In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archaeology of Southern Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • National and Regional Overviews
  • Journals
  • History of Research
  • Ethnographic Sources
  • Earlier Stone Age
  • Pastoralism
  • Iron Age/Farming Communities
  • Early Farming Communities
  • The Zimbabwe Tradition and Its Neighbors
  • Later Farming Communities in South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho
  • Archaeology of European Colonial Settlement
  • Contemporary Practice of Archaeology

African Studies Archaeology of Southern Africa
Peter Mitchell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0012


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.

General Overviews

Southern Africa’s size and the complexity of its archaeology have resulted in few general overviews of the region as a whole, as opposed to those focusing on specific periods or areas. Clark 1959, while out of date in very many respects, nevertheless retains useful insights. Coverage of both paleoenvironmental issues and Farming Communities is much stronger in Klein 1984, reflecting the major developments in these areas in the intervening quarter of a century. From a single author, Mitchell 2002 is the most comprehensive and detailed survey but necessarily omits results from the past fifteen years. Chapters in edited books on African archaeology, including Stahl 2005 and Mitchell and Lane 2013, mitigate this and provide detailed introductions with important reference lists. Although not reviewing all aspects of the region’s past, Blundell 2006 and Soodyall 2006 also offer wide coverage. Journals, especially those based in southern Africa, are an essential resource and constitute a key outlet for new research and occasional overviews of particular topics. However, information about many excavation and survey projects remains restricted to postgraduate dissertations (at honors, masters, and doctoral levels) and, increasingly, to reports from contract archaeologists. Access to these documents varies widely, but there is an increasing trend to making them available online, for example, via the South African Heritage Resources Agency.

  • Blundell, Geoff, ed. Origins: The Story of the Emergence of Humans and Humanity in Africa. Cape Town: Double Storey, 2006.

    Aimed at a more popular audience than the other overviews listed here, this volume also stands out for the number and quality of its color illustrations. A series of major chapters and smaller box features situate southern Africa’s past within African archaeology as a whole.

  • Clark, John Desmond. The Prehistory of Southern Africa. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1959.

    The first overview of the whole breadth of southern Africa’s archaeology by a professional researcher, this work remains important not just as a historical marker but also for its emphasis on hunter-gatherer technologies.

  • Klein, Richard, ed. Southern African Prehistory and Palaeoenvironments. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: A. A. Balkema, 1984.

    Uniquely, this volume gives as much space to summarizing then-current knowledge of southern Africa’s environmental history as it does to the region’s archaeological record. All the chapters are written by leading researchers, and in many respects it remains a valuable resource.

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

    A comprehensive, although now partly dated, synthesis of all aspects of southern Africa’s archaeology from the earliest hominin fossils to the practice of archaeology in the post-apartheid era.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199569885.001.0001

    Bringing together seventy overviews of almost all aspects of African archaeology, this massive volume includes several chapters specifically focusing on southern Africa, each with an extensive bibliography. Regrettably, the high price makes access less than easy within Africa itself, and the index is not as complete as it might be.

  • Soodyall, Himla, ed. The Prehistory of Africa: Tracing the Lineage of Modern Man. Jeppestown, South Africa: Jonathan Ball, 2006.

    A series of essays from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics and genetics, relevant to modern human origins and the archaeologies of hunter-gatherers and Farming Communities alike.

  • South African Heritage Resources Agency.

    South Africa’s national heritage body provides online access to many of that country’s archaeological heritage impact assessments.

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

    With wide coverage of African archaeology as a whole, this volume includes four chapters focused exclusively on southern Africa and further references in many others. A key concern is drawing out and critically assessing the frameworks by which research has been undertaken.

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