Botswana: From the Stone Age to the Iron Age (1 million BP-1700 CE)

Updated June 2009

Archaeological findings provide evidence that the history of Botswana stretches back to the Early Stone Age, more than a million years ago, and indicate occupation throughout the Middle and Late Stone Ages (Hitchcock 1987, 229; van der Ryst et al 2004, 2). The Late Stone Age communities were ancestral to the modern Koesan and there is evidence of their presence dating back at to least 17 000 BCE, for at Tsodilo Hills the Depression Shelter was in continuous occupation by them from then until 1650 CE (Walker 1997, 96; Parsons 1999). Armed with tools of stone, wood and bone they followed seasonally driven nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle (Parsons 1999).

However, evidence for Late Stone Age settlements is sparse and only becomes common from two thousand years ago, at the time when the first evidence of farming communities is dated to, suggesting the possibility that higher population concentrations were linked to symbiotic trading relations between hunter-gatherer and farming cultures (Walker 1997, 95; van der Ryst et al 2004, 2). The Bantu speaking farming culture included grain cultivation, cattle and sheep husbandry, domestic dogs, pottery and iron working; the earliest know smelting furnace in Botswana is from about 190 CE (Walker 1997, 95; van der Ryst et al 2004, 2; Parsons 1999). There are also indications that around this point some Khoesan acquired cattle and sheep, began to manufacture pottery, and became nomadic pastoralists so that a complex socially differentiated society emerged amongst them (Stynder 2007, 9-10; Walker 1997, 96; Parsons 1999). The agriculturalists spread from the Limpopo valley along the edge of the Kalahari to the north and south-east while the pastoralists spread southwards towards the Cape (Parsons 1999).

There is evidence of Early Iron Age occupation in the eastern Limpopo River basin associated with the Toutswe culture from 700 CE (Hitchcock 1987, 225; Mosothwane & Steyn 2004, 45). Moreover, from 900- 1290 CE Southern Africa experienced a shift towards a moister climate and archaeological findings of large walled settlements at Toutswe hill in the Central District, dating from 900-1200 CE, suggest that state formation began to take place in Botswana (Boeyens 2003, 64; Murray & Parson 1990, 160). The rise of these states seems linked with the development of extensive trading networks reaching as far as the Indian Ocean, dealing in shells, salt, ivory, beads and metal products, and with the emergence of a similar urban settlement at Mapungubwe further west in South Africa (Mosothwane & Steyn 2004, 45; Hitchcock 1987, 225; Good 1993, 206). The settlements were arranged around central cattle byres, pointing to the existence of the mafias system, whereby cattle were loaned by wealthy members in society to poorer people in exchange for allegiance, tribute and services (Murray & Parson 1990, 160; Parsons 1999). Evidence from trading centres in the Kalahari and elsewhere in this period indicates that the Khoesan were integrated into this trading network, both as hunter-gatherers and as pastoralists (Hitchcock 1987, 225; Good 1993, 206, 207). From about 1200 - 1300 CE the Toutswe polity seems to have been subordinated to Mapungubwe and Toutswe itself was abandoned, but other settlements in the area continued to flourish (Parsons 1999).

The onset of a dryer period around 1300 CE led to the decline of Mapungubwe and the supersession of its culture by the ancestors of the Sotho-Tswana people, but in Botswana the Toutswe culture continued, forming part of the trading network of zimbabwes that was consolidated in the early 15th century into a single state, known as Munhumutapa to the Europeans, with its capital at Great Zimbabwe, though it is not certain that the Toutswe culture was also incorporated by it (Boeyens 2003, 65; Parsons 1999. See Zimbabwe's Kingdoms (1000 - 1838 CE)). Denbow (1981, 73) attributed their survival to their significantly larger stock wealth than those of the newcomers. With the decline of the Kingdom and the eventual abandonment of Great Zimbabwe around 1500 CE, one of the successor states, Butua, extended its control over the trade with the Makgadikgadi pans from 1450 CE onwards (Parsons 1999). The Rozvi, who overthrew Butua and sacked their capital Khami in 1683, reunited the territory of Great Zimbabwe and extended their control to eastern Botswana, while refugees from the Rozvi established Wumbe chiefdoms in western Kalanga (Parsons 1999).

As early as 1095 Western Sotho migrants had established themselves in south eastern Botswana, creating the Khalagari chiefdoms, but were not able to penetrate northwards into the central district since the Toutswe (and related cultures) blocked their path (Parsons 1999). The expansion of the Southern Sotho Rolong chiefdoms into south eastern forced the Khalagari to migrate westwards across the Kalahari or submit, so that the by the 17th century the Rolong dominated the area as far as the Namibian border (Parsons 1999).


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