The Late Stone Age to Early Iron Age in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe: Using Archaeology, Soils, Sediments, and Stable Isotopes to Trace Past Peoples and Environments
AuthorWriston, Teresa A.
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This study investigated how and why food-producing subsistence was added to traditional foraging economy in northwestern Zimbabwe (south-central Africa) by characterizing the archaeological and environmental record before, during, and after its first appearance. This reconstruction is supported by data from recent archaeological excavations at Impala and Ngabaa Rockshelters, salvage excavation of the Kapula Vlei Early Farming Community site, geomorphological reconnaissance at numerous localities, as well as laboratory categorization and analyses of collected materials. Hunter-gatherer use of the two rockshelters increased during the mid-to-late Holocene, with the larger Impala Rockshelter used as an aggregation sites where trade items were manufactured, such as microlithic crescents (segments) and ostrich eggshell beads, suggestive of relatively high populations and the growing importance of social networks to cope with the locally unpredictable environment indicated by proxy environmental data. Strontium, carbon, and oxygen isotopes extracted from ostrich eggshell artifacts show that some were imported while others were of local origin. Distinctive animal spoor (footprint) engravings on the sandstone walls of the rockshelters were also created during this aggregation period. However, after ca. 3,000 cal yrs BP, a drought that gripped the region for several hundred years resulted in (1) erosional scouring of many of the surrounding landscape's basins, (2) wildfires opening up woodlands, (3) localized aeolian reactivation of ancient Kalahari sand dunes, and (4) human abandonment of the large rockshelters until ca. 2,400 cal yrs BP, when smaller groups again began using the area, albeit less frequently. Hunter-gatherer group sizes never again reached their previously large numbers, and after ca. 1,800 cal yrs BP, the smaller Ngabaa Rockshelter was favored. However, as early as ca. 1,900 cal yrs BP, while the environment was recovering from the long drought interval, the first farmers began establishing settled villages in the most arable valley floors in the study area, even as small family or task groups of hunter-gatherers continued to use small rockshelters in the uplands. This pattern of landscape use continued until ca. 800 cal yrs BP, when the growing farming populations began to expand into less desirable, but more defensible, valleys, and the material culture of the two groups intermingled, suggesting recurrent contact and cooperation. Hunting-gathering, plant cultivation, and pastoralism provided a broad resource base that benefited cooperating neighbors. The persistence of hunting-gathering was necessary to cope with a volatile climatic regime; however, even mobile, generalized foragers had to largely abandon the region during sustained droughts. Given that progressively volatile climatic conditions and an increase in drought frequency is expected in southern Africa due to global warming, gaining a better understanding of the environmental and cultural adaptations to previous environmentally stressful conditions is of increasing importance. This study is the first to do so in northwestern Zimbabwe.