Was slash-and-burn the norm? Evidence for patterns of sustained agriculture and settlement in precolonial South Africa.

  • Author: Tim Maggs
  • Topic: 1000 to 2000 BP,500 to 1000 BP,Buildings, towns and states
  • Country: South Africa
  • Related Congress: 13th Congress, Dakar

This paper starts with a critical look at two common and linked assumptions about agriculture and settlement in precolonial sub-Saharan Africa. The first assumption is that slash-and-burn, shifting agriculture (swidden) was ubiquitous. The second and linked assumption is that, because this agricultural system requires regular movement of cultivated fields, the settlements of agriculturist communities were of necessity impermanent. To examine this second assumption, this paper cites evidence for long-term occupation of typical Early Iron Age settlements in South Africa. The paper then turns to the past 500 years, and reviews current research on the terraced settlements along the escarpment of Mpumalanga Province in South Africa. Areas of agricultural intensification in eastern Africa have provided evidence that has been crucial in identifying this phenomenon as the only as yet identified“island” of agricultural intensification in the precolonial.

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