The hominid-rich site at Makapan Valley suggests that early hominids such as the Australopithecus africanus was living in this area of Africa some 2.8 million years ago, indicating the Waterberg area and surrounds has a long history of human habitation.
Archaeological evidence of modern day humans stretches as far back as the Middle Stone Age but also includes a number of Iron Age sites scattered throughout the Waterberg.
One of the caves at Makapan Valley
The Waterberg, however, has never been heavily populated and it seems the area was used for hunting forays by a number of different groups of people rather than for permanent residence.
A San Bushmen and Waterberg scene
San rock art is quite abundant in the Waterberg. The San Bushmen are possibly the oldest living group of people in the world and they would have been the first modern humans to live in the Waterberg. Although the San date back at least 50,000 years, most of the art in the Waterberg are thought to be less than a thousand years old, with many dated to 400 AD.
Most of the artwork depicts wildlife, hunting scenes or scenes of religious importance. It is now believed that the wall of a cave was the imagined division between the real world and the world of spirits. Using certain botanical drugs the shaman of the San could enter the spirit world and upon their return they would paint on the cave walls all that they had learnt.
San rock art in the Waterberg depicting people
San rock art in the Waterberg depicting wildlife
In the Waterberg there are examples of tsessebe, elephant, leopard, eland, kudu and rhino, there are also many hunting scenes, maybe suggesting the Waterberg was a preferred hunting area of the San where they could hunt large animals for meat, skins, bones, ligaments and fat – all the resources they needed for their survival.
The Waterberg is also rich in farmer rock art of the later agro-pastoralists who used white pigments applied by hand in contrast to the multi-coloured brushwork of the San.
A mix of San rock art and later agro-pastoralists rock art
The first farmers seem to appear on the Waterberg Plateau in the 11th Century. Iron Age pottery of the Eiland style has been dated from the 11th to 16th Century and has been found only in open parts of river systems that would have been associated with crop growing. Pottery shards, grinding stones and other artefacts as well as walled settlements give evidence of human activity from the 11th Century onwards throughout the Waterberg.
A pottery shard
During the Late Iron Age (c. AD1700) Nguni settlers created hilltop settlements such as Malora Hill near the Palala River. Then in the 18th Century the Pedi moved into the area, although it seems they used the area more for a refuge to flee to, rather than for permanent settlements.
It was only in the early 20th Century that people of European origin started to settle the area. The mountainous region was difficult to penetrate and settle and the nutrient poor, sandy and rocky soils would have made any cultivation of crops incredibly difficult, which is why no permanent settlements had been previously established. The Waterberg was a difficult place to live, made all the more difficult with malaria and tsetse flies a constant threat.
While some farming was established along the river valleys and succeeded for a while, and the area was important for tobacco growing, farming has decreased over the last few decades. Poor soils, lack of water or high costs for irrigation has meant many crop farms were not viable and over time they have changed over to game farms and tourism establishments.
Remains of a walled settlement in the Waterberg
While the Waterberg Plateau has always remained sparsely populated, recent human history becomes detailed and complex off the Eastern Escarpment of the Waterberg from the 1840s. This area was safer than the wild Waterberg to the west to settle. Local chiefdoms had been set up over the area and then the Boers arrived as part of the long trek from Cape Town and showed interest in settling in the area.
Some of the interest came from the increased demand in ivory and the efforts people went to monopolise this trade which characterised this period with shifting authority, acquisition, competition and control of resources and trade. This gave rise to conflict between many groups within the area. One of the most famous clashes is that of Makapan’s Cave, where Chief Mokopane was attacked and was lay siege to by the Boers and the General Piet Potgieter. The full story of events can be heard from a guided trip at Makapan Valley.
Part of the walkways at Makapan Valley
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The Waterberg is an escarpment of massive sandstone buttresses and outcrops, incorporating many rivers, streams and wetlands, stretching for 150 km in a long arc from Thabazimbi in the West, past Modimolle to Mokopane in the east.
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