In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Southern Africa to c. 1850

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies and Lists of References
  • Journals
  • Published Compilations of Primary Documents
  • Eyewitness Accounts
  • Thinking Critically about Southern Africa’s Pasts before the Mid-19th Century
  • Bringing “Prehistory” into History
  • Historical Landscapes and Climates
  • Hunter-Gatherers, Pastoralists, and Farmers in the 1st Millennium CE
  • Traders, Farmers, and Hunter-Gatherers 700–1500
  • Engagements with European Traders and Colonizers 1500–1850: Broad Overviews
  • The Southern and Western Cape 1500–1850
  • The Karoo and Northern Cape 1500–1850
  • The Eastern Cape 1500–1850
  • The KwaZulu-Natal Region 1500–1850
  • The Interior and North 1500–1850
  • Intellectual History before the Mid-19th Century

African Studies Southern Africa to c. 1850
John Wright, Simon Hall, Amanda Esterhuysen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0003


This article focuses on the history of the region that now comprises South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and adjacent areas of Botswana and Mozambique. The era covered dates from the beginnings of human history in this region between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago to the beginnings of the period that saw the shaping of its modern-day societies. This era straddles the conventional divide between “history,” as understood through recorded oral materials and written sources, and what is still too often called “prehistory,” as served predominantly through archaeological sources. The authors of this bibliography seek to work across this divide and also across the conventional divide between the “precolonial” and “colonial” periods, and, in doing so, to unpack deep-seated stereotypes about conceptualizing southern Africa’s deep past. Since the collapse of apartheid in the early 1990s, long-established “colonial” views of South Africa’s history have become largely discredited, but they have left a residue of ideas and assumptions about the centrality of “tribes” and “tribaltraditions” that remain deeply sedimented in both public and academic discourses. Critical examination of the era before the mid-19th century has in effect come to be the preserve of three groups of scholars. One consists of the country’s several dozen archaeologists; a second comprises the small number of academic historians who have studied the history of African societies in the late 18th and the 19th centuries; a third is made up of historians who have researched the history of the Cape Colony in its preindustrial age; that is, from the 1650s to the 1860s. For the most part, these scholars have worked in separate enclaves and produced ideas about the past that scarcely overlapped. Beginning in the mid-1990s, however, their concerns and perspectives began to converge slightly, to the accompaniment of often vigorous debates about concepts, sources, and methods. The prime concerns of this article are to point readers toward the current state of knowledge in these three fields and to highlight the nature of the debates that scholars of the deep past continue to engage in. At a time when racial profiling remains important in much of South African political, social, and intellectual life, the historical point needs to be made that the great majority of these scholars are still white. Only very recently have black students in South Africa begun studying archaeology in any numbers, and most of the country’s black historians still focus their research on the period of colonialism and resistance to it. The authors’ thanks go to the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town, and to the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

General Overviews

Many general histories of South Africa have been written over the years, and new ones appear with some frequency. Until the very late 20th century, most of them devoted no more than a single cursory chapter to the period before the coming of European colonists in the 1650s. As popular writings on the archaeology of South Africa make the earlier history of African societies more accessible, so general histories are beginning to pay more attention to it. Hamilton, et al. 2010, an academic overview, breaks new ground in giving detailed attention to the period before colonialism as well as to the colonial past. Mitchell 2002 is a more specialized survey that delineates in detail lines of academic thinking in archaeology, as does Mitchell and Lane 2013 from a more recent perspective. Stahl 2005 is a more explicitly critical overview of the practices of archaeology; Derricourt 2011 probes Western imaginings of Africa. Swanepoel, et al. 2008 is a product of a convergence of approaches between archaeologists and historians. Wright 2017 is an overview of southern Africa’s deep past that seeks to decenter notions of “tribe” and “ethnicity” as basic building blocks of African history.

  • Derricourt, Robin. Inventing Africa: History, Archaeology and Ideas. London: Pluto, 2011.

    A lively and critical examination of major Western notions about Africa in the era before the colonial period. Positions the historiography of southern Africa in a wider intellectual context.

  • Etherington, Norman. The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815–1854. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2001.

    A novel account of a key period in the shaping of modern South African society. Engages critically with orthodoxies about the so-called mfecane and the “great trek.”

  • Hamilton, Carolyn, Bernard Mbenga, and Robert Ross, eds. The Cambridge History of South Africa. Vol. 1, From Early Times to 1885. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521517942

    Seeks to present an authoritative reassessment of South African history, aimed in the first instance at an academic readership. Chapters 2 to 6, written by two archaeologists and three historians, cover the period from the beginnings of food production early in the first millennium CE to the mid-19th century.

  • Mitchell, Peter. The Archaeology of Southern Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    A comprehensive and authoritative synthesis. Chapters 8 to 13 (of a total of fourteen) provide a very useful, if densely written, guide to the archaeological literature on the history of southern Africa over the last two millennia. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article by Peter Mitchell, “Archaeology of Southern Africa.”

  • Mitchell, Peter, and Paul Lane, eds. The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Seventy chapters, written by seventy-four authors, cover six major themes: theory and method, human evolution, the development of hunting and gathering societies, the development of pastoralism and farming, the development of towns and states, and the archaeology of European colonization. Several chapters provide up-to-date syntheses of aspects of southern Africa’s past from archaeological perspectives.

  • Stahl, Anne. African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

    Includes several chapters on the archaeology of southern Africa. Encourages critical evaluation of existing archaeological knowledge and of the political contexts that have shaped this knowledge.

  • Swanepoel, Natalie, Amanda Esterhuysen, and Philip Bonner, eds. Five Hundred Years Rediscovered: Southern African Precedents and Prospects. 500 Year Initiative 2007 Conference Proceedings. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2008.

    A set of essays written by archaeologists and historians. Challenges notions of African societies as having been fixed, homogeneous entities and seeks to integrate archaeological and historical approaches to the study of the past.

  • Wright, John. “Southern Africa before Colonial Times.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Edited by Tom Spear. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.013.92

    Aims to provide a critical perspective on southern Africa’s history in the long era before the establishment of European colonial rule. Seeks to interweave a basic narrative with discussion of the nature and provenance of the main sources of evidence available and of the concepts which historians use to make sense of it. Available by subscription.

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