The Story of the Bokoni People

The Bokoni Story Unearthed

The Mpumalanga Escarpment, stretching from Ohrigstad in the north, via Lydenburg and Machadodorp, to Carolina in the south, saw massive changes in precolonial times.

A vast expanse of man-made stone walling, which connects over 10 000 square kilometres of land into a complex web of circular homesteads, towns, terraced fields and linking roads, stretching for 150 kilometers in an almost continuous belt.

Oral traditions in the early twentieth century named the area ‘Bokoni’- the country of the Koni peoples.

These stone-walled archaeological sites, with their spectacular stone circles, terraces and pathways have inspired many exotic and fantastic tales of alien occupation, ancient temples and celestial observatories; romantic tales that take hold of the imagination easily because of disseminated knowledge about the people who built the sites.

The Bokoni formed an integral Part within a Southern African socioeconomic framework during the Late Iron Age (LIA: 1500-1820), where the importance of iron and steel to the farming enterprise showed how niche specialisations such as metalworking, would have been determined broadly by the availability of ore and wood to fuel the fires in the smelters. This differential access to resources gave rise to a vibrant trade in a wide range of local resources, such as salt, tin, iron, grain, livestock and pigment, across precolonial Southern Africa.

The Bokoni straddled trade routes, that connected the mineral-rich northern reaches of South Africa to more southerly areas.

International trade networks, like the Arab-Swahili network, followed by the Portuguese and ever-increasing competition from other European markets, tapped into these regional trade networks. The control of trade and resources would have added to the political dynamics of the interior as local tribal leaders jostled for power over resources.  Connected to systems of long distance trade which spanned the interior, linking the east coast to the vast and ancient Indian Ocean trading systems, this was not an isolated society or world, it was part of a much bigger regional system. It was during the 16th century, a period of increasing international interest in ivory and metals, that Bokoni was first settled. These settlers altered and changed the landscape to increase agricultural yield, establishing themselves on the high-altitude grasslands for the better part of 300 years.

Their intensive farming system was unique in South Africa and was the largest in southern and eastern Africa.

It included massive investment in stone terracing and cattle kraals, allowing cultivation of the rich volcanic soils, on the hillsides of the escarpment. This area housed a substantial population, organised into a vast amount of labour, for infrastructural development, and displayed extraordinary levels of agricultural innovation and productivity. Houses and livestock were secured within high circular walls, with each household’s farmland demarcated by stone markers, and terrace walls were set out, reinforced over time. Livestock were kept away from the grain crops by an elaborate track-way that funnelled them from the centre of the settlement to grazing lands and nearby water.

Oral traditions allow reconstruction of the epic political and economic struggles that ultimately brought about the downfall and abandonment of the Bokoni settlements. The ‘mfecane’ (meaning the crushing), describes a historical phenomenon, that took place in the interior of Southern Africa, from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries, and was the cause of this destabilisation of the settlements and peoples of the interior.
By the 1830’s the Bokoni peoples had been incorporated into other chiefdoms or into the missions, which had already established themselves in this area.
The middle of the 19th century stands out as the period of fortified capitals. Using the expertise of the displaced Koni, chiefs set up their stone walled capitals on the summits of hills. From these lofty and protected vantage points they were able to resist the onslaught from African and European assailants. Rock Art in Thaba Chweu and the Lydenburg area is clear evidence of how the farmers of the Late Iron Age organised their living space and society.

The farm Boomplaats near Lydenburg has some of the most significant collections of LIA rock art in South Africa.
A cluster of boulders on Boomplaats are marked with engravings which depict Bokoni settlement patterns. Engravings of stone-walled circles represents the central cattle enclosures which are often surrounded by huts. Rock Art forms a very special part of South Africa’s diverse and rich agricultural heritage and is also protected by the National Heritage Resources Act (25 of 1999).

The book “Forgotten World” by Peter Delius, offers insight into stone-walled archaeological sites and an understanding of the economies of early farming societies. What makes these sites special, is that they are located on our doorstep! Education about the sites and their significance, forms part of the Lydenburg Museum’s efforts in creating awareness of these sites for scholars, the local community and tourists.
The Lydenburg Museum is situated in the ‘Klingbiel Nature Reserve’ just before the first traffic circle as one re-enters town (at the water tower). The Museum plays an active role in research projects and the protection of heritage sites. They have a copy of the ‘Lydenburg Heads’ on display and the curator, Mr ‘JP’ Cilliers (cell 082 779 3748), would willingly share his considerable knowledge with any interested party.

The ‘iron age circles’ visible from the top of the escarpment on Paardeplaats, are all from the Bokoni period.

Some of the many circles visible from the ‘top’