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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: October 2019

6 - Colonising Society in Eastern and Southern Africa


THIS CHAPTER CONSIDERS THE REGIONS EAST AND SOUTH OF THE equatorial forest during the thousand years between the end of the early iron age and the outside world's first extensive penetration in the eighteenth century. The central themes were the same as in western Africa: colonisation of land, control over nature, expansion of populations, and consolidation of societies. But the circumstances were different. Because neither Muslims nor Europeans commonly penetrated beyond the coast, few written sources for this region exist to compare with Islamic and early European accounts of West Africa, while oral traditions seldom extend back reliably beyond three centuries. Much therefore remains uncertain, although archaeological and linguistic research indicates the wealth of knowledge awaiting recovery. Moreover, whereas West Africa's lateral climatic belts tended to separate pastoralists from cultivators, the two were interspersed in eastern and southern Africa, where faulting and volcanic action had left dramatic local variations of height, rainfall, and environment. The grasslands in which humanity had evolved now supported cattle as the chief form of human wealth. Settlements were dispersed and often mobile, with few urban centres to rival Jenne or Ife. Interaction between pastoralists and cultivators created many of the region's first states, although others grew up in the few areas with extensive trade. Pastoral values shaped social organisation, culture, and ideology. Not only people but their herds were engaged in a long and painful colonisation of the land.


By about ad 400, early iron age cultivators speaking Bantu languages occupied much of eastern and southern Africa, although sparsely and unevenly. Archaeological evidence shows that they usually preferred well-watered areas – forest margins, valleys, riversides, lakeshores, and coastal plains – suggesting that they relied chiefly on yams, sorghum, fishing, hunting, and small livestock rather than millet or many cattle. In East Africa their remains have been found especially around Lake Victoria (where forest clearance was already well advanced), on the foothills of high mountains like Mount Kenya, and close to the coast, but not in the grasslands of western and northern Uganda, the Rift Valley, or western Tanzania, which were either uninhabited or occupied by earlier populations.