Professor Raymond Dart discovered the skull of the 2.5-million-year-old Taung Child in 1924, the first example of Australopithecus africanus ever found. Following in Dart's footsteps, Robert Broom discovered a new and much more robust hominid in 1938 (Paranthropus robustus,) at Kromdraai, and in 1947 he uncovered several more examples of Australopithecus africanus at Sterkfontein. In the Blombos cave in 2002, stones were discovered engraved with grid or cross-hatch patterns, dated to some 70,000 years ago. This has been interpreted as the earliest example ever discovered of abstract or symbolic art created by Homo sapiens.
Many more species of early hominid have come to light in recent decades. The oldest is “Little Foot”, a collection of footbones of an unknown hominid between 2.2 and 3.3 million years old, discovered at Sterkfontein by Ronald J. Clarke. An important recent find was that of the 1.9-million-year-old Australopithecus sediba, discovered in 2008. In 2015, the discovery near Johannesburg of a previously unknown species of early man was announced, named Homo naledi. It has been described as one of the most important paleontological discoveries in modern times.
San and Khoikhoi People
Archaeological evidence shows that South Africa was part of a large region, including North and East Africa, in which modern humans first evolved and lived. Hundreds of thousands of generations of Stone Age hunter-gatherers populated the South African landscape for nearly two million years, yet for all of that time little is known of their names, languages, memories, beliefs, wars or alliances.
About 2,300 years ago, hunter-gatherers called the San acquired domestic stock in what is now modern-day Botswana. Their population grew and spread throughout the Western half of South Africa. They were the first pastoralists in the country, and called themselves the Khoikhoi (or Khoe), which means “men of men”. The Khoikhoi brought a new way of life to South Africa and to the San, who were hunter-gatherers as opposed to herders.
Rock art is evidence of the historical widespread distribution of the San people, as paintings and engravings can still be found in almost every district in South Africa. There is no comprehensive list of all of the sites and many have not been recorded, but it is estimated that there are at least 20,000 to 30,000 sites and more than one million individual images. Some of them are not well preserved, but collectively they represent a remarkable record of the beliefs and cultural practices of the people that created them. Eventual encroachment into their hunting areas by migrating black tribes and later by white settlers resulted in a protracted genocide, and the San were driven into remote and previously uninhabited regions of the country, or forcibly assimilated into other cultures.
The Khoikhoi were the first native people to come into contact with Dutch settlers in the mid-17th century. Unfortunately for them, land disputes and livestock theft resulted in a series of conflicts that largely destroyed their way of life, and diseases such as smallpox, brought into the country by visiting sailors and against which they had no natural resistance or indigenous medicines, decimated the population.
Colourful Venda culture
The Bantu expansion was one of the major demographic movements in human prehistory, sweeping through much of the African continent during the 1st and 2nd millennia BC. Bantu-speaking communities reached southern Africa from the Congo basin by the early centuries AD. The advancing Bantu encroached on Khoisan territory, forcing the original inhabitants of the region to move to more arid areas. Some of the migrant groups, ancestral to today's Nguni peoples (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele), preferred to live near the eastern coast of South Africa. Others, now known as the Sotho–Tswana peoples (Tswana, Pedi, and Sotho), settled in the interior on a plateau known as the Highveld, while today's Venda, Lemba, and Tsonga peoples made their homes in the north-eastern areas of the country.
Mapungubwe, which was located near the northern border at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, adjacent to present-day Zimbabwe and Botswana, was the first indigenous kingdom in southern Africa. It existed between AD 900 and 1300, and developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned due to climatic changes. Smiths created objects of iron, copper and gold both for local decorative use and for foreign trade. The kingdom traded through various east African ports to Arabia, India and China, increasing its wealth through the exchange of gold and ivory for other valuable imports.
Specifics of the contact between Bantu-speakers and the indigenous Khoisan ethnic group remain largely unknown, although linguistic proof of some assimilation exists, as several southern Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and Zulu) incorporate many click consonants of the Khoisan languages. The assimilation is not dissimilar to that of the European settlers, who adapted and incorporated the Dutch, Flemish, German and Malay languages into the present-day language of Afrikaans.
Early Portuguese Explorers
Vasco da Gama
A Portuguese mariner named Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to explore the coastline of South Africa in 1488, whilst attempting to discover a trade route to the Far East via the southern cape of Africa, which he named Cabo das Tormentas (meaning “Cape of Storms”). Dias's expedition reached its furthest point on 12 March 1488 when they anchored at Kwaaihoek, near the mouth of the Boesmans River. He wanted to continue his voyage, but was forced to abandon when his crew refused to go any further and the rest of his officers unanimously favoured returning to Portugal.
