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Archaeology of the Last Two Thousand Years in Namibia  

John Kinahan

The introduction and spread of food production in Namibia during the last two thousand years was subject to patchy and unpredictable rainfall. Rainfed cultivation of millet by Bantu-speaking farming communities was limited to the far northern region, but seminomadic cattle husbandry was better adapted to this environment. Hunter-gatherer groups in Namibia seem to have been assimilated rather than displaced by farming communities, and the expansion of Khoe-speaking pastoralists into southern Namibia was accompanied by a widespread transition to food production among hunter-gatherers. In the last two millennia, hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers in Namibia have formed part of a complex precolonial economy which also incorporated locally developed techniques for the processing and storage of wild plant foods.

Article

The Origins and Spread of Pastoralism in Southern Africa  

John Kinahan

Pastoralist societies arose in the arid and semi-arid western regions of southern Africa over the last 2000 years. These were both Bantu-speaking and Khoekhoe-speaking groups who practiced diverse combinations of carnivorous and milch pastoralism but also maintained some dependence on hunting and gathering, with varying but generally minimal reliance on agriculture. Historical sources provide many insights into pastoral culture and husbandry practices, but archaeological and ethnographic evidence is critical to the understanding of precolonial pastoralism. Most research has concentrated on the Cape Khoen, but increasingly, a broader view has come to include archaeological and ethnographic evidence from other parts of the region, casting new light on the origins and growth of pastoralism in southern Africa.

Article

Ethnographic Analogy in Archaeology: Methodological Insights from Southern Africa  

Mark McGranaghan

Analogical arguments are central to and pervasive within archaeological discourse. Within these arguments, ethnographic analogies are often seen as being particularly problematic exercises in essentialism, which unthinkingly cast reified ethnographic schema back in time and thus perpetuate ideas about primitive indigenes, awaiting colonial contact to emerge from ahistorical primordial obscurity. The shadow of 19th-century social evolutionism, in which forager communities (not participating in agriculture and leading nomadic lifestyles) were represented as particularly primitive, has cast a pall of suspicion over ethnographic analogical models—especially as forager communities continue to feature prominently in such models to this day. Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies in a variety of ways; these analogies are heuristic constructs tailored to research questions and to the stubbornness of particular suites of archaeological data. Such uses include inducing imaginative and revelatory modes of thinking about past societies, outside of the archaeologist’s usual experiences, as well as a suite of formal and relational analogies that seek to combine ethnographic data with data drawn from the physical sciences to help constrain archaeological interpretation. Direct historical approaches utilize a collection of ethnographic and historical sources to construct analogies based on a relation of similarity between the communities of people involved; these frameworks, perhaps, carry the greatest danger of unwittingly casting modern populations as “contemporary primitives.” By emphasizing that source-side ethnographic datasets are heuristic tools rather than reflections of some sociocultural reality, such fears may (at least in part) be ameliorated. Saliently, archaeological data must operate as epistemologically equivalent to ethnographic data in order to resist the tendency to cast back a rich, textured ethnographic case study wholesale into the murky waters of prehistory. Only when this status is afforded archaeological data can is it possible to reveal the ways in which past conditions diverged from ethnographic ones.

Article

Indigenous Peoples in Africa  

Renee Sylvain

Moringe ole Parkipuny addressed the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) in 1989 and, for the first time, opened up discussion of the idea that certain groups of hunter-gathers and pastoralists in Africa merited the status of indigenous peoples. Local activists and international organizations took up the cause in the following decades. Several international conferences resulted in new forms of activism, the reformulation of local identities, and a growing body of scholarship addressing African indigeneity. As NGOs built solidarity among relatively scattered groups of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, often skeptical state governments initially resisted what they saw as demands for recognition of status and claims to “special rights.” Disagreements between state interests and newly organized indigenous groups were expressed at the United Nations during the process of adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); but as the idea of indigeneity evolved through such discussions, African governments gradually came on board. International activism and work done by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights play significant roles in convincing African states to accept the concept of “indigenous peoples.” The issue of developing a definition of “indigenous peoples” appropriate for Africa remains unsettled and continues to present challenges. Mobilization among marginalized groups on the African continent itself, however, has presented NGOs, activists, states, and courts with the opportunity, through well-publicized struggles and several landmark legal cases, to refine the category to better fit with African contexts.

Article

The History of Eastern African Foragers  

Mary E. Prendergast

Humans have foraged across diverse eastern African landscapes for millions of years. In the 21st century, few eastern Africans rely exclusively on foraging, but there are groups for whom this strategy remains central to daily life. Drawing analogies between present and past lifeways is one approach to understanding ancient foragers, but multiple lines of evidence are needed to appreciate past variation. Ethnohistories, historical linguistics, and genetics are also potential sources of information on past foragers. However, most data come from the archaeological record, key to investigating the diversity of ancient foragers in terms of technology, subsistence, mobility, social organization, and cultural expression. The spread of herding and farming in eastern Africa over the past five millennia had a definitive impact upon foraging lifeways. Ethnographic, archaeological, and ethnohistoric evidence enables development and testing of hypotheses for past forager–food producer interactions. Some evidence suggests that past social groups (or individuals in them) may have shifted among foraging and food-producing strategies on a situational basis. Other data indicate that foragers may have joined herding and farming communities, and vice versa. Eastern African foragers have played an underappreciated role in large-scale social, economic, and political systems. Beginning in the late Pleistocene (some 130,000 years ago), prehistoric obsidian exchange networks extended over hundreds of kilometers. Early in the Common Era (nearly 2,000 years ago), foragers were involved in Indian Ocean economic spheres that extended to western and southern Asia. The precolonial and colonial ivory and slave trades in the 16th through 19th centuries exploited and impacted foraging communities. Settler colonialism in the 20th century had devastating impacts on foragers and their access to ancestral lands. More recent threats to forager livelihoods include economic “development” and environmental destruction. The future of the foraging lifeway is in peril, and the 21st-century state plays a key role in determining if it will continue.

