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  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: October 2009

9 - Material culture and the dialectics of identity in the Kalahari: AD 700–1700



A major current issue throughout southern Africa is the manner by which the false convergence of tribal/ethnic allegiance and ideology initiated by Europeans during the colonial era can be unraveled. This requires a new formulation of the history of the subcontinent – one which will rely on archaeological materials to provide a firm historical basis for assessing the trajectory of precolonial social and economic formations and their transformations in the colonial period. Yet, until recently, anthropologists and historians have tended to view the entire region before the latter part of the nineteenth century as having been populated by isolated cultural and linguistic entities with few connections among them. Khoisan-speaking people in the Kalahari, for instance, have been represented as foragers unaffected by Bantuspeaking agropastoralists until the twentieth century. All local cultures, however, have been historically constructed through ongoing dialogues with others – dialogues characterized as much by social flux as by stability. As Wilmsen and Vossen (1990: 11) point out, “the resultant constructed ethnicities rarely conformed to a people's prior self-identification.”

Current “debates” over the “authenticity” of some Kalahari peoples (Solway and Lee 1990; Wilmsen and Denbow 1990) thus exemplify more general trends in anthropological thought that question the historical utility of ethnographic concepts such as closed cultural traditions, that take on an apartheid-like appearance in the southern African context.

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Beyond Chiefdoms
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