In the heart of southern Africa, thriving communities were developing industries and competing for land and luxuries long before the arrival of European missionaries and traders. Archaeology, oral histories and ethnography have uncovered a powerful story of prosperity, challenge, resilience – and ultimately the displacement and dispersal of a proud and resourceful people.
In 1801, a small expedition ventured northward from the recently-established British Cape Colony on the southern tip of Africa into the unexplored territory of South Africa’s interior. Their mission was to establish a new cattle trade with people they referred to as ‘the natives’ who were rumoured to live in large villages far to the north.
After several months travelling across harsh, unforgiving landscapes, they arrived at Dithakong, the capital of a Tswana-speaking chiefdom known as the Tlhaping, about 520km (324 miles) west of present-day Pretoria. These intrepid explorers, led by Petrus Truter and William Sommerville, were the first Europeans to set foot inside one of the giant precolonial Tswana towns of South Africa, and they could scarcely believe their eyes.
Their journals portray colourful and awe-inspiring accounts and images of the Tswana towns. They describe innumerable round, mud-walled houses topped with conical thatched roofs, densely packed together to form a vast, baffling maze of dwellings and narrow alleyways as far as the eye could see.
They recount having to walk through miles of intensively cultivated farmland as they approached each town, where crops like sorghum and millet were thriving. And they tell of immense herds of cattle, scattered in their thousands over the surrounding hills, or herded into the giant stone-walled enclosures that occupied the centre of each town. These early historical records capture vivid details of what seemed to have been, by any standards, prosperous and well-established agro-pastoral communities.
The Rev. John Campbell of the London Missionary Society, for example, was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the hilltop site at Kaditshwene when he visited that town in 1820. He estimated that the Hurutshe capital was home to around 19,000 people — making it larger than the contemporary population of Cape Town. ‘By the blessing of God it may prove a Jerusalem to the surrounding nations,’ he was moved to declare, reminding us of the spiritual motives behind his visit.
But whether driven by religious fervour, scientific curiosity or commercial interests, the writings of early European travellers — while a rich and vibrant source — had their limitations. As outsiders, colonial observers could not hope to fully understand the cultural nuances of the African communities they encountered, and they seem to have had, at best, a blunt perception of the tumultuous political climate they had stumbled into in the early 19th century Tswana world.
They were certainly not aware that these enormous semi-urban settlements that so impressed them were a relatively recent phenomenon — a rapidly-evolved and uniquely Tswana response to a storm of unprecedented economic and political challenges that had shaken the region for at least 200 years.
Local oral traditions, recorded by colonial ethnographers in the early 20th century, relate the histories, wars, victories (rarely defeats), and shifts in power of each Tswana group, from their vague and obscure origin myths to the reign of the contemporary chief.
Despite various gaps and inconsistencies between the traditions of individual Tswana groups, there is an obvious common thread: all accounts describe a landscape in which inter-chiefdom skirmishes and ongoing wars intensified from the early 17th century. What was behind the growing hostility?
Up until this point, Tswana communities had been living in small, geographically dispersed family units. Among these largely autonomous homesteads, competition over resources was generally avoided by virtue of their relatively mobile nature: wherever conflict threatened, a group would simply up sticks and move their homestead away to an unoccupied part of the landscape. This process of continuous dispersal seemed to work quite well — until people started to run out of land.
From the mid-18th century, Tswana chiefdoms started trading with the east coast and the Cape Colony, supplying goods such as ivory, furs, metals, cattle and feathers. Demand on local resources to obtain such commodities led to ever greater demands for land. But this was curtailed by the economically unworkable southern Kalahari to the west and the tsetse fly belt to the north-east.
To exacerbate things, a period of good rainfall had led to burst of population growth in the 17th century, which was further intensified by a steady influx into Tswana territory of Nguni people from the east at around the same time. Suddenly, there were a lot more people trying to make a living on this landscape. Tswana chiefdoms began to raid each other for the most important resources needed to sustain their economies: cattle and women.
By 1750, the political climate had become so volatile that some of the most powerful Tswana chiefs on the southern edge of the Highveld started to gather all members of their chiefdoms around themselves, quickly forming large, concentrated centres of population. The Tswana town had been born, but the power and stability of the aggregated chiefdoms was to be short lived before history dealt its next blow.
Time of troubles
In 1823, in the Zulu kingdom far to the east, the legendary leader Shaka quarrelled with one of his lieutenants, a chief called Mzilikazi. Mzilikazi rallied his own people together and led them out of the Zulu kingdom, across the region formerly known as the Transvaal and into present-day Zimbabwe, where he would eventually establish and rule his new Matabele (or Ndebele) kingdom.
