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Early Iron Age populations of Southern Africa

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The early mixed farming communities of 200-1000 AD consisted of family groups of people, who chose areas suitable to the type of farming in which they wished to indulge. They settled in areas, cleared the land and grazed their animals in the nearby area. These people smelted iron ore to make tools for themselves.

Although these communities are referred to as iron-age people, they only used iron tools if they needed to. Apart from the manufacture of spears, they used tools such as hoes and axes for clearing the natural forest as they extended their arable area. They would also require axes for cutting trees for firewood, and other daily needs. Another use for iron was in ploughing fields. With better implements, the farmers were able to grow more crops.

Better crops lead to a larger population. This better fed population was healthier, and so survived and provided labour to grow even more. Crops such as millet, sorghum, legumes and squashes and pumpkins were cultivated. Fields that had been cultivated in the past were used to graze cattle, but it is likely that they did have to graze their animals in areas distance from the villages. At first, meat requirements were obtained from hunting, and depending on the areas in which they lived, the farmers would supplement their protein sources with shellfish and fish.

As the population became more settled and grew larger, a political organization developed. At first, the small groups, which were not much larger than a family group, did not seem to have much of a hierarchy. No one seemed to be wealthier than another, as not much saving of crops was done. There do seem to have been some chiefs in existence. However, as the population grew larger, hierarchies developed, and there is evidence that certain families gained more status than others. Some sort of system need to be developed to resolve disputes and a political organization was required for these functions

The early mixed farming communities were based on a patrilinear organization. This meant that the family line was traced from the father. Children belonged to the man, and the older the man the more status he held within the group. Although younger men looked after the cattle, it was on behalf of the older men. Likewise, surplus crops belonged to the men, and they could use this surplus to pay tributes to a chief, or use them for trade. Cattle were used as exchanges in polygamous marriages agreements. Women, who grew all the crops, and bore the children, were not even allowed to attend meetings when decisions were made. Due to the division of labour in the family group villages, the community was largely self sufficient and produced most of the food and built the housing, which were grouped together in a village format. They were a fairly settled community as apposed to the hunter-gatherers, and more planning was therefore required to ensure a smooth social life. These communities began to grow larger, the longer they had been settled in one place.

They had a more stable food supply, and so multiplied. In doing so, they provided labour to further increase. Several hundred people were known to populate some villages between 600 and 900AD. Initially, these villages built up along the low lying areas, such as river valleys and the costal plains, but later, they moved up into higher ground on the slopes. . In later settlements where there were large numbers of people, there was much more of a hierarchy “Mapungubwe rapidly developed into a town of perhaps 10,000 people. Differences in status were marked out clearly: the elite lived, and were buried, on the top of the stark sandstone hill that is at the centre of the town, while ordinary people lived in the valley below.” It is thought that the early mixed farmers spoke a language of the Ntu group, “on the basis of continuity in the archaeological record from the earliest sites to the more recent, historically documented past.” This group of about 300 different languages originates in the region south of the great lakes of central Africa. Today, languages like Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Venda have developed from these languages.

The early mixed farming communities, originating in the north, slowly moved south, and settled in the lower lying areas. They were small groups of people, at first, who later developed quite large communities with much more structured political structures than formerly. They differed from the Khoisan peoples in that they used iron products, and herded domesticated animals. They also remained in semi-permanent villages, rather than moving about constantly, and spoke a different language. They used cattle as a method of increasing their wealth and in creating ties with other groups.




UNISA study guide HYS101-D


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