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Ancient South Africa

The prehistory and history of South Africa span nearly the entire known existence of human beings and their ancestors - some three million years or more - and include the wandering of small bands of hominins through the savanna, the inception of herding and farming as ways of life, and the construction of large urban centres.


Through this diversity of human experience, several trends can be identified: technological and economic change, shifting systems of belief, and, in the earlier phases of humanity, the interplay between physical evolution and learned behaviour, or culture. Over much of this time frame, South Africa's past is also that of a far wider area, and only in the last few centuries has this southernmost country of Africa had a history of its own.

A group of Xhosa peopleSouth Africa contains some of the oldest archaeological sites in Africa. Extensive fossil remains at the Sterkfontein, Kromdraai and Makapansgat caves suggest that various australopithecines existed in South Africa from about three million years ago. These were succeeded by various species of Homo, including Homo habilis, Homo erectus and modern man, Homo sapiens. Settlements of Bantu-speaking peoples, who were iron-using agriculturists and herdsmen, were already present south of the Limpopo River by the fourth or fifth century displacing and absorbing the original KhoiSan speakers. They slowly moved south and the earliest ironworks in modern-day KwaZulu-Natal Province are believed to date from around 1050.

South Africa's prehistory has been divided into a series of phases based on broad patterns of technology. The primary distinction is between a reliance on chipped and flaked stone implements (the Stone Age) and the ability to work iron (the Iron Age). Spanning a large proportion of human history, the Stone Age in Southern Africa is further divided into the Early Stone Age, or Paleolithic Period (about 2,500,000–150,000 years ago), the Middle Stone Age, or Mesolithic Period (about 150,000–30,000 years ago), and the Late Stone Age, or Neolithic Period (about 30,000–2,000 years ago). The simple stone tools found with australopithecine fossil bones fall into the earliest part of the Early Stone Age.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008