African Archaeological Review

, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 87–106 | Cite as

Descent of Iron Age Farmers in Southern Africa During the Last 2000 Years

  • Shaw Badenhorst
Review Article


Ethnographies from southern Africa indicate that patrilineal descent dominates Bantu-language speakers. With great differences in material culture suggesting sociopolitical and economical changes between the earliest farmers that settled in the region in the first millennium AD and those described from ethnographies, it is very likely that descent patterns did not remain static over the course of nearly 2000 years. With major sociopolitical and economical changes, it is not surprising to suggest that other forms of descent also existed amongst farmers of southern Africa in the past. Although it remains ambiguous to establish descent patterns from archaeological remains in the absence of human burials, in this paper I investigate herding practices and the nature of farming as ways to infer descent. The results indicate that at least matrilineal descent was common in southern Africa before the arrival of ancestral Nguni and Sotho-Tswana speakers in the region during the Late Iron Age in the second millennium AD. Other forms of descent were likely present alongside matrilineal descent during the Early and Middle Iron Ages, when widespread evidence for patrilineal descent is absent.


Gender Descent Matrilineal Patrilineal Iron Age Africa Cattle Sheep 


Les tout premiers fermiers du premier millénaire et début du deuxième millénaire A.D. (Âge du Fer Ancien et Moyen) en Afrique australe étaient probablement des communautés matrilinéaires. Cette proposition se base sur une considération des pratiques d’élevage, sur la nature des systèmes agricoles, et la distribution des groupes matrilinéaires contemporains. Cela étant dit, les études ethnographiques indiquent que les groupes de langues bantoues vivant dans la région se distinguent par un mode de filiation patrilinéaire. Je suggère que ce système de descendance est un trait qui s’est développé lors du deuxième millénnaire A.D. (Âge du Fer Récent) en Afrique australe, une période marquée par l’arrivée des groupes ancestraux Nguni et Tswana dans la région. Cette interprétation diffère de celle articulée par Thomas Huffman dans son modèle du ‘Central Cattle Pattern’, qui avance qu’un mode dominant de filiation patrilinéaire existait déjà en Afrique australe durant le premier millénaire A.D., quand les premières communautés d’agriculteurs ont commencé à occuper la région.



I asked a few colleagues to comment on different versions of this paper. They are Drs. Jonathan C. Driver, Catherine D’Andrea (both at Simon Fraser University) and Ina Plug (University of South Africa). I am thankful for their valuable suggestions. They do not necessarily share my opinions. Reviewers also read and commented on different drafts of this paper, and their suggestions are gratefully acknowledged. Opinions and oversights are my own responsibility.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeozoologyTransvaal MuseumPretoriaSouth Africa
  2. 2.Department of Anthropology and ArchaeologyUniversity of South AfricaUnisaSouth Africa

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