African Archaeological Review

, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 1–20 | Cite as

Breaking Ground: Hoes in Precolonial South Africa—Typology, Medium of Exchange and Symbolic Value

  • Abigail Joy MoffettEmail author
  • Tim Maggs
  • Johnny van Schalkwyk
Review Article


In sub-Saharan Africa, every cultivator of the soil in a precolonial, agriculturist society needed a digging implement, and this normally took the form of a hoe with an iron blade hafted on a wooden handle. This paper marks the first attempt to document the surprising variety of hoe blade styles and map their regional distributions within South Africa. While the primary function of the hoe—this key item of material culture in African farming communities—was to cultivate the soil, the large quantity of metal and therefore labour required to make a hoe blade accorded it great value in the years before European industrial copies flooded the market. The hoe was an important item in trade networks, in marriage transactions and in a number of symbolic contexts associated with individual and collective ancestry. This biographical approach to hoe exchange, use and recycling reveals the complex significance of this tool in the lives of precolonial farmers. In particular, we are able to show that hoes could in some circumstances be accorded the same values as cattle in marriage exchange.


Iron Age farmers Hoes Agriculture Marriage exchanges Southern Africa 


En Afrique subsaharienne, tout cultivateur appartenant à une société agraire précoloniale nécessitait un outil pour travailler le sol qui prenait généralement la forme d’une houe avec une lame en acier emmanchée sur une poignée en bois. Il s’agit ici de documenter pour la première fois une surprenante variété de styles de lames de houe ainsi que de cartographier leur distribution régionale en Afrique du Sud. Alors que la première fonction de la houe—un outil clé de la culture matérielle des communautés africaines agraires—était la culture du sol, la grande quantité d’acier et donc de travail nécessaire à la manufacture de sa lame lui procurait une grande valeur à l’époque antérieure à l’inondation des marchés par les copies industrielles Européennes. La houe était un outil important dans les réseaux d’échanges, dans les transactions maritales, et dans un certain nombre de contextes symboliques associés aux cultes des ancêtres tant individuels que collectifs. Cette exploration des échanges, de l’utilisation et de la répartition de la houe révèle l’importance complexe de cet outil dans la vie des fermiers précoloniaux. En particulier, nous serons en mesure de démontrer que dans certaines circonstances les houes pouvaient recevoir la même valeur que le bétail durant les échanges maritaux.



We would like to thank for access to their collections the Universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, KwaZulu-Natal Killie Campbell Collections and the University of South Africa; Barberton Museum, Ditsong: National Cultural History Museum, KwaZulu Cultural History Museum, KwaZulu-Natal Museum, and Lydenburg Museum. We would also like to thank colleagues for useful discussions including Alex Schoeman, François Coetzee, Gavin Whitelaw, JP Cilliers and Val Ward. We also acknowledge significant assistance from Shadreck Chirikure, Simon Hall and Judith Sealy.

Compliance with Ethical Standards


This study was partly funded (for author A.J.M.) through an NRF Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Grant.

Conflict of Interests

The authors declare they have no competing interests.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Abigail Joy Moffett
    • 1
    Email author
  • Tim Maggs
    • 1
  • Johnny van Schalkwyk
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa
  2. 2.Ditsong: National Museum of Cultural HistoryPretoriaSouth Africa

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