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.
The South African interior, roughly equivalent to the Highveld on the southern continental plateau, was in the 19th century a stage of numerous players and groups, acting in concert and in conflict with one another, as often dissolving as taking on board new members. The fortunes of Highveld inhabitants, occupiers, and passers-by fluctuated without periods of calm, and turned advantages to few. It was therefore not uncommon for the human flotsam and jetsam created by raiding, battles, and migrations, aggravated by drought and famine, to be subordinated by the survivors and forced to serve those with whom they had no prior allegiance or knowledge. Slavery in the interior was largely a by-product of staking out territory. Rather than generate slaves for sale in an external market, slavery on the Highveld was fed by the political impulse to aggregate followers and servants. An internal exchange emerged in some areas, and traders made a few transactions with coastal exporters, but the general pattern of enslavement was acquisition by raiding and distribution among raiders. The majority taken were youngsters and, to a lesser degree, women. As a rule, the menfolk were killed.