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date: 23 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

The Highveld covers a quarter of South Africa’s central plateau and is one of the most extensively investigated archaeological landscapes in Africa. Cattle-herding, farming communities first occupied these grasslands sometime between the 15th and the 17th centuries. A surge in the importance of cattle pastoralism among the so-called Late Iron Age populations of southern Africa seems to have caused this “grassland rush.” With it came a boom in the construction of dry-laid, stone-walled structures, an innovation the success of which is evidenced by the tens of thousands of ruins visible on aerial imagery of the Highveld. In places their agglomeration reaches urban proportions. Sotho-Tswana culture dominated this grassland rush by assimilating the many Nguni- as well as Khoesan-speaking communities that had also moved into the Highveld. The Highveld’s cultural landscape was rearranged by the southern African civil wars of the 1820s—the Difeqane, as it is known in the Tswana language. Shortly thereafter, the arrival of white settlers in the late 1830s heralded the beginning of the colonial period.

Archaeologists in the Highveld have largely aimed to illustrate the historical record and oral traditions pertaining to the Sotho and Tswana communities. More usefully they can focus on questions that these records cannot answer. For example, archaeology can help to fill the many gaps in the records; it can investigate the history of things—such as the changing regional settlement patterns and the diffusion of technological innovations—about which the records are silent, and it can test hypotheses to explain the evolution of social and political complexity in the precolonial Highveld. In this way archaeology can help to balance the mostly “top-down” political view provided by the oral traditions and historical records with a “bottom-up” view of social, technological, and architectural developments among the precolonial farming communities of the Highveld.

Keywords: archaeology, precolonial, farming, Highveld, Late Iron Age, stone-walled structures, ceramics, oral traditions, Difeqane, Sotho-Tswana

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