Salt and the Ancient People of Southern Africa
By Eben van Tonder
5 August 2018
An instalment in the series, The Salt Bridge
I am not an archaeologist or a historian, but I cure meat for a living and have an intense interest in the history of my trade. I have for years been looking at the origins of salt technology, tracing the many-faceted strands that come together in the art of meat curing. Salt is essential in the process. Without it, meat curing is not possible. This article is a continuation of the ongoing series on salt. Doing this article brings particular joy since it deals with my hometown. I have been to many of the areas I talk about and with Minette, we walked the land of the Khoe and the San. This land is in our blood and looking at southern Africa brings me particular joy.
The fact that peoples of southern Africa do not have a tradition of meat preservation with salt has been puzzling to me for years. Can this be correct? Evidence that salt was mined and traded across this region for use in medicine and as a condiment is well documented. An internet search will bring up many articles that deal with methods of extraction and its trade across the region. Mentzel writing at the end of the 1700s says about the area of Drakenstein and the Hottentots Holland Mountains that there “are also salt pans here and there, hot baths, rich copper mountains and places where saltpetre could be gathered in abundance.” The description related to the salt pans is true for the entire region from the Cape of Good Hope and into Namibia, Anglo, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. As far as his reference to ample saltpetre deposits is concerned, this is a matter for further investigation.
My problem is that this is one of the regions on earth with the longest history of human habitation, stretching back to over 100 000 years ago. Was salt never used to preserve meat here for 100 000 years until the Europeans came? Is there any evidence from Khoe and San cultures of meat preservation by salt? Were salt, and its value as medicine, preservative, and condiment known to them?
Who is the Khoe and the San?
I jump from prehistoric people who lived 100 000 years ago in southern Africa to the two groups of people whom the Europeans encountered when they arrived at the Cape. The Khoe is the first group and “were the first pastoralists in southern Africa, and called themselves Khoikhoi (or Khoe), which means ‘men of men’ or ‘the real people’. This name was chosen to show pride in their past and culture. The Khoikhoi brought a new way of life to South Africa and to the San, who were hunter-gatherers as opposed to herders. This led to misunderstandings and subsequent conflict between the two groups.” (www.sahistory)
“The Khoikhoi were the first native people to come into contact with the Dutch settlers in the mid-17th century. As the Dutch took over land for farms, the Khoikhoi were dispossessed, exterminated, or enslaved and therefore their numbers dwindled. The Khoikhoi were called the ‘Hottentots’ by European settlers because the sound of their language was so different from any European language, and they could not pronounce many of the words and sounds.” (www.sahistory)
“The Khoikhoi used a word while dancing that sounded like ‘Hottentots’ and therefore settlers referred to the Khoikhoi by this name – however, today this term is considered derogatory. The settlers used the term ‘Bushmen’ for the San, a term also considered derogatory today. Many of those whom the colonists called ‘Bushmen’ were in fact Khoikhoi or former Khoikhoi. For this reason, scholars sometimes find it convenient to refer to hunters and herders together as ‘Khoisan’.” (www.sahistory)
“When European settlement began, Khoikhoi groups called the Namaqua were settled in modern-day Namibia and the north-eastern Cape; others, including the Korana, along the Orange River; and the Gonaqua, interspersed among the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape. But the largest concentration of Khoikhoi, numbering in the tens of thousands inhabited the well-watered pasture lands of the southwestern Cape. These ‘Cape’ Khoikhoi would be the first African population to bear the brunt of White settlement.” (www.sahistory)
Examples of sophisticated technology and thought between 70 000 and 100 000 years ago in southern Africa
There are examples of complex human thought in southern Africa reaching back 100 000 years ago. The earliest examples of abstract “rock art” are ochre engraving discovered at Blombos Cave in the Southern Cape. Several thousand pieces of ochre have been found in this cave. Henshilwood reported that two pieces of engraved ochre from the 73,000-year-old M1 phase were catalogued as AA 8937 and AA 8938. “Both had been engraved with cross-hatched patterns, using a sharp stone tool to make wide grooves upon surfaces previously prepared by grinding. On AA 8938, in addition to cross-hatching, the pattern is bounded top and bottom by parallel lines, with a third parallel line running through the middle. The fact that the two pieces are so similar suggests a deliberate intent, rather than somebody absent-mindedly scratching away at the pieces with a sharp object. Somebody who knew just what they were doing must have sat down and engraved the two pieces. Other engraved ochres were later identified, although they were less spectacular than AA 8937 and AA 8938. They came from all three phases of the site, and some were over 100,000 years old.” (Seddon)
“The Blombos Cave ochres are central to the debate about the emergence of modern human behaviour, which anthropologists define as the ability of humans to use symbols to organise their thoughts and actions. Symbols are anything that refers to an object or an idea and can take the form of sounds, images or objects. They may refer directly to an object or idea, for example, a representational image; or they may be totally abstract, such as spoken or written words. … Human society could not function without [symbols]. Modern syntactical language is a system of communication that uses symbols in the form of spoken and (in the last six thousand years) written words to enable an effectively infinite range of meanings to be conveyed.” (Seddon)
