11. Builders of the Stone Ruins – From Antiquity to the Pô

Builders of the Stone Ruins – From Antiquity to the Pô
By Eben van Tonder
4 August 2019

An installment in the series, The Salt Bridge

I was hiking in Gauteng, looking for its soul. Tribes emerged out of the bush. It seems like every site I visit, I find circular or semi-circular rock ruins, validating that my visions are about real historical people. Most of these ruins predate the Mfecane, the isiZulu word for “scattering” that took place in the decades preceding the 1830’s when white settlers started arriving in the region. The earliest mention of the Magaliesberg and Witwatersberg mountain ranges was when Sir John Borrow marked it on his 1802 map of the region with the remark “Gold Bearing.” I try and understand their culture in order to reproduce their food! Their culinary heritage is hands down, just as rich as the German, Italian, Spanish and English traditions. Understanding their best dishes begins with an understanding of where they came from, their history, building styles and where they settled. As always, the goal is to produce the most authentic and exquisite dishes. True to the land that people home!

Ancient Migration: 300 AD to 900AD

At the north of the Congo basin, local inhabitants changed from hunter-gatherers to animal husbandry, metalworking, crop farming and making pottery. Linguistic analysis and studying pottery patterns shows that this area is the site where the Bantu-language speakers of Southern Africa hail from. (Carruthers, 2014) This point dovetails beautifully into two major areas of interest for me namely the domestication of cattle, sheep, and pigs in Africa and secondly, the development of “salt-related technology”, important in food preparation and in the metalworking industry. A closely related development is pottery which completely changed the way that food dished were prepared and stored. The look at these tribes, their movement into southern Africa and their development of this new frontier offer insight into a unique culture and in particular, for our purpose, the development of food dishes.

From around 200 until 900 AD the people from north of the Congo basin started migrating south. Two migration streams have been suggested who entered the Magaliesberg around 1200 years ago. The one group was from the Kwale branch from East Africa and the other was the Kalundo from West Africa. The first group arrived in the Magaliesgurg region around 300 AD. They established an extensive settlement at what is now Broederstroom near Hartbeespoort Dam. (Carruthers, 2014)

It would be completely incorrect to think of these people as “primitive”. They established very sophisticated societies which clearly indicate a very sophisticated pallet and approach to food. The evidence clearly points to that.

  1. They had in their hands all the foods that we have today to create our most exquisite dishes. The reasoning is as follows. If you have the same variables or ingredients, then the likelihood is there that they would eventually end up with results (dishes) that are similar to what we have today. We have had meat, grains, milk, herbs, roots, edible leaves, fruits, and vegetables. So did they.
  2. They planted crops on land best suited for it showing that they had great insight into their food production arts.
  3. They stored food for future use to supplement time of want from times of plenty. They knew that food could be traded which again necessitates or at least would lead to technology of preservation of food. They dub pits that they lined with a mixture of dung and mud to store grain in. Methane gas from the cattle dung killed insects that may have spoiled the grain. The created thick-floored storage bins which they elevated on stones to keep them dry.
  4. They worked metals and located in close proximity to the different ores. They identified with the land and were willing to defend it against invaders if necessary. The fact that they worked metals shows us that they had an understanding of the chemical properties of the minerals in their environment, such as sodium bicarbonate to be used as a flux in the metal smelting process to manipulate the melting point. The Broederstroom sites may have been the center of iron production in the region. The iron was possibly traded and the forging of usable implements was probably done at other locations.
  5. They identified with the concept of capital wealth and developed hierarchical structures with leaders endowed with authority and power. Exquisite dishes was without a doubt part of the courts of people in authority in these societies, as was the case around the world.

(Points by Carruthers, 2014 and conclusions related to salt and food, my own)

More Recent Migration: 1300 AD to 1820 AD

From 1300 AD, migrants arrived in the Magaliesburg area and established settlements on the southern slopes. They came from regions north of Botswana and Angola. For many centuries they did not use stone as building material for houses or cattle enclosures. The first stone walls in the region were built around the 1600s.

