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An Archaeological Contribution to the Kalahari Debate from the Middle Limpopo Valley, Southern Africa

Abstract

The Kalahari debate deals primarily with the influence that contact with incoming groups had on San communities in southern Africa. Two schools of thought emerged and engaged in heavy debate. The traditionalists, most of whom collected primary ethnographic data in the Kalahari Desert, argued that the San were relatively isolated and affected minimally by contact with outsiders. Arguing against this were various revisionists who contended that “San” identity arose due to a long period of social and cultural interactions with farmer communities. This conflict—broadly isolationism versus historical production—has overarching implications for the use of ethnography to understand precolonial forager groups. In this contribution, the debate’s salient points are revisited and contrasted with the archaeology of the middle Limpopo Valley, where forager communities participated in the rise of a state-level kingdom within farmer society. Interactions in the valley led to a range of forager responses including craft development, hunting intensification, and trade relations, but also social and cultural continuity. These reactions and their feedbacks offer different perspectives to those provided by the two schools of thought in the Kalahari debate and reinforce their antithetical perspectives. Here it is argued that a binary approach is incapable of capturing transformations that took place in the middle Limpopo Valley, and that a focus on historicism and social systems associated with cultural sequences leads to greater insights.

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Acknowledgments

Peter Mitchell, Sam Challis, and Innocent Pikirayi are thanked for their discussions, patience, and sharing of knowledge and ideas over the course of this work. During this time, the Palaeontological Scientific Trust and South Africa’s National Research Foundation funded various research programs that resulted in much of what is presented here. I thank Paul Lane and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments that have vastly improved the final manuscript. All views and errors remain my own.

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Forssman, T. An Archaeological Contribution to the Kalahari Debate from the Middle Limpopo Valley, Southern Africa. J Archaeol Res (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10814-021-09166-0

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Keywords

  • Kalahari debate
  • Ethnographic analogy
  • Forager–farmer interaction
  • Middle Limpopo Valley
  • Southern Africa