On his way northward, Mzilikazi and his warriors passed through large swathes of Tswana territory, attacking and subduing all in their path. This tumultuous period was later called the Difaqane by the Tswana — the ‘time of troubles’. Some who survived were incorporated into Mzilikazi’s Ndebele state, but many Tswana people were left dispossessed and poverty-stricken, scattered among the smouldering ruins of their once-mighty capitals.
By the mid-19th century, all that could be seen of the Tswana towns were the stone walls that had once defined complex arrangements of enclosures, households and passageways. These giant, dry stone skeletons, draped over hills and along escarpments, were what later captured the interest of 20th-century archaeologists.
Rediscovering a Tswana town
In the early 1980s, the South African archaeologist Revil Mason flew in a helicopter over the area around Rustenburg, in the region known today as North West Province, taking a series of stunning aerial photographs. Mason captured the first detailed images of what he called mega-sites — the sprawling stone ruins left by the early 19th century Tswana chiefdoms. One of these was a town called Marothodi (pronounced Ma-ro-TO-dee), which he referred to as Vlakfontein, after the modern farm that surrounded it; its true name was not revealed for another two decades, when the oral traditions of the site’s occupants were identified.
In his mammoth 1986 report Origins of the Black People of Johannesburg and the Southern Western Central Transvaal, AD 350-1880, Mason published the photo with the brief remark: ‘Vlakfontein has the largest cattle enclosures registered in the Transvaal,’ which, he commented, probably represented some of the largest cattle enclosures known in the African Iron Age. It would nevertheless be another 16 years before anyone followed up Mason’s exciting observation with detailed investigation.
In 2002, a research group led by Dr. Simon Hall, University of Cape Town, revisited Marothodi as part of a fresh approach to Tswana town research. As part of a multidisciplinary historical-archaeological programme, Hall was interested in probing the historical context that must have had such a critical influence over the experience of precolonial Tswana communities. Marothodi offered a large, well-preserved and unexamined Tswana site with the potential to make an important archaeological contribution to the study.
The stone walls of Marothodi stretch across a wide, flat plain in the midst of a savannah and bushveld landscape, about 115 miles north-west of Johannesburg and close to the south-western edge of the Pilanesberg National Park. The full site, which consists of three separate zones of clustered walling, extends about two miles from east to west, and a mile from north to south. The map below shows the central and most densely occupied zone.
Like all Tswana towns, Marothodi is made up of clusters of individual walled components. Each of these settlement units looks a bit like an elaborate flower in plan, with one or more circular enclosures in the centre where cattle were corralled, and a row of semicircular bays around the outside that housed domestic living spaces. Each settlement unit can be thought of as an individual homestead, the home of an extended family group.
The ruler’s homestead (known as the kgosing or ‘chief’s place’) is usually the central, largest and most complex of the settlement units — and also the highest if there is any topography to take advantage of. Here at Marothodi, as you can see on the map above, there are two physically dominant homesteads that bear the ‘royal credentials’ of location, size and complexity.
The existence of two royal homesteads instead of just one would be puzzling were it not for the oral traditions of this community — the Tlokwa people. These describe how the first chief here, Bogatsu, died and was succeeded by his son, Kgosi, soon after the capital was established. According to Tswana custom, a new ruler could not occupy the residence of his predecessor, so Kgosi lived in a separate royal homestead a short distance to the east.
This small but critical detail demonstrates the importance of historical context to our understanding of the site. The Tlokwa oral traditions tell part of the story of Marothodi, providing vital background information to the occupation of the capital. Importantly, they reveal that Marothodi was but one of a number of capitals in the region that this chiefdom occupied in quick succession.
Indeed, the Tlokwa moved quite rapidly across the landscape, appearing first in the Pilanesberg hills to the north-east in about 1740, and gradually drifting in a north-westerly direction. Marothodi, like the other Tlokwa capitals in the sequence, was occupied for a very short period of time — only about a decade from 1815. The site therefore represents a ‘snapshot’ of how the Tlokwa were organising themselves in their capital town at a particular point along a diachronic trajectory of political, economic and social change — a path towards urbanisation.
Most of the walling at Marothodi survives to about a metre above ground. But in many parts of the site the walls are suffering from a number of damaging processes, including getting trampled by modern cattle and being robbed by local farmers. Also, some stretches of walling are set on a spongy black turf soil. When it gets wet, this soil effectively swallows a few inches of walling, and in some areas the walls have completely vanished below the ground surface.
