Archaeology of Southern Africa by PETER MITCHELL
Years ago I drove from Makapansgat to the Kruger National Park. The journey took most of the day and we went through a variety of local landscapes and environments that were very different from each other. But this was a managed landscape, a result of generations of European style farming practices. But it drove one thing home to me, that South Africa is vast. In Kruger there was a different pattern. Largely untouched, this is a diverse ecological landscape reflecting the classic resource patches beloved of ecologists. This was more enclosed, yet equally diverse. At the end of the trip I remember thinking how in the hell can anybody write an archaeology of such a vast country, with so much difference. Peter Mitchell has taken on the daunting task of trying to do just that.
The first two chapters introduce the subject and subject area. Chapter 1 outlines the book and gives a brief introduction to the nature of the sources used as well as the use of different terminologies for different groups of people. This is an important starting point. As the book develops it becomes clear how much of modern southern Africa is rooted in a recent past manipulated and in some cases deliberately obscured by Europeans. Chapter 2 is a particularly useful potted history of southern African research and of the physical and environmental diversity of the modern day region. This chapter really brings out the scale of the problems involved in writing a synthesis that seeks to integrate all this diversity.
The archaeology proper kicks off with chapter 3 which deals with the early hominins, from the oldest South African sites and their australopithecine fossils, such as at the Limeworks, Makapansgat at c. 3.0 mya, down to the late Acheulean and enigmatic Fauresmith cultures of <= 0.25 mya. For me this was the weakest chapter in the book, but perhaps I am being over demanding as this topic is my particular field of interest. The chapter was set well within broader African and even global debates on hominin origins and the tables provided a quick and concise overview of much of the available information and how it all fits together. I would have dearly loved more detail on the Acheulean sites and their archaeological and spatial significance. This is especially relevant as much of the hard detail is only available in conference excursion guides and in South African/African journals which not all libraries will carry. Southern African Acheulean archaeology is a rich and very important body of information on local hominin adaptation, and one that deserves to be far better known through such syntheses and overview volumes as this one. I would heartily encourage Mitchell to address this in future editions. Chapter 4 is a much stronger chapter, continuing the hominin Earlier Stone Age/Middle Stone Age story. The chapter broadly covers the period from 127,000 to 40,000 years ago. This is a critical period for the emergence of modern humans and the chapter deals fairly with questions about modernity, what it is, and how it maybe identified in the archaeological record. Southern Africa has an enormous amount to contribute here, and the book I think fairly reflects this potential, though again I would like to have seen more detail. Open air and cave sites are discussed, including two world class sites, Florisbad and Wonderwork. Most of the archaeology is set against the subsistence quest which becomes a recurring theme throughout the whole book.
The remaining chapters are rather outside of my experience base so I judged these on what did I learn, did it appear comprehensive and fairly balanced, and was it presented in a way designed to help me take my interests further. Chapter 5 deals with the later MSA and the transition to the LSA from about 50,000 years ago down to the end of the Pleistocene at about 10,000 years ago. This chapter introduces in more detail another recurrent theme of the book that of climatic and environmental influences on people and how it is reflected in their material culture. Stone tool assemblages are again the data set around which human understandings are organised. In the centre of South Africa and to the south, at the Cape, many of these sites come under the umbrella of the Robberg phenomenon. In reading this chapter one gets a glimpse of one of the persistent problems in southern African archaeology; there are few well dated and well contextualised sites, and their significance is projected outwards over large tranches of time and space. How relevant is such a process? What vital variability and differences are being masked? This perhaps is nowhere more apparent than at the beginning of the chapter where Mitchell discusses population trends over time (figure 5.1). A drop in the number of dated sites from 6 to 2, over a timescale of several thousand years, can not represent a realistic trend in population shifts. I am no statistician but even I know the database is far too small to justify such an assertion. The concept of cultural transitions are also introduced more fully in this chapter. In some areas the MSA appears to survive long after it has given way to the LSA in others. Some localities, on the other hand, show what appear to be genuinely transitional assemblages. Is this a real pattern, or an artifice of too few sites? It is during this period that we begin to see art being produced on a larger scale.
