Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 7:23 EDT

Oldest Dated Evidence of Cattle in Southern Africa Found

August 3, 2005

A team of researchers working with colleagues from the Botswana National Museum shed new light on the questions of when cattle were brought to southern Africa and from where. A domestic cow bone, dated to about 2000 years ago was excavated from a site at Toteng, located in the Kalahari Desert of northern Botswana. This bone, dated by the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon technique, provides the oldest directly dated evidence of cattle in southern Africa.

Domestic sheep were also present at Toteng at about the same time. Historical and linguistic information suggest northern Botswana figured prominently in the arrival and dispersal of livestock in southern Africa. The new dates support this view and confirm a long-term association between people and livestock in this part of the Kalahari. The discovery of the 2000 year old cow and sheep bones are important because of the long held view that the Kalahari was a comparatively isolated area that was primarily occupied by foraging peoples until recently.

The findings, to be published in the August/October issue of Current Anthropology, are also interesting in the broader context of the spread of domestic livestock throughout Africa. Whereas livestock had spread into northern Kenya in East Africa by as early as 4000/4500 years ago, it took an additional 2000 years for their eventual spread into southern Africa. Experts have stressed that this delay was largely due to the presence of tripanosomiasis, carried by tsetse flies, as well as other diseases that kill livestock in much of the intervening area. The Toteng sites are situated near the southern edge of the Tsetse fly zone and the new dates of about 2000 years ago appear to date the initial penetration of livestock through this zone.

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