Changing social landscapes of the Western Cape coast of southern Africa over the last 4500 years

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis presents a reinterpretation of the late-Holocene hunter-gatherer archaeology of the Eland's Bay and Lambert's Bay areas of the western Cape. Marked changes in settlement, and subsistence over the last 4500 years had been previously suggested as having resulted from external factors, such as the environment and contact with incoming pastoralist groups. In contrast, this thesis presents hunter-gatherers as active role players in the transformation of their society and history. This was proposed as a result of an excavation and dating programme, palaeoenvironmental reconstructions with better resolved time sequences, and the use of an interpretative framework that emphasises possible changes in population numbers and in modes of production, as well as the consequences of these processes. Between 3500 and 2000 BP, population densities increased and residence permanence became more sedentary, both of which were easily accommodated by a productive environment. Solutions to social stress, resulting from landscape infilling, were not sought through migration, but through the formalization of ritual gatherings at Steenbokfontein Cave. During these gregarious occasions, proper codes of conducts were reinforced, inter- and intra-group conflict was mediated and peoples' identity with the local landscape was also asserted. Coinciding with the increase in population numbers after 3500 BP, subsistence was reorganized around the intensive collection of highly predictable and productive species, such as shellfish, tortoises and plants. Frequent snaring of small and territorial bovids almost completely replaced the hunting of large mobile game. A system of delayed returns was also central to coastal hunter-gatherer economy between 3000 and 2000 BP, whereby the collection, processing and storage of large quantities of shellfish meat was undertaken. The large-scale effort of this activity is attested by the massive build up of large shell middens termed "megamiddens". It seems likely that hunter- gatherers at this time obtained most of the necessary protein from marine resources. In addition to the pervasive and high levels of social stress, ecological stress became palpable as environmental conditions began to deteriorate after 2400 BP. Ritual intensification no longer provided a solution, and aggregation phases at Steenbokfontein Cave came to an end. Social networks amongst hunter-gatherer groups broke down as a consequence of their fission into smaller social units and withdrawal of some of them to the periphery of the study area. The arrival of stock-owning groups around 2000 BP triggered a series of different responses by hunter-gatherers. These varied from cooperative behaviour, assimilation, avoidance and/or conflict. It is argued that these differences were shaped to a large extent by variable socio- economic configurations amongst pre-contact hunter-gatherer groups. The diet of the newly reconfigured and diverse hunter-gatherer society became overall more mixed after 2000 BP. Shellfish gathering became less important, some hunting of large game was practiced, with most of the diet provided by plant collection, snaring of small antelopes and the capture of tortoises.

Bibliography: pages 177-205.