Research Article: The archaeological evidence for the appearance of pastoralism and farming in southern Africa

Date Published: June 14, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Faye Lander, Thembi Russell, Peter F. Biehl.


This paper is a response to the growing reference to archaeological evidence by linguists and geneticists interested in the spread of early farmers and pastoralists in southern Africa. It presents two databases. The first contains the archaeological evidence for pastoralism and farming in southern Africa, for the period 550 BC to AD 1050. This is the first time that the seven different types of archaeological evidence that have traditionally been used to identify both spread events are presented together at this scale. This was stimulated by our interest in investigating the antiquity of an early ‘Iron Age package’ relative to the spread of single archaeological traits. The analysis shows that the package appears approximately 700 years after sites containing pottery, cattle and sheep, without agriculture, appear in the drier parts of the sub-continent. It post-dates the appearance of earlier sites with pottery associated with farmers, metal-working and cultivation in the eastern half of the sub-continent. While poor preservation undoubtedly explains the absence of some parts of the package, the analysis suggests that other explanations should be considered. The second database is a quantitative, spatial study of archaeological publications on southern African farming and pastoralism for the period 1950 to 2016, covering the same geographical area and archaeological timeframe. This is presented as a proxy for research-intensive areas in attempt to show the gaps in archaeological fieldwork and knowledge.

Partial Text

Archaeologists have long grappled with the identification of past movements of people through the examination of their material culture. Consensus has not been reached on how, why and with whom livestock first spread in southern Africa, but recent genetic analyses, in particular, have freed archaeologists to once again talk of demic diffusion as an explanation for change, particularly for the spread of livestock without agriculture. Genetic evidence for the relatedness of present day Bantu-language speaking Africans across the sub-continent, and the persistence in Namibian Khoesan descendants of the gene that enables adults to digest milk proteins, has allowed geneticists to see migrations [1, 2, 3] and to suggest their origins and antiquity. Yet this does not remove the longstanding problem that archaeologists face: that it is difficult to tell cultural from demic diffusion. Archaeologists need to pause, rather than scrambling to see migration in their data. This recalls a similar reaction by archaeologists to linguistic analysis in past decades [4].

Two geo-referenced databases and a southern African language distribution map are presented. The first database (Database 1) is named the ‘Southern African Database for the appearance of Livestock, Pottery, Metal and Crops’ (S1 Table). The naming reflects our reluctance to definitively identify the occupants of a site as farmers or pastoralists–although, most commonly, farmer sites are identified by archaeologists on the presence of a minimum of pottery type and geographical position, and pastoralist sites by the minimum evidence of livestock and geographical position.

All maps were created using ArcGIS version 10.5. The base map for Database 1 was compiled using the freely available USGS (US Geological Survey) Africa Digital Elevation Map.

The maps (Figs 2–9) (S1–S8 Figs) and S1 Table are designed to be read in conjunction and they follow the same chronological order. Key events for each of the two hundred year time slices are summarized below. The conventional interpretation as to the subsistence base of groups (farmer, pastoralist, hunter-gatherer and occupants unclassified) at a site is noted in brackets after data is presented below. A summary of the chronological appearance of livestock and directly dated pottery at southern African sites is given in S3 Text.

This paper is a response to evidence of increasing interest from other disciplines in the spread of farming and pastoralism in southern Africa, as evidenced in cross-disciplinary papers [40, 41, 42]. We first comment on the two spread events themselves, before raising some points that speak to potential gaps and weaknesses in archaeological research and method.

This paper is a response to a growing interest in the spread of farming and pastoralism in southern Africa by other disciplines, particularly geneticists, by providing a detailed spatio-temporal overview of the archaeological evidence that is used to interpret the past spread of these groups. Sadr [8] has stressed that more might be learnt about past population movements and interactions in southern Africa by dissolving the conceptual boundary between the southern African Iron Age and Stone Age periods because they overlap in time. The patterns presented in the paper prove the strength of this argument at this scale of analysis.




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