Complete Early History of South Africa

Khoisan men demonstrating how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together by By Isewell, CC BY-SA 2.5

he first modern humans are believed to have inhabited South Africa more than 100,000 years ago. South Africa’s prehistory has been divided into two phases based on broad patterns of technology namely the Stone Age and Iron Age.

Let’s look at the complete ancient History of South Africa until the mid 1600s


Scientists researching the periods before written historical records were made have established that the territory of what is now referred to generically as South Africa was one of the important centers of human evolution. It was inhabited by Australopithecines since at least 2.5 million years ago. Modern human settlement occurred around 125,000 years ago in the Middle Stone Age, as shown by archaeological discoveries at Klasies River Caves. The first human habitation is associated with a DNA group originating in a northwestern area of southern Africa and still prevalent in the indigenous Khoisan (Khoi and San). Southern Africa was later populated by Bantu-speaking people who migrated from the western region of central Africa during the early centuries AD.

At the Blombos cave Professor Raymond Dart discovered the skull of a 2.51 million year old Taung Child in 1924, the first example of Australopithecus africanus ever found. Following in Dart’s footsteps Robert Broom discovered a new much more robust hominid in 1938 Paranthropus robustus at Kromdraai, and in 1947 uncovered several more examples of Australopithecus africanus at Sterkfontein. In further research at the Blombos cave in 2002, stones were discovered engraved with grid or cross-hatch patterns, dated to some 70,000 years ago. This has been interpreted as the earliest example ever discovered of abstract art or symbolic art created by Homo sapiens.

Many more species of early hominid have come to light in recent decades. The oldest is Little Foot, a collection of footbones of an unknown hominid between 2.2 and 3.3 million years old, discovered at Sterkfontein by Ronald J. Clarke. An important recent find was that of 1.9 million year old Australopithecus sediba, discovered in 2008. In 2015, the discovery near Johannesburg of a previously unknown species of Homo was announced, named Homo naledi. It has been described as one of the most important paleontological discoveries in modern times.

San and Khoikhoi

The descendants of the Middle Paleolithic populations are thought to be the aboriginal San and Khoikhoi tribes. The settlement of southern Africa by the ancestors of the Khoisan corresponds to the earliest separation of the extant Homo sapiens populations altogether, associated in genetic science with what is described in scientific terms as matrilinear haplogroup L0 (mtDNA) and patrilinear haplogroup A (Y-DNA), originating in a northwestern area of southern Africa.

The San and Khoikhoi are grouped under the term Khoisan, and are essentially distinguished only by their respective occupations. Whereas the San were hunter-gathers, the Khoikhoi were pastoral herders. The initial origin of the Khoikhoi remains uncertain.

Archaeological discoveries of livestock bones on the Cape Peninsula indicate that the Khoikhoi began to settle there by about 2000 years ago. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Portuguese mariners, who were the first Europeans at the Cape, encountered pastoral Khoikhoi with livestock. Later, English and Dutch seafarers in the late 16th and 17th centuries exchanged metals for cattle and sheep with the Khoikhoi. The conventional view is that availability of livestock was one reason why, in the mid-17th century, the Dutch East India Company established a staging post where the port city of Cape Town is today situated.

The establishment of the staging post by the Dutch East India Company at the Cape in 1652 soon brought the Khoikhoi into conflict with Dutch settlers over land ownership. Cattle rustling and livestock theft ensued, with the Khoikhoi being ultimately expelled from the peninsula by force, after a succession of wars. The first Khoikhoi–Dutch War broke out in 1659, the second in 1673, and the third 1674–1677. By the time of their defeat and expulsion from the Cape Peninsula and surrounding districts, the Khoikhoi population was decimated by a smallpox epidemic, against which the Khoikhoi had no natural resistance or indigenous medicines. The disease had been brought to the Cape by Dutch sailors.

Bantu people

The Bantu expansion was one of the major demographic movements in human prehistory, sweeping much of the African continent during the 2nd and 1st millennia BC. Bantu-speaking communities reached southern Africa from the Congo basin as early as the 4th century BC. The advancing Bantu encroached on the Khoikhoi territory, forcing the original inhabitants of the region to move to more arid areas. Some groups, ancestral to today’s Nguni peoples (the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele), preferred to live near the eastern coast of what is present-day South Africa. Others, now known as the Sotho–Tswana peoples (Tswana, Pedi, and Sotho), settled in the interior on the plateau known as the Highveld, while today’s Venda, Lemba, and Tsonga peoples made their homes in the north-eastern areas of present-day South Africa.

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe, which was located near the northern border of present-day South Africa, at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers adjacent to present-day Zimbabwe and Botswana, was the first indigenous kingdom in southern Africa between AD 900 and 1300. It developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned because of climatic changes in the 14th century. Smiths created objects of iron, copper and gold both for local decorative use and for foreign trade. The kingdom controlled trade through the east African ports to Arabia, India and China, and throughout southern Africa, making it wealthy through the exchange of gold and ivory for imports such as Chinese porcelain and Persian glass beads.

Specifics of the contact between Bantu-speakers and the indigenous Khoisan ethnic group remain largely unresearched, although linguistic proof of assimilation exists, as several southern Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and Zulu) are theorized in that they incorporate many click consonants from the Khoisan languages, as possibilities of such developing independently are valid as well.

Colonisation began soon afterwords.

Source: Wikipedia, Britannica, African History Archives (Oxford Press)

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