Namibia: Stone Age to the Early Iron Age (c160 000 BP - c1400 CE)

Updated July 2009

The human presence in Namibia dates back to the southern African Middle Stone Age (MSA; from at least 160 000) at the time when anatomically modern humans had emerged and characteristic forms of human behaviour such as abstract thinking, art and music were developing, but apart from site identification surveys little work has been done in Namibia and no ancient dates are established (Nicoll 2008; Hardaker 2005, 20). At the Apollo 11 rock shelter, at the confluence of the Orange and Great Fish Rivers, the oldest known rock painting in southern Africa was found, dated to around 26 000 BP (Lewis-Williams 1997, 7; Thackeray 2005, 27). Where other MSA sites have been dated they are roughly contemporary with Late Stone Age (LSA) sites found elsewhere in Namibia such as Masari near Rundu in the far north east (less than 5 000 years ago) and in the central Namib desert at #hing-#hais (around 8470 BP) and the Oryx kill site (about 12 800 BP; Shackley 1986, 73, 80).

It is known, however, that during the last glacial maximum (24 000-17 000 BP) the interior of southern Africa experienced extremely arid conditions that made the area uninhabitable and separated the ancestors of the Khoesan who moved south from the ancestors of the rest of the human race who moved north and this seems to be the case with Namibia where early LSA finds are restricted to Kaokoland in the north, with dates between 12 000 BP and 2 5000 BP, which lack the LSA Wilton assemblage associated with Khoesan hunter-gatherers and have a different rock art style to that associated with them (Stynder 2007, 7-9; Vogelsang 2000, 25, 27). Near Opuwa the Omungunda rock shelter shows three periods of intense LSA utilisation ranging from of 14 000 BP to 1000 BP, but the Wilton assemblage is restricted to a brief occupation of the site (Lenssen-Erz & Vogelsang 2005, 54). Recolonisation of the south by Khoesan hunter-gatherers with a later LSA culture is indicated by the Wilton assemblage findings of the Mirabib rock shelter in the Namib desert that was occupied between 8410 to 1550 BP (Shackley 1986, 73).

The introduction of ceramics, small and large stock, metal working and agriculture to Namibia did not follow the pattern most frequently found elsewhere in Southern Africa where they arrive as a cultural package associated with the diffusion of Bantu speakers (Smith et al 1995, 3). The introduction in the north of sheep and goats, is certainly attested to from about 2000 BP as is pottery, but where the two were introduced at the same time is unclear with some arguing that pottery was introduced more than a thousand years before, but in any case it is supposed that they were diffused through trade networks (Lenssen-Erz & Vogelsang 2005, 59; Smith et al 1995, 3, 9, 12, 13; Kinahan 1996, 106). The traditional LSA technology and hunter gather lifestyle were retained and it is only over a long period of time that nomadic pastoralism developed, in the first millennium CE, and a shift to building huts and stock enclosures occurred (Lenssen-Erz & Vogelsang 2005, 59; Kinahan 1996, 106). With the shift to pastoralism also came more complex social relations of power (Kinahan 1996, 106). It is not clear when cattle were introduced to the pastoralists of the interior or how they acquired it, all that is certain is that by the time that they made contact with Europeans they were in possession of them (Mitchell 2002, 231).

Evidence of contact with people with metal working technologies was found at the Omungunda rock shelter near Opuwo in the north, dated between 1850-1600 BP, and at Gedult in the south east, dated c. 1790 BP, in the form of iron artefacts (Lenssen-Erz & Vogelsang 2005, 54; Smith et al 1995, 10). It is not until c848 BCE that evidence emerges in Namibia of metal working by an early Iron Age culture, related to that of the Bantu speaking people especially in northern Botswana, which endured until c608 CE, in the Kavango Region near Rundu (Sandelowsky 1979, 60; Kose 2005). The confinement of the early Bantu to the far north is explicable by the aridity of the interior and their low population densities, so that metal working defused from them into the interior to the indigenous pastoral nomads that had developed from hunter-gatherer societies (Miller et al 2005, 344).


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