From Nomads to Traders

Khoisan man walking through high grass.
Khoisan rock painting of antelopes.
Khoisan men making fire.
Africans being forced to go under deck on a slave ship.
Painting likely depicting Xhosa people, of the larger family of Bantu people, carrying European trade goods.

Fossil remains recovered in South Africa suggest that the Homo species lived here as far back as a few million years ago. From around this time until only a few thousand years ago, people in southern Africa sustained themselves as hunter-gatherers, hardly affecting nature or the environment more than animals did.

No major technical advancements were made before the birth of agriculture interrupted the nomadic way of life in southern Africa around the first millennium CE. Because of agriculture, lifestyles became more sedentary and for the first time people could domesticate and rear animals on a large scale.

Bantu people

Around the same time as farming became popular in southern Africa, large numbers of Bantu people from central Africa showed up. The Bantu peoples came to have a dominant position, and some older communities in southern Africa were by and large absorbed by the Bantu. Still, not all old communities interacted much with the Bantu people, with some old tribes or peoples instead likely being crowded out by their showing up. Among these presumably displaced people are a number of Khoisan tribes, who, until at least the 20th century, maintained their traditional nomadic way of life in the northwest of South Africa.

Trading with Europeans

The next large wave of immigrants after the Bantu, came from Europe. The arrival of Europeans, a few hundred years ago, marked the start of the intercontinental slave trade, during which Asians were taken to Africa and Africans were taken to the Americas. Slavery and slave trade, which existed in Africa before white people arrived, in other words, was now stimulated by modern Europeans trading goods being exchanged for slaves. Black slave owning chiefs desiring the European goods, consequently, began capturing more members of other tribes than they themselves really needed, and sold the surplus captives to white slave traders who usually waited near the coast.

Apart from trading in human beings, Africans also traded such things as ivory and hides for European goods. In return, they received metal utensils, textiles and other practical items, a fact that made the European trade so lucrative that African tribes sometimes physically fought over who were to have trading rights with the white man.