Very close to Blombos Cave is Stillbay where “one of the cutting-edge industries of the African Middle Stone Age” was located which “was noted for its finely-worked leaf-shaped stone points, which were made from high-quality materials including chert, quartzite and silcrete. The Stillbay people also made and used bone awls and projectile points, similar to those seen in ethnographic collections. Such implements are far more difficult to manufacture than stone tools. Other examples of Stillbay high-tech included compound adhesives for hafting stone points to spears, and the use of heat treatment and pressure flaking for finishing stone artefacts. The Stillbay industry was widespread, and not confined to the region around Blombos Cave and Still Bay. Curiously, however, it was short-lived and persisted for less than a thousand years, before being replaced by seemingly less advanced industries of the type more typical of the African Middle Stone Age.” (Seddon)
There is the Sibudu Cave find located about 40km north of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Here researchers identified a compound adhesive that was manufactured about 70 000 years ago and used to make hunting weapons. Janine Erasmus wrote a brilliant article summarising the analysis used by the researchers from Wits to gain an appreciation for the level of complex thought and technological sophistication required to produce these adhesives.
The site was “first excavated in 1983 and continues to be excavated under the current direction of Professor Lyn Wadley. Two of Wadley’s colleagues, residue analysts Bonny Williamson and Marlize Lombard, found traces of acacia gum, and an accompanying red ochre pigment initially suspected to be merely decorative, on stone tools found inside Sibudu Cave. The ochre was only present on tools fastened to wooden shafts to make composite tools.” (Erasmus)
“Acacia gum, also known as gum arabic, is a natural product exuded from acacia trees to seal holes in the bark. It is harvested from various acacia species using different methods, either by deliberately cutting holes in the trunk to stimulate gum production, or collecting from natural cracks in the bark.” (Erasmus)
“The team’s findings were published in May 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article is titled Implications for complex cognition from the hafting of tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa and is authored by Lyn Wadley, Tamaryn Hodgkiss and Michael Grant of Wits University. In the paper, the researchers described the ancient cave dwellers as “competent chemists, alchemists and pyrotechnologists” who knew exactly how to manipulate their ingredients and deliberately bring about the physical changes necessary to produce an effective adhesive.” (Erasmus)
“While symbolic art is the internationally accepted anthropological criterion for mental capability, the team says the manufacture of the glue was as significant an achievement and shows that Stone Age people possessed much greater cognition and intelligence than originally thought. They propose that the result of their research is a fresh way of recognising and measuring cognitive ability.” (Erasmus)
“The Sibudu tools were constructed around the same time as the oldest known examples of abstract art, found in Middle Stone Age layers in Blombos Cave on the southern coast of South Africa, about 290km east of Cape Town.” (Erasmus)
“The Wits research team believes that ancient Stone Age artisans were remarkably skilled and thoroughly understood the properties of their ingredients. They used acacia gum to bond stone and wood but the method of attachment showed considerable ingenuity, as the team was unable to successfully duplicate the process using just acacia gum. They had to dig deeper for the answer.” (Erasmus)
“In Stone Age times it was crucial to have effective hunting weapons, as lives were at stake. Although Wadley and her colleagues used the same methods and natural ingredients that would have been available to Stone Age dwellers, their versions of composite tools were not always as successful in stringent physical tests such as wood-chopping.” (Erasmus)
“The team found that the addition of the ochre pigment produced a more robust glue that held the tools together for longer, but the manufacturing process was intricate and required careful attention. It took some experimentation to hit on the right formulation. For instance, the fire had to be kept at the correct temperature, the control of which depended on the type of wood used. The glue could not be mixed too close to the flames or it would boil, resulting in trapped air bubbles that weakened it.”
“Laboratory tests established that the use of ochre causes a rise in the pH of the glue, making it less acidic. It also affects the electrostatic forces present and results in a physical change in the malleability of the substance. A mixed particle size was important to the success of the compound adhesive. The greatest success was achieved using red ochre number 15, as this resulted in bigger grains which were comparable to stone chips in concrete. However, ancient artisans may also have added an aggregate in the form of grains of sand to ensure a more consistent product.” (Erasmus)
“The team’s own experimentation showed that in contrast with other living creatures, such as some birds or wasps, that make composite glues out of instinct, the process of constructing a finished hunting weapon required the ability to multi-task in order to keep track of the various steps.
