Settlement History of Bukalanga

Updated: September 27, 2013

by Abel A. Mabuse, Head of Archaeological Research Laboratory at Botswana National Museum, who writes in his personal capacity as an Archaeologist with Bukalanga roots. This history was originally printed in the Sunday Standard in March 2013, Part I and Part II.

It should be noted that my preference to stick to the original Ikalanga names of people, places and rivers throughout this paper is deliberate. Sticking to the original Ikalanga names helps promote a better understanding of Bukalanga’s rich cultural heritage. To succeed in this necessary endeavour, I have utilised information on archaeological sites found in Bukalanga. This is readily available to the public at the Botswana National Museum’s Archaeology laboratory. Furthermore, I have turned to the vast archaeological literature published on the prehistory of the area to help link it with Bakalanga people. The interpretation deduced from the archaeological data has been applied to oral traditions of Bakalanga. This is important as archaeological information has the advantage of providing accurate and therefore reliable dates for important historical events. These are easily diluted and distorted as oral traditions are passed from one generation to another. This method has helped establish a comprehensive chronological framework of the prehistory of Bakalanga people. This approach is anticipated to vanquish a fallacy that Bakalanga people arrived late in present day Botswana.

This approach will expectantly help us appreciate the fact that the origin of the culture of Bakalanga people is archaeologically traceable to around AD 1000. In fact, this unique culture developed in the very same area that Bakalanga people have lived since the last 1013 years or so of their existence in Southern Africa. This illustrative settlement record has considerable amounts of sociopolitical and economic development among Bakalanga which saw their land attracting attention of the foreign world in centuries that followed.

Due to this prolonged existence in one area, it is perhaps necessary for one to divide this paper into three idiosyncratic topics. The first one deals with the origins of Bakalanga and their involvement in the development of prehistoric civilization in Southern Africa. The second part traces Bakalanga migration patterns and their causes in the broader area known as Bukalanga in Botswana. The last part covers an important question of the true identity of the Bakalanga, why they are often confused with the Ndebele and the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

Early Development of Bakalanga Settlements

A journey into prehistoric times in Bukalanga shows that the original Bakalanga people descended from Leopards Kopje farmers (Huffman 2008). These people occupied areas covering parts of north eastern Botswana, western and southern Zimbabwe, adjacent parts of South Africa and Mozambique by around AD 1000. (Emmanuel 2012). In fact, Huffman (1974) detailed study of the Leopards Kopje Tradition concludes that these Leopards Kopje farmers spoke Proto Ikalanga language in this vast area. These ancestral Bakalanga people reared cattle and goats and grew crops such as millet, melons and beans. They made clay pots and smelted iron into farming implements and household utensils. Van Waarden (1998) demonstrates that they traded in ivory, furs and feathers with the Indian Ocean coast for goods such as glass beads, cotton clothes and other ornaments that originated as far as Asia.

The majority of these prehistoric Bakalanga villages have been discovered in Botswana in areas close to major rivers such as Motloutse, Shashe, Tati and Tutume and around the Makgadikgadi Pans. Closer inspection of these villages shows that they were usually built on terraced hilltops with stone walls built around them. These walls were built as an outward expression of prestige and power in a similar fashion that rich and well to do people prefer to build walls commonly known as stop nonsense around their homes today in Bukalanga. The most outstanding ruins of these ancestral Bakalanga people are found at Nyangabwe, Selolwe hills and Sekukwe Kop in and around Francistown respectively, Phanga Hills near Sebina and at Letsibogo Dam and Ridinpitwe Hills to the south west of Tobane.

In the Makgadikgadi region, Kaitshe near Mosu, Tlapana near Mmeya, Thitaba near Tshwagong and the stone walled ruin at Lekhubu are some examples of ancestral Bakalanga ruins. A newly reported site known as Dongogulu at Madandume lands near Tutume presents one of the largest ancestral Bakalanga villages I have ever visited in Botswana. These early sites, together with many later period ruins are instrumental in our understanding of the settlement history of the original Bakalanga populations and subsequent groups that acculturised into present day Bakalanga.

The most characteristic features of these sites are dry stone walls built without the use of mortar around dwelling areas. Within these stone walls, round houses were built using red hardened clay, wooden poles and thatch (van Waarden 1991). The settlement organisation of the homesteads followed a Central Cattle Kraal pattern in which houses formed a circle around a centralised cattle kraal. The majority of these prehistoric cattle kraals are identified by Cenchrus ciliaris grass, mosekangwetsi which grows in them. The villages usually had large granaries, archaeologically shown by stone platforms on which clay, pole and thatch granaries were built for storage of food supplies. By the year AD 1000 some of these people had become quite rich in cattle and had more political control in their areas (Tlou and Campbell 2000).

