researchers found. 

There are more than 500 sites, dating back to the Middle Ages, that relate to the beginnings of Mapungubwe. Oral histories and climatic changes, tracked through baobab tree rings and other dating techniques, have previously shown how the area was occupied by successive peoples over the centuries. 

Huffman and Woodborne have now used accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating techniques — a type of radiocarbon dating — to date some of the artefacts found at these sites; specifically, the Icon and Khami pottery. 

These dating techniques have allowed the researchers to trace the interaction of the Kalanga (or Western Shona) and Sotho peoples over a period of 200 years. 

Their research is significant for two reasons: firstly, because it uses archaeology and not linguistics to track the birth of a language; secondly, because it challenges existing views about how the Tshivenda language emerged.

According to Huffman and Woodborne, the Venda people are “archaeologically and anthropologically important” because, unlike other Sotho- and Nguni- speaking peoples, the Venda have continued the “essence” of precolonial Zimbabwe culture — “class distinction and sacred leadership”. 

“What we believe strongly is that there’s a vital relationship between world view and language,” Huffman said — a common thread between the precolonial Zimbabweans and the Venda people, he said. 

Initiation schools

Huffman and Woodborne believe that the first interactions between the Sotho and Kalanga speakers probably took place at initiation schools. The remains of these schools are situated on the borders of the Khami and Icon pottery sites, and nowhere else in the area. Hundreds of young people, male and female, would have attended these schools over the years. 

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Huffman explained that Venda evolved over a lengthy period, from about 1540AD to 1680AD, and so it is possible that the culture and language developed in other areas, too. After all, there are more than 1 000 Iron Age sites relevant to the Venda’s evolution. 

Huffman and Woodborne’s work has riled some historical linguists, Huffman explained, who have long asserted that the Venda, Sotho and other Nguni languages all originated about 1 500 years ago, somewhere between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. 

“Archaeology disagrees,” Huffman said. 

Next, Huffman hopes more research will be undertaken into the initiation schools and who attended them. Unfortunately, many young initiates would not have carried pottery with them to these sites, and very few sites have been properly excavated. Many skeletons found in the area have been reburied in line with traditional rites, while others have not been well preserved over the years, making it unlikely that the puzzle will be solved through genetic analysis.  

And although he doesn’t believe linguistics can answer all of the questions about the birth of Venda, more linguistic data would be a “major contribution”, Huffman said.