African Archaeological Review

, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 35–47 | Cite as

Is Niche Construction Theory Relevant to the Proposed Adoption of Domesticates by Hunter-Gatherers in Southern Africa?

  • Isabelle ParsonsEmail author
Original Article


Potential mechanisms by which domestic animals came to be herded by stone-tool users in southern Africa after 2 ka include demic and/or cultural diffusion. Neither theory is unproblematic, but robust archaeological evidence for immigrant stone-tool-using herders in the region continues to be sought. In the meantime, it seems useful to consider how cultural diffusion, or the adoption of herding practices by local hunter-gatherers, might have occurred in theory. It has been suggested that the domestication of plant and animal species by human societies represents prime archaeological evidence of humans enhancing their environment through integrated strategies of ecosystem engineering, or niche construction. This paper suggests that niche construction theory may also shed light on the proposed adoption of domestic species by southern African hunter-gatherers. To do so, it considers evidence for other niche construction activities in the local archaeological and ethnographic records. These activities include the deliberate and controlled burning of vegetation, and landscape modification strategies that limit or control a particular species’ movement.


Niche construction Southern Africa Domestic animals Ceramic final Later Stone Age 


Les mécanismes potentiels par lesquels le bétail est venu à être rassemblés par les utilisateurs des outils de pierre en Afrique australe après 2 ka comprennent le migration et/ou la diffusion culturelle. Ni la théorie ne pose aucun problème, mais des preuves convaincantes archéologiques des utilisateurs des outils de pierre immigrés dans la region continue d'être recherchées. En attendant, il semble utile d’examiner comment la diffusion culturelle, ou l'adoption de l'élevage d’animaux par des chasseurs-cueilleurs locaux, ont pu se produire en théorie. Il a été suggéré que la domestication des espèces végétales et animales par les sociétés humaines représente premier preuves archéologiques de l'homme améliorant leur environnement par le biais des stratégies intégrées de l'ingénierie de l'écosystème, ou la construction de niche. Cet article suggère que la théorie de la construction de niche peut aussi faire la lumière sur l'adoption des espèces domestiques par des chasseurs-cueilleurs d'Afrique australe. Pour ce faire, il examine la preuve pour d'autres activités de construction de niche dans les enregistrements archéologiques et ethnographiques locales. Ces activités comprennent la combustion délibérée et contrôlée de la végétation, et des stratégies de modification du paysage qui limitent ou contrôlent le movement d'une espèce particulière.



I thank colleagues for their constructive criticism on earlier drafts of this paper, and two anonymous reviewers in particular for their thought-provoking and helpful comments, but remain responsible for any oversights or errors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology & ArchaeologyUniversity of South AfricaUNISA, PretoriaSouth Africa

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