By around AD 1000 these people lived in small chiefdoms that had control of trade in the various areas where they lived. The early Bakalanga people living in the Shashe Limpopo basin monopolised trade due to their access to the Indian Ocean coast. By around AD 1220 a new and more powerful kingdom developed around Mapungubwe Hill, some 5 kilometres to the east of Botswana’s border with South Africa. Some of the early Bakalanga people living in the lower Shashe – Limpopo valley probably moved towards or became part of this newly formed kingdom. This development led to the demise of the Shashe – Limpopo Bakalanga chiefdoms. In a series of articles titled ‘The Evolution and Apex of Bakalanga State of Butua’ published in Mmegi newspaper in 2012, I reasoned that the movement of Leopards Kopje people (who are ancestral Bakalanga) towards Mapungubwe facilitated the development of civilization in Southern in many ways.

Mapungubwe’s usurp of trade control in the hinterlands of the Shashe-Limpopo Rivers owes much to trade routes and networks that were established by the ancestral Bakalanga that lived for over 200 years in the area. Long before the establishment of Mapungubwe, the ancestral Bakalanga of the Shashe-Limpopo region were connected with their counterparts living in the Makgadikgadi areas through trading networks and routes. Mapungubwe’s flourish benefited from its advantageous position as it was now easy to bring gold from Vumba schist near Francistown. Copper from Thakadu Mine near Matsitama; iron from the Tswapong Hills, ivory, furs and salt from the Makgadikgadi Pans were all brought to this more centralised centre for easy trade with the eastern coast. This allowed development of centralised political organisation in Mapungubwe. Leading archaeologists on state formation in Southern Africa suggest that Mapungubwe was a stratified society in which the ruler lived on top of Mapungubwe Hill. About 5000 elites surrounded his ruling class while a further 4000 commoners occupied the valley to form a large and obviously powerful capital. This class stratification heralded the beginning of civilization in Southern Africa.

Mapungubwe flourished quickly, allowing the development of profitable trade by the ruling families. This obviously created inequality in political power and wealth between the ruling class and commoners in Mapungubwe ( Van Waarden 2009) Within 10 years, Mapungubwe had gained control over an area measuring over 30 000 km². Unfortunately, Mapungubwe’s supremacy was shortened by loss of trade control to a competing centre on which the monumental town of Great Zimbabwe was finally established. Studies of climatic data from the area suggest that a disastrous drought struck Mapungubwe and forced the ordinary population to scatter in pursuit of wetter areas to grow crops and graze their livestock (Huffman 1996a). Archaeological evidence shows that the Shashe -Limpopo region was uninhabited between A.D 1300 and 1420 due to a prolonged drought in the area. Van Waarden (1998) argues that the presence of sites dating to this period in the Soutpansberg area suggests that the majority of the population moved there. Although it is not clear as to what happened to the ruling class of the kingdom, we know from detailed archaeological research that Mapungubwe had become a ghost town by AD 1290. Its golden era lasted no more than 50 years culminating in the rise of Great Zimbabwe.

Although the question of who built Great Zimbabwe has been a speculation of writers, travellers, kings and commoners for a considerable amount of time, we now all know that it was done by the indigenous populations living in the areas occupied by ancestral Bakalanga people. Van Waarden (1998) shows that as Mapungubwe perished in A.D 1290, the Zimbabwe plateau and parts of north eastern Botswana continued to receive better rains that helped sustain the ancestral Bakalanga populations. The continuous habitation of this area by ancestral Bakalanga people provides an answer to the development of prestigious stone walling techniques that became fashionable in the entire region in the next 500 years that followed. Dr Catrien Van Waarden’s comprehensive study of prehistoric ruins in Bukalanga areas has yielded commendable information that suggests that Bakalanga were involved in the development of Great Zimbabwe. The results of her studies show that Domboshaba type stone walls found in northeastern Botswana are a local architect began within the Tati and Shashe River basins. While a portion of the ancestral Bakalanga people living in the lower Shashe River basin were usurped by the rise of Mapungubwe Kingdom, the remaining populations living in the interiors continued to develop without blanket influence of this kingdom.