In chapter 6 the early Holocene is reviewed from 12,000 down to 8,000 years ago. Again there is a strong emphasis in this chapter on the climatic influences on subsistence and the food quest. The Robberg technologies of the previous chapter are replaced, at different times in different places, by the Oakhurst non-microlithic complex, and at the end of the period by the Wilton complex which is a microlithic assemblage type. Also common in this assemblage grouping are small thumbnail scrapers and an increase in the use of bone shell and wood. Finer grained data resolution, and increased preservation of organic artefacts sees the increase in theory driven interpretation facilitated by the increased complexity of the archaeological record. This level of detail is almost certainly an artifice of preservation, but it does allow for the existence of competing theories on subsistence and social organisation. There is a lovely counter-intuitive feel to many of these ideas – as climate stabilizes in the earlier Holocene social networks fragment and become more localised in response to abundance. In earlier Pleistocene studies we’d be arguing the opposite. The chapter also introduces as a major theme the use of living gather-hunting peoples as social models to explain aspects of past societies. Again this is because the archaeological record, from sites like Elands Bay, provide the finer chrono-stratigraphic control to allow this. From here on in, the surgical removal of particular aspects of the social relations of modern peoples, and their projection backwards in time as explanatory frameworks, becomes another persistent theme in southern African archaeology. Whether the ability to do this is a blessing or will ultimately prove to be a curse remains for the reader to decide. In Chapter 7 the period from 7/6 down to 2,000 years ago is reviewed. This is the end of the period of the Wilton complex. The wedge of interpretable data is clearly thickening out from now on, and the chapter pursues the use of theoretical explanations introduced in the last one. At certain sites it is now possible to talk about individuals, or groups/gender groups making statements through material culture and its organisation. Such is the amount of information available that this chapter is able to review it following the individual ecological zones described in chapter 2. The chapter details quite a shift in the subsistence base. It is what is described as a ‘small package’ economy. In many areas fire stick farming and geophytes become important.
For me, chapter 8 was the strongest in the book. It details the stunning rock art record of southern Africa. As such the chapter spans the LSA and post LSA periods. Not surprisingly the theme of ethnographic parallels is fully in evidence as interpretations of the changing meanings of these images are discussed. I was particularly pleased that Mitchell avoided the shaman trap. In recent years the uncritical use of this idea to explain all rock art has been rightly criticised (and by its chief promoters as well), though its relevance to a significant proportion of the art remains unchanged. Also brought out well in the chapter was the appropriation of cultural/magical elements from one culture group into another (usually Bushman rainmakers by livestock/pastoralist communities). This is an important insight and should serve as a salutary warning for those cultural prehistorians who like their social packages to have clear cut boundaries. Art is also discussed in other research contexts, such as social patterning and whether broad aspects of social organisation like aggregation versus dispersal is reflected in the art. This chapter would serve well as an introduction to any third year undergraduate lecture on rock art and its relationship to the people who made it.
Chapters 9 and 10 I found the most difficult to ingest. They deal with the arrival and uptake of pastoralism (chapter 9) and early farming (chapter 10), and cover the period from around 2000 years ago up to the arrival of Europeans. The two subsistence patterns are complementary, and the reconstructions are a complicated blend of traditional archaeology as well as studies on linguistics and genetics. Mitchell does a valiant job of reducing this vast body of data, but I felt that without at least some prior knowledge it was hard to take it all in. In some respects this is not a fault of Mitchell’s powers of synthesis or organisation, these chapters deserve a book in their own right (as indeed do most of the other chapters). The pastoralists, traditionally grouped under the umbrella term Koekhoen are mostly restricted to the western and south-western portions of the sub-continent. Whereas the early farming communities, who introduced iron working into the region, are centred to the eastern and north-eastern region, largely concomitant with the summer rainfall zone. The archaeology inevitably reflects an obsession with origins, diffusions and dispersals as all farming/pastoralism research has to. Some significant themes emerge here too. Very notable is the ‘pots=people’ formula underpinning migrationist interpretations. Also clear from these chapters is the influence of a few individuals whose ideas tend to dominate the intellectual landscape. For me the most fascinating sections of these chapters were those that dealt with the inter-relations between farmers, pastoralists, and the gather-hunters, all of whom were contemporary, with many communities directly inter-reacting with each other, thus reinforcing the warnings of the previous chapters about imposing impermeable cultural boundaries upon what still is an essentially typological cultural framework. A dominant structuring interpretative principle in the archaeology of farming communities is the CCP or Central Cattle Pattern. This is a settlement pattern present among certain modern farming/livestock communities and is recognised from the recent past as well. Houses are organised around a central cattle byre, and the location of the houses of senior political figures, men and women, and men and women’s burials within the compound reflect a particular world view that it is clamed can be understood through structuralist oppositions. While most scholars are happy to accept the existence of the physical CCP, there is a lively debate about just how far the world view of modern peoples living this lifestyle can be projected backwards. Mitchell’s discussions on this embrace the issues clearly.
In chapter 11 one of the glories of southern Africa is described, that of the emergence of state polities perhaps best known through Great Zimbabwe which rose during the early second millennium, mostly to the north of the Limpopo. The iconic walls of Great Zimbabwe were begun sometime between 1220 and 1275 AD. Its most prolific period was in the century and a half after 1300 AD. The chapter places the Zimbabwe tradition within the broader context of the development of statehood in southern Africa. (The patronising and racist drivel of early Victorian interpretations, perpetuated by the Apartheid regime which sought to downplay or entirely remove the role of Blacks within this indigenous development are touched on in the final chapter of the book.) While most people have heard of Great Zimbabwe, fewer will have heard of Mapungubwe already a dominant power in the Sashe-Limpopo basin when Great Zimbabwe’s walls were first being built. Earlier than Great Zimbabwe, the cultural influence of this polity covered an astonishing 30,0002 km. It may well have been at one end of a trading network spreading as far east as China! The chapter also gives a god deal of space to the later Zimbabwe tradition, and to the post-Zimbabwe continuation of statehood and the smaller more regional polities that were extant at the time of European contact.