Article

Archaeobotany: Methods  

Louis Champion and Dorian Q. Fuller

Archaeobotany’s goals are to investigate the interactions between human societies and the plant world in the past from the botanical remains preserved in archaeological sites, including the environment people exploited and the foods they extracted from it. Archaeobotanical research in Africa has tended to be less widely practiced than in many other parts of the world, and systematic archaeobotanical sampling is still only incorporated into a minority of archaeological field projects in Africa. Nevertheless, there is potential for archaeobotany to contribute to a holistic understanding of Africa’s past. The general scope of archaeobotany is outlined before focusing on how typical archaeobotanical remains relate to agriculture and food production. A short overview on the practical side of collecting archaeobotanical samples is provided. Archaeobotany’s two general themes are discussed: hunter-gatherer subsistence and the origins of agriculture.

Article

Archaeology of the Past Two Thousand Years in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa  

Gavin Whitelaw and Aron D. Mazel

Hunter-gatherers were the sole occupants of the southern African landscape for many thousands of years. Khoe-speaking pastoralists and then Bantu-speaking farmers entered the subcontinent around two thousand years ago. They introduced different lifeways, belief systems, and technologies. Archaeological evidence from KwaZulu-Natal reveals interaction between farmers and hunter-gatherers in this region from the time of first contact to the 1800s ad. There may also have been an ephemeral pastoralist presence in western KwaZulu-Natal around two thousand years ago. During the 1st millennium ad in the Thukela basin, hunter-gatherers appear to have focused their lives on the wooded central basin that Early Iron Age farmers favored for settlement. Interaction between the two groups seems to have centered on men and been built around hunting. The Blackburn ceramic facies at the beginning of the 2nd millennium marks the first settlement of Nguni-speaking farmers in KwaZulu-Natal. The material cultural signature of Early Iron Age farmers disappeared and relations between hunter-gatherers and farmers shifted as some Blackburn farmers took hunter-gatherer women into homestead life as wives. A renewed hunter-gatherer focus on rock shelters in the Drakensberg coincided with the settling of upland grasslands by farmers in the 14th century. From the 16th century, the region slowly integrated into global networks and then experienced colonization in the 19th century. These processes had implications for both farmers and hunter-gatherers. They contributed to the emergence of large polities in the northeast of the region and, ultimately, the elimination of hunter-gatherer lifeways.

Article

Disease and Trauma in Past Southern African Communities: Archaeological Perspectives  

Susan Pfeiffer

For thousands of years, all southern African communities survived through hunting and gathering. Within the past two millennia subsistence strategies diversified to include pastoralism, farming, and most recently Eurocentric industry in a colonialist framework. Each of these strategies is distinctive with respect to the way diseases and musculoskeletal trauma affected people’s health. Using methods arising from palaeopathology, forensic anthropology, and archaeology, studies have assessed human skeletons to explore these patterns. Evidence of infectious disease is negligible among hunter-gatherers of the region, but there are examples of environmental and inherited diseases, as well as fatal and near-fatal traumatic injuries. While some trauma may be linked to environmental hazards and predation, other cases appear to reflect intergroup aggression. Non-specific stress indicators suggest possible new challenges to hunter-gatherer health around the time when pastoralism is first discerned archaeologically. Among Iron Age African farmers, who reached the region about 1,700 years ago, the evidence for infectious diseases is equivocal. Investigations are hampered by the rather small sample sizes. In some cases, reburial of excavated remains precludes research using newer methods. Evidence of infectious disease is minimal among all Indigenous groups prior to the disruptions associated with European arrival. After European arrival, there is clear evidence of various infectious diseases affecting Indigenous communities, and the patterns of traumatic damage to the skeleton are more dramatic. Among cemeteries of mine workers from colonial-era settings, the effects of occupational trauma are apparent. The evidence from archaeology is consistent with that of written documents, confirming the destructive impact of colonial practices on the Indigenous populations of southern Africa.

Article

Paleolithic and Neolithic Northeast Africa  

Donatella Usai

The Nile Valley with the deserts and the Ethiopian highlands with the Afar depression and the Rift were, albeit to different extents and in different phases, witnesses of the human enterprise from the origin of the species up to the formation of one of the most important forms of complex society. These regions form a vast area of Africa and, although archaeological and anthropological research make great strides, and the help of science contributes ever more to understanding, the available knowledge is still like a drop in an ocean. From the oldest traces of humankind to the societies that underlie the formation of the pharaonic kingdoms, tracing this history requires a great capacity for synthesis on the basis of a precise line; in this case, one approach can be described as evolutionary. The story begins with the oldest evidence of artifacts made by the first hominids and continues with their evolution into increasingly elaborate form, in a constant relationship with the surrounding environment and under the yoke of a climate that has, sometimes, dictated the times and ways of these changes. This part of the story sees the Ethiopian and the Afar and Rift depressions as the richest in evidence. The most recent phases see the Nile Valley with evidence of the hunter-gatherer groups of the Late Pleistocene and the Early Holocene always grappling with climate changes but with new tools to face and overcome them. The invention of pottery may be seen as one of these tools. This is also when the foundations for a food-producing economy are laid. For a long time, however, hunting and gathering practices continue and, especially along the Nile, fishing activities remain a constant in the economy of prehistoric societies, with herding and plant cultivation differently contributing and, supposedly, according to the potential and characteristics of each corner of this immense area.