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Inherited expectations on what it means for a society to be ‘central’, ‘complex’, and ‘advanced’, have had a significant impact on our understanding of the southern African Iron Age (African farming communities of c. last 2000 years). Elsewhere, centralisation, urban settlements, coercive political organisation, social and economic stratification, elite burials and residences, and monumental architecture are all used as markers of social complexity. The historical emphasis on these criteria as the climax of social development has diverted attention away from those societies seen as ‘marginal’ to central places of complexity.

Archaeologist doing paperwork at the Letaba Archaeology Project, Photo by Michelle van Aswegen

©Michelle van Aswegen

Animal Jaw, Photo by Michelle van Aswegen

©Michelle van Aswegen

However, societies and those that do not manifest the typical attributes of social complexity, are increasingly being re-positioned as dynamic and multi-faceted. Classic examples in southern Africa include the kingdoms of Mapungubwe, Mapela, Great Zimbabwe and Khami. In contrast, archaeologists have largely ignored first millennium AD communities who lived along the Letaba River in north-eastern South Africa, as they were considered peripheral in the large-scale historical narrative of the region.  


Following a 2021 pilot study in the Kruger National Park, it was decided to revisit the Letaba River’s archaeological record. Imported glass trade beads and pottery from the Near East as well as the earliest evidence for local cotton spinning – an adopted technology from the Swahili coast – were evident at some of these sites. There is also evidence of intensive big game hunting, copper and iron smelting and smithing, and a rapid population increase from the eight-century onward. Clearly then, this is an area and period with evidence of complex changes in the face of developing long-distance trade.

Illustration of excavated potsherds by Daniël du Plessis

©Daniël du Plessis

Illustration of archaeologists discussing the excavation by Daniël du Plessis

©Daniël du Plessis

The Letaba Archaeology Project explores the complex intersection of local experience and extra-local stimuli. This will proceed through diachronic analysis of consumption patterns, subsistence strategies, craft production, and socio-political organisation along the Letaba River to identify local transformations and changes during the first millennium AD. Elsewhere in southern Africa, the onset of international trade is widely seen as a direct impulse for the development of social complexity. However, LAP focuses on the local reactions by Letaba communities as an example of the myriad alternative ways a society can react to transformative impulses like trade.

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