The precolonial history of Southern Africa is a compelling, interwoven web of peoples on the move throughout this vast region – the original travellers on our planet. It’s also a story of technology and its impact on our early ancestors. Although Southern Africa’s history stretches far back into the mists of time, the only records today are intriguing fossil remains and an extraordinary human diary of Stone Age rock art.

The Mists of Time

The region has revealed many archaeological records of the world’s earliest human inhabitants. It’s generally agreed among scientists that the first hominids (upright-walking human-like creatures) became established in the savannahs of East and Southern Africa nearly four million years ago, although hominid remains dating to between six and seven million years old have been found further north in Chad.

Sterkfontein in South Africa is regarded as one of the richest places on the planet for early human remains and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. In Malawi, archaeologists have found remains thought to date back as far as 2.5 million years.

It is surmised that about two million years ago several hominid species evolved, with Homo erectus developing basic tool-making abilities and eventually becoming dominant. Later evolving into Homo sapiens (modern humans), these early Africans are believed to have trekked to other parts of the world, where local factors determined the racial characteristics of each group.

Today, remains of temporary camps and stone tools are found throughout Southern Africa, and one site in Namibia suggests that 750,000 years ago these early people were hunting elephants and cutting up carcasses with large stone axes. By 150,000 years ago, people were using lighter spear heads, knives, saws and other tools. Archaeologists classify this period of tool making as the Stone Age, subdivided into the Early, Middle and Late stages, although the term applies to the people’s level of technological development, rather than to a specific period.

Early Khoisan Inhabitants

Thousands of years ago, humans in Southern Africa developed an organised hunting and gathering society. Use of fire was universal, tools became more sophisticated (made from wood and animal products as well as stone), and make-up (natural pigments used for personal adornment) was in fashion. These Boskop people (named after the site in South Africa where their remains were discovered) are believed to be the ancestors of the San people, who still exist in isolated pockets today.

Eventually, tools became smaller and better designed, which increased hunting efficiency and allowed time for further innovation, artistic pursuits and admiring the fiery African sunsets. This stage is called the Microlithic Revolution because it was characterised by the working of small stones. The remains of microliths are often found alongside clear evidence of food gathering, shellfish remains and the working of wood, bone and ostrich eggshell.

The artistic traditions of the San are evidenced by pottery and especially by the wonderful paintings that can be seen today in rock shelters and caves all over Southern Africa. The better examples capture the elegance and movement of African wildlife with astonishing clarity. More recent paintings even depict white farmers.

Despite these artistic and technical developments, the San had no knowledge of metal working, and thus remain classified as Stone Age people.

The San and another group called the Khoekhoen (or Khoi-Khoi) are thought to share a common ancestry. Differences between the peoples were slight, based more on habitat and lifestyle than on significant physiological features. The Khoekhoen kept cattle, which were a source of food and transport, and were even trained to charge the enemy in warfare. These two groups also shared a language group, characterised by distinctive ‘click’ sounds. Today these two peoples are regarded as one, termed Khoe-San or Khoisan, and are mostly found in remote parts of Namibia and Botswana.

In recent times the San have been controversially relocated from their ancestral lands to new government settlements such as New Xade in the central Kalahari in Botswana.

The Bantu Migration

While the Khoe-San were developing, in West Africa another group with larger body types and darker skin was emerging: the Bantu.

Their advanced skills led to improved farming methods and the ability to make unwanted guests of themselves on their neighbours’ lands. Over 2000 years ago the Bantu moved into the Congo basin and, over the next thousand years, spread across present-day Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania and migrated south into Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and other parts of Southern Africa. The term ‘migration’ here refers to a sporadic spread over many hundreds of years. Typically, a group would move from valley to valley or from one water source to the next. This process inevitably had a knock-on effect, as weaker ethnic groups were constantly being ‘moved on’ by invaders from other areas.

At first, the Bantu in Southern Africa apparently lived in relative harmony with the original Khoe-San inhabitants, trading goods, language and culture. As Bantu numbers increased, however, some Khoe-San were conquered or absorbed by this more advanced group of peoples, while the remainder were pushed further and further into inhospitable lands.

Bantu Culture & Early Kingdoms

A feature of Bantu culture was its strong social system, based on extended family or clan loyalties and dependencies, generally centred on the rule of a chief. Some chiefdoms developed into powerful kingdoms, uniting many disparate ethnic groups and covering large geographical areas.

Cattle played an essential role in the lives of Southern Africa’s Bantu population. Apart from providing food, skins and a form of capital, cattle were also most essential when it came to bride wealth. Marriage involved the transfer of a woman to the household of her husband. In turn, the cattle from the husband’s family were reassigned to the family of the bride’s father. A man who had many daughters would one day end up with many cattle.

One of the earliest Bantu kingdoms was Gokomere, in the uplands of Zimbabwe. The Gokomere people are thought to be the first occupants of the Great Zimbabwe site, near present-day Masvingo.

Early Traders

Meanwhile, from the latter half of the 1st millennium, Arabs from the lands around the Red Sea were sailing southwards along the eastern seaboard of Africa. They traded with the local Bantu inhabitants, who by this time had reached the coast, and bought ivory, gold and slaves to take back to Arabia.

