Pastoralist Khoekhoe people in southern Africa are well known from 17th and 18th century records from the Cape, and from later descendent communities. The Cape Khoekhoen kept large herds of sheep and cattle, which constituted wealth and provided the dairy products that formed dietary staples. The origins and development of this way of life remain contentious. This paper addresses the issue by means of stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of 160 adult human skeletons from the coastal forelands of southernmost Africa. Prior to 2000 bp, hunter-gatherers ate varying mixes of marine and terrestrial foods, but terrestrial C4 grasses (and animals grazing on them) were of relatively minor importance. Sheep (and probably cattle) first appeared in archaeological sites around 2000 bp, but whatever their role in peoples’ diets, there was no significant shift in the isotope ratios of human skeletons in the first millennium AD. From the early second millennium AD, people began to eat significantly more 4 based foods, probably in the form of animal products (dairy and meat) from animals grazing on 4 grasses. I argue that the most likely reason is that domestic stock — especially cattle — became more important in peoples’ diets at this time. There is evidence for a new style of burial, in which the body was interred in a seated, flexed position, and the grave capped with stones. Thus, although living sites remain elusive, important elements of the historically documented Khoekhoe way of life can be identified for the first time in the early second millennium AD. This evidence also shows that a cattle-based economy emerged centuries before Europeans seeking animals to slaughter increased the demand for stock.
We report on aspects of diet and subsistence patterns of late 1st and early 2nd millennium AD farmers from the Upemba Depression of Katanga, DRC, as reconstructed from stable isotopes and dental caries. While the archaeology of this region is well known from cemeteries, details of the subsistence base of these communities are not well known, because occupation sites have not yet been identified. Carbon isotope measurements show that individuals buried at Sanga ate diets rich in C4-based resources, and suffered high rates of dental caries, similar to those seen among farmers in southern Africa. People buried at Katoto consumed more C3 foods, and presented with lower caries prevalence. Their diets probably included more cucurbits, legumes and root crops. Oxygen isotopes also differ between the two sites, likely due to different sources of drinking water. Our results indicate that the crops grown and the diets consumed at Sanga and Katoto were substantially different, although the sites are only 130 km apart. The cultural differences previously noted between the two sites were underpinned by differences in subsistence economy, pointing to a higher degree of variation in these societies than previously known.
At the ancient Shona centre of Great Zimbabwe (1200–1700 CE), cattle (Bos taurus) were centrally important for economic, social, and symbolic purposes. 87Sr/86Sr for modern plants collected in southern Zimbabwe vary from 0.7054 to 0.8780 and ranges differ between some geological substrates. 87Sr/86Sr in serial samples of Bos taurus tooth enamel provides information on where animals consumed at Great Zimbabwe were raised and how herds were managed. The majority of animals sampled were born and remained for their first year of life in a region some 40–120 km south of Great Zimbabwe. Few animals came from geological substrates like that of Great Zimbabwe itself, and none from areas underlain by basalts (> 120 km south of Great Zimbabwe). Earlier hypotheses of transhumance are not supported. These findings will help to build a fuller picture of the role of local commodities (in this case, cattle) in the economic networks that supported the rise and florescence of Great Zimbabwe as a major centre of power.