Tales of clicks and cattle – a brief (pre-)history of southern Africa as seen from southern Angola and the Okavango River Basin
CLUL Seminars
Seminários CLUL

The wider region of southern Angola is characterized by a high ecological diversity, inhabited by ethnic groups with considerable variation in lifestyle and subsistence patterns. While the southwest is dominated by the Namibe desert offering few natural resources, the southeast is crossed by big rivers supporting lush vegetation and wildlife. 

In this talk, I will trace the pre-history of southern Africa as mirrored by the linguistic heritage of the southern Angolan micro-area. The oldest linguistic layer is constituted by the Kx’a speaking !Xun who survive in small pockets among agro-pastoral Bantu-speakers and to this day, practice a foraging lifestyle. Around 2,000 BP, a pastoral migration from eastern Africa linked to languages of the Khoe-Kwadi family left its imprint. While the Kwadi herders of the south-western Namibe probably retained their original subsistence profile, the linguistically related Khwe from south-eastern Angola entered the tsetse-infested wetlands where livestock-keeping became impossible and subsequently reverted to foraging. Shortly after the arrival of the Khoe-Kwadi, Bantu-speakers from western Central Africa reached Angola from the north, introducing iron working and crop farming. At present, southern Angolan Bantu speakers can be divided into the Herero and Kuvale-speaking cattle nomads of the south-western Namibe, the agro-pastoral Kwanyama who inhabit the more fertile regions to their immediate east, as well as the riverine Kavango (Mbukushu, Kwangali, Gciriku) who dwell along the rivers in the southeast, interspersed with Nyemba (“Ganguela”) speaking migrants from the north. 

With several big rivers acting as a gateway, southern Angola and adjacent areas, previously thought to be peripheral to the major contact zone known as the Kalahari Basin, has now been shown to be the centerstage of early interactions between incoming and resident populations. Using a multidisciplinary approach combining data from linguistics, genetics and cultural anthropology, I trace the geographical spread of all major migratory waves into southern Angola and show how patterns of population and language contact, over time, led to novel combinations of language, mode of subsistence and genetic patrimony.