Iron Age

© © Ben Babcock
An overview of the Iron Age.

The next period of pre-history is the Iron Age, the name derived from the fact that the people of this era developed the ability to make weapons and tools from metal. These new inhabitants also manufactured pottery containers.

When did the iron age occur in Africa?
The Southern African Iron Age began around 1 800 years ago, when the Ntu speaking (formerly known as Bantu) peoples moved into the area. The newcomers slowly replaced the San, as they had a different lifestyle, which included pastoralism, made possible by domesticated plants and animals, whereas the San still maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In the Kruger Park area, the Ntu tribes settled along the Limpopo, Luvuvhu, Shingwedzi and Letaba Rivers, moving to the Sabie and Crocodile rivers later.

The life of Iron Age farmers differed from that of Khoisan hunters and gatherers in the following ways:

  • They cultivated crops and kept domestic livestock
  • They lived in semi-permanent villages
  • They smelted and forged iron
  • They produced pottery of characteristic types

Khoikhoi herders also had domestic animals and pottery but they did not cultivate crops. Although it is impossible to know for certain what language was spoken by the inhabitants of early farming settlements, it is generally accepted that they were Ntu-speakers on the basis of continuity in the archaeological record from the earliest sites to the more recent, historically documented past.

By some 1 800 years ago, farming communities, which are known to have used iron tools, had moved south of the Limpopo River into areas previously inhabited only by hunter-gatherers and herders.

The most important crops were sorghum, bullrush millet, finger millet, legumes, such as groundnuts, and cucurbits (melons and gourds). Maize, the current staple grain, was only introduced to southern Africa after the mid-sixteenth century, or possibly even as late as the mid-eighteenth century.

Agriculture meant not only that communities could feed themselves but that they had to invest labour and time in clearing land, hoeing, sowing, weeding, harvesting and threshing. They also hunted game, fished and gathered plant foods. From at least 1 500 years ago there is evidence of cattle keeping.

Little is known about the social and religious life of people in the early Iron Age but inferences can be made from archaeological remains. Of great significance are the Lydenburg heads, which come from a site, dated to about 1 500 years ago, near the present town of Lydenburg in Mpumalanga. Seven ceramic heads, in form rather like inverted, elongated jars, were found. The heads, which had deliberately been broken,were buried in a pit.

Although the meaning of the heads must remain speculative, it is very probable that they were used in initiation rites. As objects of aesthetic expression, they are among the earliest records of African art in the subcontinent.

As time passed, very large settlements emerged in certain places, usually on hilltops or other elevated sites. During the period from about 1 100 - 1 050 years ago, the capitals of certain important states, such as Toutswe in the present Botswana, and Mapungubwe in the present-day Limpopo Province of South Africa were established. These were trading centres controlled by powerful rulers.

The sites reveal increased numbers of cattle, a growth of wealth and political stratification. Between 1 050 and 800 years ago at Mapungubwe on the Limpopo River, there is evidence of extensive trade in ivory and tortoise-shell for glass beads, cloth and Chinese porcelain.

Trade networks extended to the Indian Ocean coast and indirectly to Arabia and the Orient. The site of Mapungubwe is divided into an elite hilltop area and a surrounding village settlement believed to have been occupied by commoners. The rich burials on the hilltop containing precious gold objects affirm the status of the rulers. As a centralized state, controlling a far-reaching trade network, Mapungubwe reached its height before Great Zimbabwe to the north.

As the name implies, Ntu-speaking people have been classified into groups based on language. They form part of the large Ntu-speaking family, comprising over 70 million people, living in the area stretching southwards from the Great Lakes in equatorial Africa.

About 300 different languages classified as `Ntu' share certain linguistic features and have a core vocabulary in common, although because of sound shifts, which have occurred over a long time, similarities are not always immediately recognized.

The largest language groups within the southeastern African region are Nguni, which includes Xhosa, Zulu and Ndebele, and Sotho, which includes Tswana. Tsonga (also referred to as Shangaan-Tsonga) and Venda are smaller groups.

However, linguistic classification is an arbitrary way of dividing people and that speakers of any one Ntu language do not necessarily live in the same geographical area, nor do they conform to a common culture.

Archaeologists make use of the designs and patterns on the pottery to identify different cultural groups and periods. As many as 12 different cultural groups have been identified from within the Kruger National Park. These people built villages comprising fifty or more huts.

They tilled the soil and planted sorghum and beans. They also maintained herds of cattle and were not dependant on hunting to obtain meat. Smelted copper, dated to about 12 000 years ago, has been found at Balule.

It was also during this period that the area known as South Africa began to receive international attention for its trade goods. The three main attractions were ivory, slaves and gold. The interest from Arab traders led to the rise of trading posts such as Mapungubwe (a site located within the Vhembe Dongola National Park), on the current Zimbabwe/Botswana border.

Soon satellite states such as Makahane and Shilowa, allies of Mapungubwe, were formed within the borders of what is now the Kruger National Park. Great Zimbabwe later replaced Mapungubwe as the trading capital.

Kruger National Park - South African Safari