Between AD 1000 and 1500, the Arab-influenced Bantu founded several major settlements along the coast, from Mogadishu (in present-day Somalia) to Kilwa (in southern Tanzania), including Lamu (Kenya) and Zanzibar (Tanzania). In Kenya and Tanzania particularly, the Bantu people were influenced by the Arabs, and a certain degree of intermarriage occurred, so that gradually a mixed language and culture was created, called Swahili, which remains intact today.

From southern Tanzania the Swahili-Arabs traded along the coast of present-day Mozambique, establishing bases at Quelimane and Mozambique Island.

From the coast the Swahili-Arabs pushed into the interior, and developed a network of trade routes across much of East and Southern Africa. Ivory and gold continued to be sought-after, but the demand for slaves grew considerably, and reached its zenith in the early 19th century when the Swahili-Arabs and dominant local ethnic groups are reckoned to have either killed or sold into slavery 80,000 to 100,000 Africans per year.

Later Bantu Kingdoms & People

As early as the 11th century, the inhabitants of Great Zimbabwe had come into contact with Arab-Swahili traders from the coast. Great Zimbabwe became the capital of the wealthiest and most powerful society in Southern Africa – its people the ancestors of today’s Shona people – and reached the zenith of its powers around the 14th century, becoming the greatest medieval city in sub-Saharan Africa.

From around the 11th century it appears that more advanced Bantu-speaking Iron Age people migrated to the area, absorbing the earlier immigrants. As they settled they branched out into a number of cultural groups. One of these groups, the Nguni, was distinguished from its neighbours by strict matrimony rules – marriage was forbidden to a partner that could be traced to a common ancestor. The Xhosa were the southernmost of these people. Covering large areas of present-day South Africa, Botswana and Lesotho were the Sotho-Setswana, who encouraged intercousin marriage. The Venda, who have a matriarchal culture and are thought to be related to the Shona people of Zimbabwe, occupied the north of Limpopo province in South Africa.

Further north, between the 14th and 16th centuries, another Bantu group called the Maravi (of whom the Chewa became the dominant ethnic group) arrived in Southern Africa from the Congo Basin and founded a powerful kingdom covering southern Malawi and parts of present-day Mozambique and Zambia. Masks made by a men’s secret society called Nyau were an integral part of ceremonies for this group. As well as representing cultural ideals with themes such as wisdom, sickness, death and ancestors, masks also caricatured undesirables such as slave-traders, invaders and colonial figures.

At about the same time the Tumbuka and the Phoka groups migrated into the north of Malawi. The Tumbuka are known for their healing practices, which combine traditional medicine and music.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, another Bantu group called the Herero migrated from the Zambezi Valley into present-day Namibia, where they came into conflict with the San and competed with the Khoekhoen for the best grazing lands. Eventually, most indigenous groups submitted to the Herero. Only the Nama people, thought to be descended from early Khoekhoen groups, held out. One of Africa’s most traditional cultures, the Himba people in Namibia, are descended from the Herero.

The power of the Bantu kingdoms started to falter in the late 18th and early 19th centuries due to a major dispersal of indigenous ethnic groups called the difaqane, and a rapid increase in the number of European settlers.

The Difaqane

The difaqane (meaning ‘forced migration’ in Sotho; also mfeqane, ‘the crushing’, in Zulu) was a period of immense upheaval and suffering for the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa. It originated in the early 19th century when the Nguni ethnic groups in modern KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) changed rapidly from loosely organised collections of chiefdoms to the more centralised Zulu Nation. Based on a highly disciplined and powerful warrior army, the process began under Chief Dingiswayo, and reached its peak under the military commander Shaka Zulu.

Shaka was a ruthless conqueror and his reputation preceded him. Not surprisingly, ethnic groups living in his path chose to flee, in turn displacing neighbours and causing disruption and terror across Southern Africa. Ethnic groups displaced from Zululand include the Matabele, who settled in present-day Zimbabwe, while the Ngoni fled to Malawi and Zambia. Notable survivors were the Swazi and Basotho, who forged powerful kingdoms that became Swaziland and Lesotho.

European Colonisation & Settlement

Although there had been a European presence in Southern Africa for several hundred years, in 1820 the British Cape Colony saw a major influx of settlers. Around 5000 were brought from Britain on the promise of fertile farmland around the Great Fish River, near the Shipwreck Coast, Eastern Cape. In reality, the settlers were brought in to form a buffer between the Boers (historic name for the Afrikaner people; to the west of the river) and the Xhosa (amaXhosa; to the east), who competed for territory.

From this point, European settlement rapidly spread from the Cape Colony to Natal and later to the Transvaal – especially after the discovery of gold and diamonds. In many cases Europeans were able to occupy land abandoned by African people following the difaqane.

From the 1830s groups of Boers fed up with British rule in the Cape Colony trekked off into the wilds of what is now South Africa, to carve out a living free from British interference. These early trekkers, or Voortrekkers as they were known, went on what is referred to as the Great Trek during a decade of migration.

Over the next 100 to 150 years, an ever-increasing number of Europeans from South Africa settled in areas that became the colonies of Swaziland, Nyasaland (Malawi), Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe), Bechuanaland (Botswana), Basotholand (Lesotho), German South West Africa (Namibia) and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). With this change, Southern Africans would never again be permitted to follow entirely traditional ways.