Walking among the ruins, one is struck by the high visibility of archaeological artefacts on the ground — scatters of ceramic sherds, large grinding stones for processing cereals, and innumerable dome-shaped circular mounds where the thatched round houses of the Tlokwa women once stood.
In the dry, sun-drenched bushveld, thatched houses frequently burn to the ground soon after they are abandoned. Perhaps surprisingly, this process is very good for archaeological preservation. As a house starts to burn, the roof typically collapses first, and falls onto the floor of the building. Next, the mud and dung walls collapse on top of the burning roof where they melt to form a hard mound. This effectively traps the underlying clay floor beneath a solid, protective shell. As the structure continues to burn, the heat ‘fires’ the clay floor, making it much more resilient to destructive post-depositional processes. Any artefacts that were abandoned inside the house are preserved and protected inside, waiting to be revealed during excavation.
As rich as the archaeology of Marothodi’s domestic sphere proved to be, however, the primary focus of this project was to examine economic activity and the organisation of production.
Challenge of mass production
One feature that makes Marothodi such a special site — even among other Tswana towns — is the high density of metal production debris that has been found here. Both iron and copper were smelted in large quantities that must have far exceeded the requirements of this community alone. This specialised production was undertaken on a scale sufficient to supply a substantial regional demand, and it must have played an important role in maintaining the chiefdom’s economic status.
But how was such intensive production orchestrated by the Tlokwa in the early 19th century? Ethnographic data from other Bantu-speaking peoples in sub-Saharan Africa shows that African metal production is a sensitive and tightly-controlled activity — imbued with conceptual dangers, religious taboos and a plethora of ritual controls. One of the key ingredients to the successful production of iron, for example, is the ritual seclusion of the smelting process.
Excavations at Marothodi, however, have revealed dozens of furnaces all across the town. Their quantity and distribution suggests that metal production here was not restricted to one special family or individual in the community, as seems to have been the traditional practice. Instead, metals were effectively being mass-produced. In such a context it would have been impossible for everyone involved in iron smelting to find the seclusion demanded by custom, out in the surrounding bush where ritual concerns could be met.
So, were they forced to abandon their cultural principles to increase production capacity and satisfy unprecedented economic demands?
On the contrary. The archaeology at Marothodi has shown that the Tlokwa did not abandon their principles, but instead adapted and upheld them. They developed an innovative solution to the seclusion problem: they enclosed their iron-smelting furnaces within a system of shielding palisade screens. Wherever a furnace was situated close to a residential area, the arrangement of screens around it became increasingly elaborate, sometimes controlling access to the entire area around the processing site. By introducing this unique solution, the Tlokwa were able to respond effectively to the challenge of intensive production while also honouring their ritual concerns.
Indeed, the chiefdom seems to have been thriving economically and politically prior to the dramatic disruption of the Difaqane, and the subsequent colonial impact in South Africa. These events would irrevocably interrupt the path towards a more complex socio-political reality that many Tswana societies had already embarked upon.
Unlike many contemporary Tswana chiefdoms in the region, the Tlokwa of Marothodi were not directly assailed by the Ndebele during the Difaqane. The oral traditions suggest that they may have been saved by their readiness to move the capital quite frequently from place to place, and by their ability to forge strategic alliances with neighbouring chiefdoms.
But the turbulence of the period eventually dispossessed the Tlokwa of the rich local environment that had so effectively supported their large population and the intensive metal production at Marothodi. The site had, for example, been situated right on top of valuable malachite deposits, from which ore has been found gathered and stashed at numerous copper production sites across the town. The archaeology indicates that the proximity of this geological resource played a crucial role in the economic prowess of the chiefdom.
By 1887 the reigning Tlokwa chief, Gaborone, had been forced to lead his people up into Botswana, where they settled at a place they called Tlokweng – literally ‘the place of the Tlokwa’. Their descendants still live there today.
The nearby capital city of modern Botswana is named after this chief – a high-profile but often overlooked testimony to the people from Marothodi, who innovated, prospered, and ultimately survived one of the most tumultuous episodes in South African history.
This research was carried out as part of the author’s doctoral work at the University of Cape Town. Grateful acknowledgement is made to colleagues in the UCT Department of Archaeology, collaborators from other institutions, and participants of the Marothodi Field School who offered valuable help with the excavations.
An edited version of this article first appeared in Current World Archaeology, Issue 60.
You can learn more about Marothodi and the precolonial Tswana towns of South Africa in:
Anderson, M. S. (2013) Marothodi: The Historical Archaeology of an African Capital. London: Atikkam Publishing.
Available from Amazon.