People making history: the last ten thousand years of hunter-gatherer communities in the Thukela Basin

A. D. Mazel


The primary aim of this paper is to document and explain the 10000 BP - AD 1800 history of the Thukela Basin hunter-gatherers. The primary information for this study comes from my excavation, between 1981 and 1984, of eight rock shelters in the upper Thukela catchment.

My aims and theoretical orientation have altered substantially since the project's inception. They have changed from being concerned primarily with ecological phenomena to the reconstruction of a regional social history. As part of this redefinition I have developed a critique of South African Later Stone Age (LSA) studies from the early 1960s, arguing that the predominant ecological approaches of this period are inadequate in dealing with past human societies.

My reason for adopting a socially orientated historical approach concern the social relevance of archaeology, and the need to generate the best possible insight into past societies. I submit that historical materialism offers a very valuable framework for social historical analysis. The theoretical and methodological propositions germane to this study are presented.

I then concentrate specifically on Thukela Basin hunter-gatherer history. The periods dating to before and after 2000 BP are dealt with separately because of the arrival of farmers in the Thukela Basin around AD 500.

A study of the 10000 - 2000 BP subsistence strategies and occupation density suggsts that this society experienced a process of intensification. It is proposed that this phenomenon results from social structural changes. An analysis of the material culture remains and the subsistence strategies suggests that the initial alliance network which covered most of the research area disintegrated before 4000 BP and was replaced by three such networks. I submit further, that a gender related struggle was the main component informing this society's historical development. I argue that women moved from a position of low status to higher status, principally by increasing their subsistence contribution, coupled with their control over the food they collected.

Considering the 2000 BP - AD 1800 period, emphasis is placed on hunter-gatherer/farmer relations and the social development of hunter-gatherer communities. It appears that up to AD 1000, these groups enjoyed close, equitable relations. Inadequate information inhibits our assessment of their relations after AD 1000, but it is suggested that the hunter-gatherers may have become clients of the farmers.

The conclusion highlights the advantages of my socially oriented approach, by comparing the knowledge generated by it and the ecological approaches used in South African LSA studies. Finally, future avenues of research are suggested.

To cite this article: Mazel, A. D. 1989. People making history: the last ten thousand years of hunter-gatherer communities in the Thukela Basin. Natal Museum Journal of Humanities 1: 1-168.

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