History of the San People in the Drakensberg

The Drakensberg, which forms a natural border between the garden province of KwaZulu-Natal and the Kingdom of Lesotho enclave, boasts a fascinating history dating back to a time when nomadic San tribes traversed the area hunting wild game and creating remarkable collections of rock paintings in shadowy caves and on jagged cliff overhangs and hidden rocky outcrops. In subsequent years the area has become a major tourism hub, offering visitors luxury Drakensberg accommodation, and a chance to reconnect with nature while exploring the rich cultural and historical heritage of South Africa’s most prominent mountainous area. So why is the Drakensberg such a significant part of South Africa’s history?

Geologically, the Drakensberg dates back to the Pre-Cambrian Era when large sections of the Southern African sub-continent were covered in lava as a result of volcanic eruptions. Thick layers of shale (clastic sedimentary rock), mudstone and sandstone were gradually deposited over this ancient volcanic rock during the Palaeozoic Era, when wind and water roamed freely across the land. Fissures and cracks in the Earth’s surface acted as openings for the extrusion of magma when the Gondwanaland began to break up almost 200 million years ago. This magma capped the existing sedimentary rock formations with 1400 metre thick layers of solid basalt. Over time, the plateau has receded and erosion has occurred, exposing the original sedimentary rock formations as a result.

Historically, the area was home to a sprawling population of indigenous hunters and gatherers during the Paleolithic era – a time when Khoisan tribes wandered the land, stealthily following wild game through thick foliage and covering the walls of caves with red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal pigment paintings depicting humans in typical hunting stances and animals fleeing the deadly arrow heads.

Nguni pastoralists and agriculturalists known as the Amazizi settled along the river valley somewhere between 6000 – 10000 years ago and are the first known tribe in the Drakensberg area. The Amazizi and Khoisan lived peacefully side by side until the arrival of the Amangwane and a third Nguni tribe disrupted their harmonious existence in the early 1800’s. Violent clashes ensued between the tribes as the Amazizi sought refuge in the mountains and subsequently clashed with the San, while the Amangwane attacked the Amahlubi, who now occupied the abandoned valleys.

Violence and destruction raged for a decade before the Amangwane eventually settled in the river valleys, which had then been abandoned by the Amahlubi. However, their settlement was soon interrupted by King Shaka’s troops, who arrived four years later and drove the Amangwane westwards into the mountains. Relative peace only returned after a prolonged period of slaughter and blood shed, when the surviving members of the various tribes descended the mountains and re-established themselves in the river valleys.

Within ten years the respite was disrupted once again following the Great Trek from the Cape Colony by Voortrekkers and English settlers. Disputes over hunting grounds, private ownership of land and cattle raids resulted in deadly clashes between the newly arrived settlers and the indigenous tribes, and ultimately led to the decimation of the remaining San people. The last known San sighting in the Drakensberg was during the 1880’s.

Although the land is no longer inhabited by the Khoisan tribes, the Drakensberg region is still very much home of the San people. Their remarkable murals still coat the damp cave walls and tall overhangs, while the numerous battlefields pulsate with the rich culture and fascinating heritage of these indigenous people.

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