In November 1497, a fleet of Portuguese ships under the command of Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope. On 16 December, the fleet sailed past the point where Dias had earlier turned back. Da Gama gave the name “Natal” to the coast he was passing, which in Portuguese means “Christmas”. His fleet proceeded northwards to Zanzibar and later sailed eastwards, eventually reaching India and thereby opening up a new trade route between Europe and Asia. Da Gama returned to Lisbon on 29 August 1499, where he was given a hero’s welcome.
Da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India was significant and opened the way for an age of global imperialism and for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia. Traveling the ocean route allowed the Portuguese to avoid sailing across the highly disputed Mediterranean and traversing the dangerous Arabian Peninsula. The sum of the distances covered in the outward and return voyages made this expedition the longest ocean voyage ever made up to that time, much further than a full voyage around the world by way of the Equator.
Van Riebeeck landing at the Cape (painting by Charles Bell)
The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) decided to establish a permanent settlement at the Cape. The VOC originally had no intention of colonising the area, instead wanting only to establish a secure base where passing ships could shelter and be serviced, and where hungry sailors could stock up on fresh supplies. To this end, a small VOC expedition under the command of Jan van Riebeeck reached Table Bay on 6 April 1652.
The VOC had settled at the Cape in order to supply their ships, but the local Khoikhoi eventually stopped trading with the Dutch, and the VOC had to import farmers from their home country to establish smallholdings that would replenish the passing ships and support the growing settlement. The small initial group of free burghers, as these farmers were known, steadily increased in number, and they began to expand their farms further to the north and east.
The majority of burghers had Dutch ancestry and belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church, but there were also some Germans, mostly of the Lutheran faith. In 1688, the Dutch and Germans were joined by French Huguenots, who were Calvinist Protestants fleeing religious persecution in France under its Catholic ruler, King Louis XIV.
Van Riebeeck was under strict instructions not to enslave the local Khoikhoi and San aboriginals, so the VOC began to import large numbers of slaves, primarily from the Dutch colonies in Indonesia. The offspring from miscegenation between the settlers and the Khoisan and Malay slaves became known officially as the Cape Coloureds and the Cape Malays respectively.
British Occupation of the Cape Colony
In 1787, shortly before the French Revolution, a faction within the politics of the Dutch Republic known as the Patriot Party attempted to overthrow the regime of William V, also known as the Prince of Orange. Although the revolt was crushed, it was resurrected after the French invasion of the Netherlands in 1794 and 1795, which resulted in the prince fleeing the country. The Patriot revolutionaries then proclaimed the Batavian Republic, which was closely allied to revolutionary France. In response, the prince, who had taken up residence in England, issued the Kew Letters, ordering colonial governors to surrender to the British. The British then seized the Cape in 1795 to prevent it from falling into French hands. The Cape was relinquished back to the Dutch in 1803, but in 1806 the British again inherited the Cape as a prize during the Napoleonic Wars.
Like the Dutch before them, the British initially had little interest in the Cape Colony, other than as a strategically-located port. The Cape Articles of Capitulation of 1806 allowed the colony to retain all of its rights and privileges, and this launched South Africa on a divergent course from the rest of the British Empire.
British sovereignty of the area was recognised at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Dutch accepting a payment of 6 million pounds for the colony. As one of their first tasks, the British outlawed the use of the Dutch language, with a view to converting the European settlers to the British language and culture.
In 1820, the British authorities persuaded about 5,000 middle-class British immigrants (most of them “in trade”) to leave Great Britain with the promise of free farms in South Africa. They were settled in the region around modern-day Port Elizabeth and East London, creating a buffer zone between the existing farmers in the Cape Colony and the marauding black tribes which were sweeping down from the north. Even in modern times, this area is still referred to as “the Border”.
Shaka: Zulu Militarism and Expansion
Sigidi kaSenzangakhona was born in July 1787, the illegitimate son of the chief of a small clan called the Zulus. When the elders of the tribe discovered that his mother was pregnant, his parents tried to deny it, and claimed that her bloated belly was a symptom of iShaka, an intestinal and parasitic beetle. This is how the boy acquired the nickname by which he would later become so famous.