Enhancements were in all likelihood done to existing structures with stone. It is interesting that the iron age communities of the region continued to co-exist with Late Stone Age people as is shown by sites near Olifantshoek. Here it is seen how these two cultures existed in close proximity for around 500 years.

One of the earliest groups who migrated from the regions of Zambia and Botswana is the Hurutshe. Possibly during the late 17th century, they subdivided and one of the offshoots were the Kwena. Many of the Bakwena moved eastwards under Kgosi Modimosana across the Kgatleng (Elands) River. They settled at Molokwnane on the Ngwaritse (Koster) River on the Western edge of the Magaliesberg region. They flourished until they too split into smaller groups. (Carruthers, 2014)

The story is that one of Modimosana’s sons, Mogopa, broke away with some of his father’s followers and established a chieftainship on the Oori (Crocodile) River near present-day Madibeng. This was followed by further splits. The Kwena be Maake and the Kwena Modimosana ba Mmatau were established. The latter remained at Molokwane. The sprawling stone ruins of the area is a must-visit! Another important Kwena site is located on the farm Olifantspoort near Olifantsnek Dam. (Carruthers, 2014)

In terms of building technology, from about 1650, the Twana in the Magaliesburg started to build dry-stone walled enclosures or huts. By the 1800s, these structures were elaborate. They often built newer buildings on top of the foundations of older ones. The Kwena Modimosana ba Mmatau built settlements along the lower slopes of the southern Magaliesburg from Magatasnek to near the present village of Maanhaarrand. The chief at this time was Kgosi Kgaswane. He was one of the most respected chiefs of the region. The Griqua and Korana traders who traveled to this region called the mountain range “Cashan”, a corruption of Kgaswane’s name. The name persisted until around the 1840s. (Carruthers, 2014) In the 1690s, a drought caused the BaKwena to the south to Lesotho. This group became known as the Sotho in an area today known as Phokeng, about 10km north of Rustenburg. (SAHistory)

Another tribe who settled in the region was the Fokeng who settled in the north, close to the present-day Rustenburg. Some say that they preceded the Hurutshe while others believe there is evidence making them one of its splinter groups. Other subgroups settled in the area such as the Phiring, Tlokwa, Taung, and Kgatla. These or some of them may be offshoots from the Kwena and the Fokeng. During this time, under the leadership of chief Musi, a number of Nguni people moved into the region. They came from the eastern coastal lowlands and occupied the present-day Mpumalanga and regions east of the Magaliesburg. These people were later known as the “northern” Ndebele. They are distinct from the Ndebele invaders under Mzilikazi in 1817. (Carruthers, 2014)

One of the subgroups of these Ndebele was the Pô. They migrated further westwards into Twana territory than any other Ndebele group. They settled in the Wonderboom area and from there moved further west to Tlhogokgolo Mountain (Wohluterskop). They were surrounded by the Twana people of the Fokeng and Kwena and gradually took on their culture and language. (Carruthers, 2014) It is the iconic leader of the Pô, Chief Mogale, gave his name to the Magaliesberg.

It is the quest for the origins and fingerprints of the Pô people who was my first glimpse of the heart of the region and I went looking for it. I discovered a mountain top settlement on the farm, Eastwick, comprising of 4 or 5 houses and a large cattle byre, stretching almost 100m, no more than 10km away from Wolhuterskop and the valley where the Pô settled. I know that they were settled in the Broederstroom valley years later and of course, the possibility is there that more of the Pô were settled there due to the fact that they were already in the area. That would make the hilltop settlement on Eastwick probably a Pô settlement. I hiked the likely route up Piesangkloof.

