Archaeology of Southern Africa

Peter Mitchell

in African Studies

ISBN: 9780199846733
Published online November 2015 | | DOI:
Archaeology of Southern Africa

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Southern Africa (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique) boasts one of the world’s longest archaeological records and its 3.5 million square kilometers encompass a wide variety of environments. Beginning over 150 years ago and accelerating greatly over the last half-century, museums, universities, and local journals have facilitated the development of a thriving archaeological community that has made—and is increasingly making—important empirical, methodological, and theoretical contributions to archaeology as a whole. Nevertheless, coverage is still uneven, with Lesotho and Swaziland, for example, still lacking any effective archaeological infrastructure. Reaching back over three million years, southern Africa possesses one of the world’s richest fossil hominin assemblages, focused around the “Cradle of Humankind” near Johannesburg. While the oldest stone tool industries, assignable to the Oldowan and Acheulean complexes, have received comparatively less attention of late, enormous research efforts have been devoted to the subsequent Middle Stone Age because both fossil and genetic data suggest that southern Africa was a key area for the evolution of our own species, Homo sapiens. Major sites like Blombos, Diepkloof, Klasies River, and Sibudu are pivotal to debates surrounding the origins of key aspects of what it is to be human, including the symbolic use of material culture and the invention of a range of complex technologies. Recent interest in these topics has partly been at the expense of an older focus on Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers of the last twenty-five thousand years. Their archaeology is heavily informed by ethnographic studies of recent Bushman (San) hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari, not least in understanding the subcontinent’s rich heritage of rock art. For the past two millennia or so, however, hunter-gatherers have shared southern Africa with people practicing other forms of subsistence: stone-using pastoralists, iron-working African farmers (many of whom engaged in trading networks that spread far beyond Africa’s shores with results that included the emergence of indigenous states and towns), and settlers of European origin. Together, this makes for an incredibly varied archaeological record where interactions within and between these different communities can be examined with the additional aid of anthropological, historical, linguistic, and genetic insights at a fine-grained temporal scale difficult to match elsewhere. For the sake of convenience, this article employs a broadly chronological format, although recognizing that its subdivisions are increasingly open to challenge. Additional entries focus on National and Regional Overviews, History of Research, Ethnographic Sources, and the Contemporary Practice of Archaeology.

Article.  10967 words. 

Subjects: African History ; African Languages ; African Music ; African Philosophy ; African Studies

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