The Chronology of the Introduction of Pastoralism to the Cape, South Africa

Article excerpt

A careful survey of reports of early sheep in southernmost Africa combines with new radiocarbon dates to revise our knowledge of early pastoralism in the Cape. The new chronology shows the keeping of domestic stock and the making of pottery are not simultaneous and intertwined but separate events in a more complex history.


Early European visitors to the Cape met local pastoralist people whom they called 'Hottentots', and who called themselves 'Khoikhoi'.

These people, and especially their sheep and cattle, were of great interest to scurvy-afflicted sailors in search of fresh meat. As a result, the surviving historical records preserve a certain amount of information about 17th- and 18th-century pastoralist communities. Since the social fabric of these societies broke down rapidly after European colonists dispossessed the local inhabitants of their lands and livestock, the many unrecorded aspects of pastoralist life and the history of these communities are accessible only through archaeological investigation.

Sheep and cattle have no wild progenitors in southern Africa, and so must have been brought into the region, presumably from further north in Africa. Stock were kept, in the drier western parts of southern Africa, by pastoralist peoples who did not grow crops, and made only very limited use of metals. In the wetter eastern and northern areas, stock-keeping was practised mainly by grain agriculturists who also smelted iron.

Investigations into the origins of pastoralism at the Cape have focused on how and when this took place. As early as 1905, Stow suggested that pastoralists from East Africa moved southwards into the area that is now Zambia and Zimbabwe, then westwards into southern Angola, and then south again until they reached the southernmost tip of Africa. Stow drew mainly on surviving fragments of oral traditions. A similar route was suggested by Cooke (1965), arguing that the environment of these areas would have provided suitable grazing for domestic animals, whereas the adjacent semi-desert countryside was too arid to support large herds of stock. In addition, this route follows the distribution of rock paintings of sheep, known mostly from Zimbabwe and from the southwestern Cape. An alternative route, suggested by Elphick (1977) on the basis of linguistic data, postulates movement from northern Botswana southwards towards the Orange River, then a split into two streams, one of which moved westwards along the river, and the other continued south through the central Karoo. These proposals need not be mutually exclusive. Domestic animals may have been brought to the Cape more than once, via different routes. Whichever way they came, though, the earliest pastoralist sites should be in the north, with progressively younger remains as one moves further south.

Archaeological research has found a large number of sites with sheep bones in western Southern Africa post-dating 1600 b.p.

Cattle, rarer in archaeological deposits than sheep, may have been a somewhat later addition (Inskeep 1969; Klein 1986). The lack of archaeological evidence for large-scale cattle-keeping, as documented in the historical records, remains a puzzle. In this article, we evaluate the earliest evidence for sheep in a Stone Age context: material presently believed to date to 2000-1600 b.p. Pottery first appears in this part of the world c. 2000 b.p.; sheep and pottery are generally assumed to be parts of a pastoralist 'package'.

We suggest that this conventional interpretation may need to be reconsidered. The case study considered here is one example of a wider issue: the extent to which different components of a food producing way of life emerged in concert in various regions around the world.

Archaeological evidence for early stock

Early pastoralist residues have been claimed for several archaeological sites in Namibia. Klein (1986) tabulates radiocarbon determinations associated with stock at sites in western South Africa and Namibia, including results in excess of 1800 years b. …