Chapter 12 details the archaeology of the later farming communities. This is a deeply important aspect of southern African archaeology as the expansion of peoples linked to the Bantu family of languages are the ancestors of modern African peoples and their linguistic and cultural groups. Once again genetics, pottery, settlement typologies, and linguistics form the core data sets, only now the difference is in the sheer volume of information. This is the archaeology of the descendents of the earlier farming communities in eastern and south-eastern southern Africa, south of the Limpopo. House and settlement typologies are particularly important, and some of those, which can be associated with modern social/linguistic groups show marked dissimilarities with the practices of their descendents, a clear warning that uncritical projection of modern ethnographic parallels can be misleading. The chapter details the complexities of trade and exchange between different areas within the Highveld (inland plateau away from the coast), particularly in relation to metals; iron-smithing appears rare in the Highveld. The real defining aspect of this period though is the Mfecane. This is the name given to the period of disruption supposedly attendant on the rise of the Zulu kingdom, though the book makes it abundantly clear that the situation was much more complicated than that. This chapter is very much an archaeology of the effects on indigenous communities of the expanding colonial frontier, set against political instability, warfare and population expansion. Chapter 13, complements this concentrating on colonial archaeology, still a relatively new subject. Important additions to this are underwater excavations centred on the remains of trade vessels whose potential histories can be reconstructed through documentation. Important sections of this chapter focus on the Black resistance to the expanding colonial and later Boer frontiers. Finally the book comes to a close with an all too brief look at the state of South African archaeology today – chapter 14. South Africa is in a unique position to begin a reflexive dialogue on its recent and more remote past, and how that relates to the conflicting interests of a modern but (sadly still) very fragmented society. Within this, the attempt by the Apartheid state to manufacture certain aspects of history is a key aspect, and provides another lesson that South Africa can provide to the world.
So is this a good book, and does it fairly represent the current state of knowledge of both the practice of archaeology in southern Africa, as well as the archaeology itself? On the whole my answer is yes, it is a good book, and does do what it sets out to. At first base it gives an integrated overview of the whole of southern African prehistory and later historical archaeology under one cover. The only other such work I know of is Mason’s 1962 book concentrating on the Transvaal. So in one sense it is a much need work. A lot of the detail Mitchell synthesises is in local or regional journals or from other sources not available to many scholars, so the book scores well on this point too. As I said earlier, my own area of expertise, human origins, could be more fully developed, and perhaps students of other periods could take issue with later sections of the book. To some extent though the southern African record is a wedge with the thin end driven firmly into the earlier prehistoric record, so the author is not being unduly unfair. Less is known about the earlier phases. The strengths of the early part of the book, such as the contextualisation of debates in terms of broader research agendas persist throughout the volume and I found this helpful. But I think a clearer outline of the themes that weave themselves throughout the work would have facilitated this a little more. Did I learn something of the archaeology of later periods from the book? Yes. It is well written and well organised, which helps in drawing understandings from the text. In places though I found the writing dense and difficult, in particular where complicated multidisciplinary data was being drawn together. It is a hard thing to judge the balance between how much explanatory detail to include at the expense of the argument itself. Mitchell uses tables well. They synthesise and show the big picture in an effective way. This certainly helps to get the message across.
I think for the most part the book fairly reflects the practice of modern archaeology as well. It reveals a research agenda rooted in chronology, environmental and subsistence studies, in migrationist and diffusionist paradigms. Its theory base is largely a functional one. Yet it reveals a lively archaeological community emerging from the aridity of the Apartheid era, and one that is embracing a more pluralistic approach (I have to declare my biases here, I have long been a fan of South African archaeology and its archaeologists), although I do think the theoretical base is a little richer than Mitchell describes. Despite the debilitating lack of resources, new appointments are being made in universities and research is being supported, although local museums are very hard hit. (I would recommend anyone to go and see the McGregor Museum in Kimberley. Their new ‘Ancestors’ gallery is a superb reflection of this plurality. Then perhaps contrast this with the sad state of repair Museum Afrika in Johannesburg has fallen into, or the stunning, well resourced, but very pro-ANC bias to the Apartheid Museum again in Johannesburg.)
Where I think the book is a clear winner is in the picture of the archaeology itself that it presents. The southern African record is not well known outside of Africa, and the few non-African university departments that specialise in the region. Yet it contains one of the richest continuous archaeological records anywhere in the world, a record that deserves to be far better known. Its earlier phases are providing hard data to contribute to the key debates in human evolution, so its archaeology and palaeontology is of global significance. The later pre-history and historic archaeology has critical lessons to offer that apply everywhere that culture, population movements and the use of material goods are used to reconstruct the past. In revealing the depth and richness of this archaeological record Mitchell has done a good job. Let us hope this is the first of many such books – the archaeology deserves nothing less.
Review Submitted: August 2004
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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