The ancestral Bakalanga living in the Tati River basin produced large quantities of gold for trade with Mapungubwe. They also continued to increase their herds of cattle, grew crops in the same region and lived in reasonably sized settlements. This political independence allowed some controlled amount of trade in gold with the east and fostered some degree of specialization in stone building skills, pottery production and mining of gold. Radiocarbon dates from ruins found at Tholo Hill, Mupane and Mupanipani shows that typical Zimbabwe stone walling tradition began in the Tati River Basin among the ancestors of the Bakalanga. This tradition became fashionable over time and was improved until reaching its apex at Great Zimbabwe, which had become a powerful capital controlling trade with the east coast. Sacred leadership practiced in the site allowed building of the large prestigious walls. Great Zimbabwe then became a large powerful state from around AD 1250 and lasted 200 years. During this period, many satellite sites with stone walling tradition similar to the style expressed at Great Zimbabwe were built in Bukalanga. Such ruins are found at Domboshaba near Vugwi village, Vukwi near Mambo and Schermer’s Ruin near Tjizwina.

Great Zimbabwe collapsed in AD 1450 as two new competing states were formed. Munumutapa State developed around the Zambezi valley while another one known as Butua developed southwest of Great Zimbabwe. The capital of the newly formed state of Butua was built at Kame (which was later on corrupted to Khami), to the west of Great Zimbabwe. In many ways, the state of Butua was a continuation of Great Zimbabwe state. The whole state was ruled by the Sipundule (Chibundule) kings known as Mambo. The citizens of Butua began to be known as the Bakalanga. In fact there is little doubt that the early people of Butua are the ancestors of the Bakalanga, particularly the Balilima, and that they arose from the Mambo people (the early Bakalanga people who lived in the Zimbabwe plateau and north eastern Botswana at around AD 1300). No other living people in the area today have roots that stretch right back almost 1000 years (Tlou and Campbell 2000: 100).

Bakalanga migration patterns

The question of the diversity of Bakalanga people living in Botswana today can best be defined by appreciating some critical events leading to the rise and prosperity of the Bakalanga state of Butua. The settlement history of Bukalanga [above] ended with the collapse of Great Zimbabwe state and the emergence of this new state predominantly made up of Bakalanga.

The events that are described in this section result from oral tradition of Balilima and Banyayi (the descendants of populations that lived in Butua State for a longer period), archaeological information gained from excavations of ruins of these early Bakalanga and written records provided by Portuguese who visited Butua during the 16th century. To help build up a clear picture of what life was like, archaeologists have also excavated, mapped and dated some stone walled ruins associated with Bakalanga to help piece together an elaborate picture of socio-political organisation of the citizens of Butua state (Tlou and Campbell 2003:98).

Compared to oral traditions of Bakalanga which do not span more than a few generations back in time (and therefore with a lesser degree of accuracy), this holistic approach provides a better understanding of the past of Bukalanga. In Botswana, this approach was tested in the late 1980s by Alec Campbell’s predevelopment archaeological impact assessment at Lower Shashe and Letsibogo dams. This work helped recover large numbers of varyingly- sized agricultural settlements.

Campbell (1991) concludes that the nature and structure of the Shashe settlements suggests the presence of fairly rich chiefdoms with a hierarchy of villages of various sizes. The economy of these villages was based on stock keeping and crop production. This is highlighted by large cattle kraals and remains of numerous granary stands at these villages. Since the only agriculturalists with a known long period of occupation in the area are Bakalanga, this evidence highly suggest that these settlements were part of early Bakalanga chiefdoms which later on developed into part of Great Zimbabwe and Butua states.

Radio carbon dates of these sites indicated a somewhat continuous history of occupation by these people stretching back to around AD 1300. This important work corroborates part of the discussion I offered in part one about early Bakalanga chiefdoms living in the Shashe Limpopo region. It also supports my argument that the rise of Mapungubwe did not necessarily hinder (although it did influence) parallel development of some early Bakalanga people in areas along the Shashe, Limpopo and its interiors.

I now turn our focus to a brief discussion of socio-political and economic organisation of the Bakalanga people during the state of Great Zimbabwe. This will help facilitate our comprehension of everyday life events of Bakalanga during this period.

Dr Catrien Van Waarden, a Francistown-based archaeologist and authority on Bakalanga prehistory, has studied many Zimbabwe stone walled ruins in Bukalanga. This work has helped show that Bakalanga people living at ruins such as Tholo Hill, Mupane and Mupanipani near Francistown developed stone walling techniques which were used to build the elaborate town of Great Zimbabwe.

