Archaeology of Southern Africa


Southern Africa has a rich storehouse of archaeological sites, beginning with some of the earliest evidence of human origins and stone tool making, found in the Sterkfontein Caves and related caves that are part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, west of Johannesburg.

There are thousands of Stone Age sites in the wild – caves and rock shelters; inland and along the coast – that record the way of life and history of people in the region over nearly 2-million years.

During this time, people developed the capacity to widen the range of foods collected through hunting, fishing and gathering of wild plants. Recent studies are able to reconstruct their diets from analysis of their bones.

Two pieces of red ochre decorated with a pattern of engraved lines, found at Blombos Cave in the Western Cape, have been dated to more than 77 000 years ago. They represent the oldest engravings made by people in the world. One of these engravings is currently pictured on the cover of the Southern African Archaeological Bulletin (SAAB).

Southern Africa is also home to tens of thousands of rock paintings and rock engravings made in the past 10 000 years by the ancestors of San hunter-gatherers and Khoe herders to record their beliefs and customs. Images of some of these were displayed on the cover of the SAAB from 1945 to 2005 and they have twice been collated into books published by ArchSoc.

Within the past 2 000 years abundant evidence has been found of Iron Age people, ancestors of the Bantu-speaking population of the sub-continent, who brought metal working and mixed farming of cattle, sheep, goats and crops into South Africa and settled mainly in the eastern part of the country to take advantage of the summer rainfall needed for their crops.

Finally, archaeology of the past 500 years records Dutch and Portuguese shipwrecks, farmsteads, wars and conflict.

To download a PowerPoint presentation on 150 years of archaeology in South Africa, click here.