Regional dynamics and local dialectics in Iron Age Botswana : case studies from the hinterland in the Bosutswe Region
Since the 1980's, few have included sub-Saharan African in worldwide comparative discussion of complex societies. This exclusion is at the expense of challenging embedded notions of the development of complexity. The trading polity Bosutswe (700-1700 AD) at the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and its surrounding region provide a perfect example of why this is important. In the Bosutswe region, complexity was not be driven by external factors, elites, or the core, but arose from local actors and out of localized contexts. During its occupation, Bosutswe became increasingly involved with long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean exchange network, linking trade from the African coast to the interior. At Bosutswe, glass beads associated with long-distance trade and local ostrich eggshell beads attest to a strong local economy supported by cattle herding, subsistence farming, and iron and bronze manufacture. This trade with Bosutswe peaked from 1200-1450 AD, when social stratification at Bosutswe became spatially and materially evident. This dissertation focuses on Bosutswe's trajectory through the point of view of two nearby settlements, Khubu la Dintša (1220-1420 AD) and Mmadipudi Hill (~550-1200 AD), to reconstruct the local economy and landscape. Expanding the concept of the polity to one situated in a landscape of human and environmental interchange provides a key comparative insight to other studies of complex societies and variable trajectories of societal development. The Bosutswe landscape and by extension Iron Age southern Africa can be conceptualized as a patchwork of landmark hilltop polity centers on a scrub desert landscape of agropastoral activity surrounded by smaller hilltop and ground sites. The local dynamic may have involved strategies by Bosutswe to mitigate environmental characteristics of low rainfall, opportunistic hunting and herding opportunities for the surrounding communities, and alliances between these communities for security in a politically unstable era. Everyday life would have involved issues about land use, as over time herders and farmers exhausted pastures, soil fertility, and firewood. Treating these early polities as landscapes of human, animal, and environmental relationships will help revise the way early complex societies are conceptualized: not as individual sites, but as local landscapes of power.