Van Waarden (2009) shows that during the Mapungubwe period, a small farming village of the Gumanye people lived on the hill in which Great Zimbabwe was later on built. Nonetheless, these Gumanye people did not build any stone walls on the site. In fact, the only stone walls were only found at Mapungubwe and some ancestral Bakalanga villages. The Tati River basin Bakalanga produced large quantities of gold for trade, kept cattle and lived in reasonably sized settlements that allowed sustainable utilisation of natural resources in the area. This allowed the rise of skilled manpower among Bakalanga comprising those who specialized in gold mining, stone wall architects known as stone mansons and those who traversed the area transporting goods for trading purposes.

The tradition of building stone walled settlements became fashionable in the area at around AD 1200 and was improved over time until it reached its apex at Great Zimbabwe. Within the next 200 years of its existence, Great Zimbabwe became a powerful capital controlling trade with the east coast. Van Waarden (1998) shows that Great Zimbabwe grew into a large state that extended from the Mozambican coast, northeastern Zimbabwe, the Northern Province of South Africa and as far as the Makgadikgadi Pans into Botswana.

During this period, smaller satellite sites with stone walling tradition similar to the style and layout expressed at Great Zimbabwe were built. In Bukalanga areas of that time in Botswana, at least 13 such stone walled villages were built at places such as Soswane, Schermers Ruin near Sebina, Nkuke and Blue Jacket along the Tati River, Foley, Lentswe, Mothudi, Domboshaba, Vukwi, Mothudi, Lotsani, Lepokole, Malokojwe, Toranju, Tlapana near Mmea and Mmakgama near Mosu. These villages were built in areas that were previously occupied by the ancestral Bakalanga people discussed in part one.

[Above], I showed that Great Zimbabwe state collapsed in AD 1450 as two new competing states were formed. Munumutapa State developed around the Zambezi valley while another one known as Butua developed southwest of Great Zimbabwe. The capital of the newly formed state of Butua was built at Kame better know today as Khami, to the west of Great Zimbabwe. Between AD 1450 and 1685, Butua was ruled by a dynasty of Mambos known to Bakalanga as Sipundule or as it is commonly written, Chibundule. Van Waarden (1991) points out that the Chibundule family was originally sent by the ruler of Great Zimbabwe sometimes around AD 1400 to govern the western parts of Great Zimbabwe State.

They established Kame and soon took control of trade in gold, copper, salt and animal furs coming from the rich western parts of Butua. By the time Great Zimbabwe collapsed in AD 1450, the Chibundule family had become formidable rulers who ultimately became supreme rulers of Butua as Mambos in AD 1450. From the capital of Khami, they ruled Butua State through the assistance of several trusted councillors who advised Mambo on the accounts of the state.

In Khami, Mambo Chibundule remained somewhat hidden away from the ordinary citizens of Butua to ensure that he attained supreme status and a class above all his subjects. Mambo Chibundule surrounded himself with his immediate family who controlled the immediate areas surrounding his capital and installed governors around his state who were usually related to him.

There was also a powerful diviner tasked with protection of Mambo, ensuring that his powers remained intact throughout his reign. The diviner was also charged with the responsibility to advise Mambo on matters regarding his sacred leadership (Van Waarden 1998). Ordinary Bakalanga villages had their own chiefs and councillors usually comprising of senior members of clans living in such villages. These chiefs ensured that ordinary citizens maintained their allegiance to Mambo through collection of tribute and distribution of imported trade goods such as glass beads, clothing and chinaware brought by Asian and later on Portuguese traders.

The chiefs resolved conflicts among the general population and had localized authority on land use and distribution among the ordinary people (Tlou and Campbell 2003). For over 200 years, Butua grew in peace and prosperity and it is still recalled among the elderly Bakalanga that there was plenty of harvests in the land. Cattle herds also grew in size and some praise poems of Bawumbe mention that they were so rich that they used milk for bathing.

The Bakalanga people found in the state of Butua during the Chibundule days called themselves Balilima. Their descendants are the Bawumbe of Madandume in Tutume, the people of Nshakazhogwe, Mosojane, Mulambakwena, Letsholathebe and Tsamaya, the Mazuwa ward in Maitengwe and the BaSenete (Van Waarden 1988) They venerate tjibelu as their totem. The males are addressed as sungwasha while the females are bamakulukusa. The Balilima people living in Botswana today trace their ancestry to Makulukusa who is a descendant of the last Chibundule mambo.

In terms of lineage, the Bawumbe of Misola, (the father of Mosojane) are the eldest, followed by Makulukusa who is also known as Wumbe (the father of Nkuse who became famously known as Madandume among his people) and lastly those of Mpengo. It is suggested that Makulukusa led the majority of the royal family of the last Chibundule mambo known as Nkalanga into modern day Botswana during the 17th century. Tlou & Campbell (2003) state that these Balilima changed their name and began to call themselves Bakalanga in recognition of the last Chibundule Mambo, Nkalanga. All people living in Butua began to be known as Bakalanga.

