Spatial structure of early farming communities in South Africa – Ndondondwane

Building on my earlier research on the evolution of early food producing societies in Europe, I wanted to investigate an analogous situation in a very different cultural context. I was given this opportunity in 1995 at the Early Iron Age (EIA) site of Ndondondwane, South Africa. The Early Iron Age of southern Africa is one of the earliest examples of the spread of food production by metallurgical cultures into a new region. The spread of food production in most of the world is generally associated with a Neolithic technology. The appearance of food producing communities in eastern southern Africa appears at the same time as the introduction of iron metallurgy. Various models have been proposed to explain the nature of EIA community organization, such as the central cattle pattern and the household mode of production. However, little data on the internal economic and social organization of EIA settlements and households had been collected. The goal of my research in South Africa has been to rectify this by excavating a site with a short-term and single-phase occupation. The Early Iron Age site of Ndondondwane fit these needs. Ndondondwane is dated to c. 900 AD (calibrated) and is located in the province of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).

After three years of survey and excavation and several years of laboratory analysis in collaboration with the KwaZulu-Natal Monuments Heritage Council (1995-98), the extent and nature of the Ndondondwane settlement can now be ascertained. The results of the excavation indicate the existence of a well-ordered community. At the center of the community lay structures and activity areas associated with a variety of male-associated (in traditional eastern Bantu culture – a large men’s hut, a stock kraal, iron furnaces, and iron and ivory working areas). Around this core area, moving away from the river, was a large open-air plaza, with very little debris and no evident features. It probably was an area where the community as a whole could gather. At the north end of the site, relatively isolated still from domestic complexes, a charcoal preparation (pre-smelting) area was found. It was also probably associated with male activities, given its isolation and the ethnographic association of males with iron production. At least three domestic household complexes were found in a large semi-circle (NW, W, and SW) around the plaza. They are equidistant from the male activity areas at the center of the site. The three domestic areas are areas where household activities were carried (such as food processing and storage, sleeping, tool repair, ceramic production, etc.). Such domestic complexes are the traditional domain of women (in the ethnographically known societies of the region). The implications of this temporal and spatial distribution for models of settlement organization in the Early Iron Age are indicative of greater cultural continuity between the Early Iron Age and later periods in the region than hitherto believed.

Len van Schalkwyk and I are the codirectors of the excavations at Ndondondwane. I am currently writing the final reports of the survey and excavation at the site.


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