Here is a video I did of the site:



Analyzing the ruins in the area, scientists conclude that originally there were small and dispersed homesteads. People had cattle and farmed the land. It was subsistence living as opposed to large-scale communal living. Over time, these dispersed homesteads were morphed into aggregated communities.

Starting in the early 1800s, there is a move towards the establishment of towns with a social hierarchy. These communities were complex and interrelated. Unfortunately, they were wiped out by the Mfakane.

Typically there was a capital with secondary and tertiary settlements. This is seen in many of the ruins where there is a megacity surrounded by smaller settlements. This is the pattern found at the Suikerbosrand and the Kungwini 4 x 4 treck at Bronkhorstspruit.

The community at Bronhortspruit was an iron age community. Johan Klopper found iron arrowheads buried at the site. There is no reason to think that this was not smelted and forged at the site.

The fact that the larger kraals are seen as cattle kraals is something that is disputed in academia. Robert Thornton from Wits University concludes that such stone-walled structures were the sites of ancient rituals. “There’s no conceivable way they could have been for cattle. Ask m farmer. He’ll laugh at you. They have no doors, and the stones are not high enough [to keep them enclosed],” according to Thornton.

He points to a site he is working on, located north of Machadodorp in Mpumalanga. “They’re not random. They’re along mineral lines.” “I think some were used as metalworking ritual sites … Southern African sangomas are the descendants of earlier guilds of technical specialists.”

The people from these communities produced iron, glass and gold objects using high-temperature technology, according to Thornton. According to him, it was when European products (with their more advanced technology) began flooding into Africa, it destroyed the local trade. This contributed to the Mfecane as peoples livelihoods were destroyed.

A paper was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 2012 by Karim Sadr of Wits and Xavier Rodier of the Université de Tours in France where the “conventional” view was presented that breaks the stone-walled ruins down into three groups:

  1. The first group is early Sesotho-speaking immigrants. The structures set up by them have an outer perimeter wall, with smaller circles inside.
  2. The second group is Setswana speakers who constructed a scalloped perimeter wall, which wasn’t always enclosed but contained clusters of smaller circles.
  3. The third group descended from the first group of Sesotho speakers. These came into contact with the Tswana. These kraals are characterised of being a hodgepodge of the first two styles: “a confusion of inner enclosures within a continuous perimeter wall”, which was sometimes straight, sometimes scalloped.

Sadr and Rodier make another important “evolutionary” note related to the formation of hilltop settlements such as the site at Suikerbosramd. They wrote, “Around Kaditshwene, Boeyens (2003: 69) has observed that the dispersed sites from AD 1675 – 1750 had no scallops in their outer walls, while aggregation was a feature of settlement patterns from AD 1750 -1790, followed by a move to defensible hill-top mega-sites which took place in AD 1790 – 1823.” (Sadr and Rodier; 2011)

Food for Thought

The technology related to iron and building style has traditionally been the area of focus when talking about these late stone age and early iron age people. The use of plants for medicine is dealt with in great detail, but what did their everyday food look like in terms of meat. How did they cook their meat and how did they prepare it for future use?

  • Ashes to Ashes

The people who settled in the Magaliesburg knew salt well and was able to extract it from trees and bush through its ash. Thys Koen is the manager of the Eastwick Stud Farm and tells me that the local people of the region use sickle bush as their source of ash or hard-wood. He confirms the practice of salting meat with this ash before it is hung out to dry. After three of four weeks hanging outside in the wind and sun, it turns black like biltong. He also confirms the practice to cook the dried meat in water before it is consumed.

The other way that prepared it was to knock the ash off the meat and to braai (BBQ) it. They would sometimes pulverize the meat after drying, before cooking. In a world where energy sources are scarce, it is a natural way of reducing the amount of fuel needed in the form of cow dung or dead trees to soften the meat. It struck me that this exact characteristic of tenderizing meat is at the heart of much of our cooking technology. The reality is that meat, especially game, is tough and may even be one of the reasons why we started cooking and roasting our meat. We have seen before that fermentation (leaving the carcass to ferment and “soften”) was in all likelihood the oldest form of meat storage and preparing it consumption. (How did Ancient Humans Preserve Food?)