However, the Bamakulusa also call them Bawumbe to show allegiance to their ruler Wumbe (Makulukusa). The 17th century ruins of Balilima found in Bukalanga in areas around Tutume were probably built for this ruling class.

However, oral traditions of Bawumbe of Madandume and Mosojane do not mention if their rulers lived in stone walled villages such as that of Magapatona ruin found near Goshwe today.

The migration of the Bamakulukusa people occurred after the beginning of another dynasty of Mambos known as the Changamires. A major change in the rule of the mambos took place at Khami with the arrival of foreigners in Butua known as the Varozvi or Banyayi at around AD 1650. Their ruler ousted Mambo Chibundule sometimes around the 1690s; ushering in the rule of Mambo Nichasike I. Oral traditions of Bakalanga suggest that Changamire used trickery to attain the mamboship from Chibundule. Portuguese writings also indicate that during the 1640s, there was some form of political instability in Butua.

Nonetheless, studies of Bakalanga oral traditions and those of the Varozvi in Zimbabwe suggest that there was no major warfare involved. Changamire initially accepted Mambo Chibundule’s rule and offered his daughter in marriage as a form of recognition of Chibundule’s authority. This event is still remembered by elderly Bakalanga people as the manner in which the Banyayi became senior among the original Bakalanga (Balilima) people.

The Banyayi intermarried among the Bakalanga and slowly gained some form of influence in the ruling class at Khami, weakening it as time went on. The final straw was brought in when Changamire’s daughter betrayed Mambo Chibundule and resulted in the loss of his Mamboship. The old era of peace and prosperity gradually came to an end in Butua. Mambo Changamire burned down Khami and moved his capital to Danangombe. Some records suggest that the majority of the Balilima people living near Khami migrated westwards into present day Botswana and changed their totem to tjibelu in fear of Changamire’s powerful diviner living at Danangombe. Changamire changed his name to Nichasike and introduced military rule in the entire state of Butua. In the 1690s Mambo Nichasike sent his relative Mengwe to Domboshaba to rule the Balilima and the western parts of Butua.

To elaborate further on how Mambo Nichasike’s state was governed, Tlou and Campbell (1991) point out that the immediate surroundings of the capital were controlled by other members of the royal family. Beyond this zone, royal in – laws and some other prominent, although non-royal Banyayi governed on behalf of mambo. Distant provinces of the state were ruled by carefully selected governors like Mengwe who ruled over the western – most parts of Butua known as Bulilima-Mangwe. Although there is no clear-cut evidence showing the Nichasike Dynasty rulers, one of the most elaborate Changamire / Nichasike dynasty is offered by Van Waarden (1991). This dynasty offers a succession of rulers of Banyayi from around AD 1490. The names of the rulers demonstrate one important point.

The names of the early rulers beginning with Mabhayangedungo (whose totem is moyo) are Kalanga to suggest the influence of Ikalanga language among the Banyayi as early as AD 1500. These Ikalanga names continued up until Nichasike became Mambo in AD 1696. Names of rulers such as Washaya, Sebabe and Dombo are the only few Kalanga names found in the Nichasike Dynasty that ruled Butua.

This suggests the transition stage and the early stage of the movement of the capital from Khami to Danangombe. At Danangombe and onwards, the names of the ruling class began to change into non-Ikalanga names like Nigomo Nichapingura, Nichagadzike and Rupengo who was succeeded by the regency of Mutanda Ngabate. Gumboremvura took over the leadership until he was succeeded by Chirisamhuru I, the last known Mambo.

We are also aware that during the rule of the Nichasike Mambos, very few stone walled sites were built in Bukalanga. Bulilima- Mangwe was no longer actively controlled by mambo as was the case during the rule of the Chibundule mambos. It is often argued that this loose control of Bulilima Mangwe by the Nichasike Mambos resulted in the arrival of immigrating Sotho Tswana people.

These people were fascinated by settling and becoming part of a wealthy and famous state of Butua. Immigrating groups of the Sotho, Bapedi, Barolong, Bakaya, Bakhurutshe and others moved northwards and began interacting with Butua citizens. Bukalanga now comprised of Balilima, Banyayi and Sotho Tswana groups.

In the final episode of this discussion, I will provide a discussion of Bukalanga during the rule of Mengwe and how the Mfecane affected settlement patterns of Bukalanga thereafter. For the first time, I will attempt to provide a synopsis of chieftainship in Bukalanga.



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