When he was six years old, Shaka and his mother were exiled from his father’s kraal and they later joined a different tribe, the Mthethwa. In his late teens, Shaka was assigned to an amabutho, a military regiment of young men based on age group. During this time, he caught the attention of the premier chieftain, Dingiswayo. Shaka displayed great valour, skill, and strength, and an impressed Dingiswayo became his mentor.
After the young warrior had led his troops to victory in a number of skirmishes, Dingiswayo made Shaka his commander-in-chief, and helped to organize a reconciliation between Shaka and his estranged father. But as he was illegitimate, Shaka had no valid claim to succession. After his father died in 1816, he killed his half-brother Sigujana and took over as chief of the Zulus. At this stage, his army consisted of just 1,500 warriors.
Inter-tribal battles at this time consisted of a show of strength with very little bloodshed. The opposing forces would line up in two long lines facing one another just more than a spear-throw apart. They would begin by hurling insults, then warriors from either side would run forward and throw a spear at their opponents. Many could be warded off with a shield or dodged. If one side received more casualties than the other, this would be seen as a sign that it was not a very auspicious day and they would usually retreat, with the resolve to seek a return engagement on a more favourable occasion.
But Shaka set about to revolutionise traditional weaponry and tactics, with far more deadly intentions. Rather than using long assegais that were thrown at an enemy, Shaka adapted the spear into a close-quarters weapon with a short, thick handle and a massive blade known as the iklwa, so called because of the sound it made when it was thrust and pulled out of an enemy’s body. Shaka also introduced a larger, heavier version of the Nguni shield, and he taught his warriors how to use the shield's left side to hook an enemy's shield to the right, exposing his ribs for a fatal spear stab. Instead of all-out frontal charges, Shaka developed the famous “bull horn" attack formation, composed of three elements; the “chest”, a main frontal force normally comprised of senior veterans; the “horns”, which would flank the enemy from both sides and encircle them; and the “loins”, a reserve force hidden behind the “chest”.
Shaka imposed a rigorous system of discipline on his troops, and drilled them without mercy. He organised various grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment having its own distinctive name and insignia. He forced them to practice his encirclement tactics, and to undertake marches that sometimes covered more than 50 miles a day in a fast trot over hot, rocky terrain, usually without any footwear. Any warriors that could not keep up or that objected were killed.
In 1818, Shaka began a massive programme to expand his kingdom. He used various methods, including forging alliances, negotiation, diplomatic pressure, patronage and reward, but if none of these was successful, he killed, enslaved or assimilated any tribes that resisted his forces. As more and more tribes and territories became incorporated into Shaka's empire, others moved away to be out of the range of his impis, becoming in turn aggressors against their neighbours. The ripple effect caused by these mass migrations would become known as the Mfecane (“the crushing”).
Within ten years, the Zulu nation had ballooned to a total of about 250,000 people covering a vast territory, and the warrior king ruled over his lands with an iron fist. He could assemble more than 50,000 warriors at any given time, and he would ruthlessly crush any uprising or resistance amongst his subjects. Shaka was known for his cruelty, and it is estimated that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, although this figure is sometimes hotly disputed.
As there were only a few white hunters and traders living in his kingdom during this period, Shaka never came into conflict with any of them. Indeed, he accorded them favoured treatment, ceded them land, and permitted them to build a settlement at Port Natal. He was curious about their technological developments, was anxious to learn more about European military methods, and he was especially interested in the culture that they represented. Moreover, he was alert to the advantages that their trade might bring.
Shaka was an undisputed ruler and a cruel tyrant, but he had always maintained very close ties with his mother, Nandi. When she died from dysentery in October 1827, he proclaimed a period of national mourning which would last for 12 months. He ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk should be consumed, and that any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people that were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed. The killing was not restricted to humans; even some of his cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what it was like to lose a mother.
On 24 September 1828, Shaka was assassinated by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana. His corpse was dumped in an empty grain pit, which was then filled with stones and mud. The exact location of his final resting place is unknown, although a monument was built at one alleged site.
Much of the legend and mystique around the figure of Shaka has been garnered from African oral history and praise poetry, and from the few written accounts of his interactions with European settlers. There is some dispute amongst modern scholars as to the veracity of the stories, but there is no doubt that he was a both a brilliant military tactician and a brutal despot. Despite his violent methodology, Shaka created a large and powerful nation that would forever leave its mark on the history of South Africa.
Next Week : The Great Trek