Pastoralist Khoekhoe people in southern Africa are well known from 17 th and 18 th 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 C 4 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.
Journal of African Archaeology – Brill
Published: Oct 25, 2010
Keywords: Later Stone Age; Khoe; diet; domestic stock; herder