Exploring precolonial agriculture and intensification: the case of Bokoni, South Africa

Project leader

Funding source

Swedish Research Council - Vetenskapsrådet (VR)

Project Details

Start date: 01/01/2010
End date: 31/12/2012
Funding: 450000 SEK


In many descriptions of Sub-saharan Africa before colonialism, the agricultural systems are described as primitive. It is often evoked that not much changed in African farming since the introduction of agriculture. Shifting cultivation, through the method of slash and burn, is often described as as the norm. But there is ample evidence, from many areas of the continent, that the beginnings of path towards a more intensive agriculture were taken already in the precolonial period. Through terracing, irrigation and manuring, intensive cultivation systems were developed, systems that were also advanced in their soil and water conservation techniques. Such farming systems have been able to sustain high population densities and formed part of important exchange networks. In present discussions about land degradation these precolonial systems are examples of a locally developed knowledge, that can inspire present small-holding agriculture. At Bokoni in Mpumalanga province in South Africa there is evidence that such an agrarian system functioned until the first half of the 19th century. Fields were terraced to prevent soil erosion, and the arrangement of stone walls indicates that the keeping of livestock was closely integrated with the arable farming. Most probably the fields were manured with cattle dung. The archaeological evidence of settlements, stone walls and terraced fields at these sites today comprise the most detailed built foot print of pre-colonial society in southern Africa. The archaeological evidence at Bokoni is therefore an important evidence of locally developed agricultural knowledge. The agricultural knowledge system connected to African farming, was to a large extent lost in South Africa due to the apartheid system. By bringing together South African scholars historians and archaeologists engaged in the recent Five Hundred Year Initiative and Swedish historical and physical geographers, with experience from researching similar ?islands? of intensive agriculture in eastern Africa, this project aims at a concerted interdisciplinary effort to 1) Establish the character of the agricultural system of Bokoni in the early 19th century. 2) Explore the political and economic context leading up to this intensification. 3) Contribute to the wider debate on the factors behind agricultural intensification and investments in soil and water conservation in Africa´s past and present agricultural landscapes.

Last updated on 2017-31-03 at 12:57