Thys refers me to a kind of a cake that formed in the ash that woman would dig up and apply it to their skins for moisturizing. His memories go back to him as a child, growing up in the Benoni area on the East Rand. In all likelihood, a mixture of ash and fat. Thys commits to interrogate Bedwell, someone who still works for him and who grew up with him. It was this mixture of ash and fat that was used as toothpaste. For the full discussion with Thys, see:


There is ample evidence from around the world about the preparation of sausage meat. The intestines naturally lent itself to be stuffed with components of meat.

  • Sausages from the Stone Age

Nothing in an animal was discarded or lost. The effort in securing the food source was too valuable. A document from the archives of the University of Pretoria describes some of the slaughtering techniques of people who lived contemporaneously with the late stone age and early iron age people in the Magaliesburg region, the San Bushman.

“Once the animal has been found (after it was wounded) it is skinned quickly and the head and legs are removed. The body is then dissected into loads, which can be carried by the men. The horns are disposed of, except when needed to make a new axe handle or cultural object. Almost nothing is left behind, except the stomach, intestines and their contents which are sour and bitter in taste, they are however a valuable source of water in the dry months.”

“The hide is tanned, sectioned and used for food, clothing and skin carry-bags. The blood is poured into the stomach sack and hardened, then mixed with fat found around the intestines and put into the duodenum and small intestines to make sausage. The liver, heart, and kidneys spoil easily so they are cooked and eaten immediately. Ribs are also eaten the night of the hunt. Women never eat the heart, as it is believed this will bring bad luck to the men’s hunt and for this reason it is never brought back to camp. If the animal brought down is too big, the bones are discarded and the meat is cut into strips and dried, thus reducing the weight of the load and preventing spoilage. Animal flesh is never eaten raw, but cooked in melon water, with a little added fat for flavour.” (Repository, UP, Ac.)

The use of intestines to hold blood and fat is particularly interesting. There are good records from the Khoe that woman would hang such intestines that have been stuffed with fat, blood and pieces of meat around their legs. Sweat from their bodies that came into contact with the meat would have cured it as a source of salt and nitrates. The fact that it was around the body would have made it easy to deal with flys and other scavengers. The practice was elegant and would have had the added advantage for the woman to have moisturized the skin. There are reports of sausages from the Germanic tribes and it is easy to see how the practice, in one form or the other, was universal.

The Twana-speaking farmers/ herdsman/ traders/ metalworkers of the Magaliesburg lived in relative tranquility until the early 1800’s when events tore the society apart. The winds of war swept through the region and transformed its nature. This, despite the fact that how food was prepared and what was on the everyday menu for ordinary people and royalty probably did not change much, irrespective of who was in charge, as far as the indigenous (as in non-European) people were concerned.


Understanding the ancient cultures of this region leads us into an appreciation of their culture and in particular, their food. We live in a unique land where cross currents and flavours from around the world converge to give South Africa a unique food heritage. Understanding it and reproducing these traditions for future generations is the adventure of a lifetime! It is, in particular, the African cuisine that takes front and center stage in these considerations.

Photos from my hike up Piesankloof to the mountain top settlement on Eastwick.



Layout and structure based on an article by Wild, Sarah. 2013. Walking in the ruins of a lost world in Melville Koppies.

Carruthers, V. 2014. The Magaliesberg. Protea Book House, Pretoria.

Sadr, K, Rodier, X.. 2011. Google Earth, GIS and stone-walled structures in southern Gauteng, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science. Journal homepage: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/jas

Discussion with Thys. https://photos.app.goo.gl/3DuKrLEQMW3fafw59

The Magaliesberg or ‘Cashan Mountains’, Repository, UP, Ac. The Magaliesberg (UP.ac)