Seeking shelter: Later Stone Age hunters, gatherers and fishers of Olieboomspoort in the western Waterberg, south of the Limpopo

Van der Ryst, Maria Magdalena
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The Olieboomspoort (OBP) shelter is central to this reconstruction of the Later Stone Age (LSA) history in the lowlands of the Limpopo in the Waterberg. The archaeological excavations were undertaken to answer questions that arose during previous research conducted on the plateau. OBP was clearly an important place in the landscape over time. Preliminary excavations established a sequence of occupations that began with the apparent intermittent use of the shelter by Early Stone Age people who left some of their large cutting tools on what is now bedrock. Subsequently, during the many thousands of years that humans frequented OBP during the Middle Stone Age (MSA), they brought in enormous quantities of lithics. OBP is cited for the remarkably large assemblages of ochre recovered from the MSA contexts (Mason 1962, 1988; Volman 1984; Watts 1998, 2002; Mitchell 2002; Wadley 2005a), but my recent research demonstrates a similar focus on the collection of haematite and ochre during the more recent periods. Such iron oxides feature prominently during ritual activities and in symbolic behaviour of modern hunter-gatherers and it is likely that they also did so in the past. The Holocene occupational sequence is extensive, but my excavations and analyses focussed on the last 2000 years of complex LSA history. Apart from the remarkably large lithic assemblage and many thousands of ostrich eggshell beads and blanks produced at OBP, favourable preservation conditions resulted in the recovery of a wide range of tool types made from organic materials, as well as a representative assemblage of macroscopic plant taxa. The data are used to demonstrate how the formal spaces were differentially structured over time by multi-band clusters and small hearth groups to meet their particular social and economic requirements. The differential use of space through time, and the spatial distributions of the different classes of material remains and waste, are explored by using a model of unconstrained cluster analysis (UCA) (Whallon 1984). As the OBP deposits are palimpsests of repeated visits, the UCA, which defines broad boundaries within distinct clustering, detailed general trends in behaviour and site use, and highlighted how the use of shelter space changed when only nuclear groups frequented OBP during the more recent period. Data from the last 2000 years of occupation at OBP chronicle some of the responses of the hunter-gatherers to rapid change in the area as a result of advancing social, economic and political frontiers. The two main pulses of intensification at approximately 2000 BP and again at 1500 BP correspond to the movement of herders and African farmers into the lowlands of the Waterberg. OBP remained a central venue for the aggregation of multi-band groups for more than a thousand years before and during the initial contact period. During these alliance visits, diverse socio-economic activities resulted in the deposition of a rich lithic and non-lithic assemblage. The lithic assemblage is characteristic of classic Wilton. Cryptocrystalline silicas and quartz crystals were the preferred materials used to produce a comprehensive range of formal microliths, and felsites featured prominently in the production of larger tool types. Demographic changes following on contact are underscored by marked changes in site use. Over the last few hundred years the incremental decrease in the production of all classes of subsistence goods reflects social disintegration. In as much as there are evidently continuities in the material culture, the markedly lower frequencies of the lithics and a sharp decrease in the production of decorative items such as ostrich eggshell beads make it likely that only nuclear groups continued to frequent the shelter. Changes in site use, intrusive economic elements, and the production of the different rock arts suggest some fundamental transformations in the economic and ideational landscape. On the Waterberg Plateau similar post-contact changes were evident in the archaeological assemblages. The Waterberg Mountain Bushveld of the plateau cannot support such a large and varied animal biomass as the Limpopo Sweet Bushveld (Estes 1991; Low & Rebelo 1998; Driver et al. 2005; Skinner & Chimimba 2005), and the intensive occupation of this region from approximately 800 years ago parallelled the movement of farming communities onto the plateau. The archaeological data as well as historic documents emphasise that huntergatherers participated in complex interaction networks. The expansion of indigenous farmer settlements ultimately enforced the displacement of many of the hunter-gatherers, whereas others were incorporated into farmer polities. Contemporary lithic assemblages on the Waterberg Plateau are characteristic of the post-classic Wilton stone tool technology, and felsite and quartz crystals were the preferred raw materials. Whereas the composition of the archaeological assemblages of the lowlands and plateau corresponds broadly, the differential use of raw materials, a broader range of subsistence tools and decorative items, and much higher frequencies of all tool types at OBP demonstrate the central position of this locality within the hunter-gatherer landscape. The environment not only provided sustenance, but OBP became a social space with real meaning linked to the identities of the people who frequented the locality over thousands of years. The regional differentiation found within the Waterberg is parallelled by the sequences in the Soutpansberg (Van Doornum 2005) where similar differential use of a particular environment underscores the diversity and complexity evident in hunter-gatherer lifestyles.At OBP a representative assemblage of African farmer ceramics and a markedly larger collection of Bambata ceramics also contrast with sites on the plateau where mostly Eiland farmer pottery and a few sherds of Bambata were present. The ceramic sequence contains a particularly fine collection of the enigmatic Bambata, the stylistic origins of which are addressed in the discussion. The identities of the users and makers of the distinctive densely decorated and thin-walled early ceramics collectively known as Bambata have not yet been resolved. Whereas the paintings certainly indicate the presence of herders on the landscape, it is not clear whether they or the African farmers introduced the Bambata to the huntergatherers who were indisputably using most of the ceramics, as suggested by their continued presence and production of lithic and non-lithic assemblages at OBP. There is also a full complement of the local Early to Late African farmer pottery traditions of Happy Rest, Eiland, Broadhurst, and Icon/Moloko. The San, herder and indigenous farmer paintings, which are representative of the regional sequences, illustrate the continuing central role of OBP. Rock art is widely recognized to reflect religious beliefs and social concerns. The San rock art also served as a medium through which power relations were negotiated between first peoples and newcomers. The region is a renowned repository of rock art. The different arts and their contents complement the findings based on the excavations and the vast body of southern African ethnography. The data are applied to explore how OBP served as an arena where people with different world views and customs performed their ritual and social practices. Historical documents on the Waterberg confirm the archaeological data that suggest a gradual disintegration of hunter-gatherer organisation, and their ultimate displacement to the fringes of African farmer and colonist polities. Small dispersed groups of hunter-gatherers continued to wander through the lowlands of the Limpopo or withdrew to areas where they felt safe from oppression. Some moved across the border to Botswana and into the Kalahari. The remainder were gradually incorporated into farmer societies through intermarriage or as subordinates, living either at farmer villages or in their own small settlements. Today very few traces of the Waterberg hunters, gatherers and fishers remain apart from some corrupted names of places where they once lived.
hunters, Later Stone Age, gatherers, fishers, Olieboomspoort, western Waterberg