“Some of the steps required for making compound adhesive seem impossible without abstract thought and the ability to multi-task,” they wrote. “This suggests overlap between the mental abilities of modern people and people in the Middle Stone Age.”” (Erasmus)
The Connection with Salt
The fact is that the region where the tools were found is replete with salt deposits. For starters, they were located in close proximity to the coast. Granted, the shoreline 70 000 years ago in the southern Cape was a bit further south, but evidence from the caves shows that they relied on the sea for a large part of their protein intake. It has been shown that the diet of the occupants at Blombos enjoyed large fish, shellfish, seals, and dolphins along with land animals such as tortoises, hyraxes and dune mole rats associated with Later Stone Age and Middle Stone Age phases. They would most certainly have been familiar with salt. That its taste is pleasant and too much of it makes you sick.
Besides the sea, there are saltpans and salt marshes dotted across southern Africa. Technology transfer happened across the region. Högberg, A., and Lombard, M.. 2016 investigated the nature of the technology transfer related to Still Bay Point-Production at Hollow Rock Shelter and Umhlatuzana Rock Shelter and Knowledge-Transfer Systems in Southern Africa about 80-70 Thousand Years Ago. Even though there is much that is still uncertain, what is clear is that there was technology transfer between groups across the region. (Högberg, A., and Lombard, M.; 2016) The article is fascinating and offers a detailed treatment of ways in which technology transfer took place across vast regions at this particular time in prehistory and knowledge of salts, and their trading would most certainly have followed similar patterns.
Looking at the conditions at the Cape, for example, 300 years ago certainly does not tell us what conditions were like 100 000 years ago, but if we recognise that at least as far as human influence on the environment, major changes accompany European colonialization. It is instructive to get a glimpse of the region’s pre-European settlement.
Mentzel describes the abundance of salt in the 1700 Cape Conoly when he writes that in the Drakenstein area “shrubs and renoster-bushes have to serve as firewood and a few small springs supply drinking water. The rainwater that remains in deepened holes very soon becomes dirty and foul in summer and partly brak too: an infallible sign that the soil is saturated with many salt particles and could furnish salt in case of need. It is certain that at one time the entire Cape had brine pits in very many places, not only in the Groenekloof, Zwartkops river, Zwellendam, Saldanha Bay, between the Soete Melks and Gouritz Rivers, but indeed in a hundred spots besides, even lying above ground in summer in the Cape district, so that one had merely to gather up the salt and carry it away.” This picture of the Cape is one that we are not familiar with and in the face of such abundance, the gathering of salt would not have left any archaeological evidence.
It has been shown that the Khoe in Natal traded in salt from the Makgadikgadi basin eastwards to Zimbabwe. The “location of stone ruins of the Zimbabwe IKhami culture on the edge of the Pan suggests that this trade could be of considerable antiquity.” (Denbow, 1986)
It is in my opinion beyond reason to believe that the people used their investigative techniques of taste, smell, feel, grinding, burning, dissolving, evaporation and crystallization on matters related to resins, ochre, and sand, but not in regard to salt. They shared knowledge concerning matters of technology far higher up the development ladder such as producing knives, spears, and arrow points and the technology to fasten these onto handles. They produced complex art from the examples in Blombos. They have clearly experimented with the inclusion of different ingredients in glue, important in hunting. It is unthinkable to me that they did not use the same techniques in experimenting with the object of the hunting namely their food.
Notice the point about the abundance of salt in the soil from the Mentzel quote. It is my guess that the salt content of the plants would have been a lot higher then than it is today and ash from these shrubs would have had a high concentration of sodium. These conditions did not develop overnight and the formation of the salt pits and the accompanying ease of access for humans and animals undoubtedly reach far back into prehistory.
Looking for some indication of past practice
Archaeology is developing sophisticated analytical techniques which will undoubtedly bring concrete facts to light and will clarify the use of salt in prehistory as it is already doing. I may, however, have found some reference in the work of Schapera (1930), The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa and O. F. Mentzel, in his 17778 work, “A Complete & Authentic GEOGRAPHICAL & TOPOGRAPHICAL DESCRIPTION OF THE FAMOUS & (ALL THINGS CONSIDERED) REMARKABLE AFRICAN CAPE OF GOOD HOPE that may be a prelude of sorts to future findings.
Mentzel, in his book, spars with Kolbe who tried to draw parallels between the Khoi and the Jewish people. Mentzel refutes this and makes his arguments off as nonsense. He writes in reference to the Khoi that “they may never eat salt unless they are among the Christians” and later that “Hottentots have no bread and are accustomed to lack of salt from their childhood since most Hottentots live in regions where salt is unobtainable. But when they visit the colonists, leavened bread and food spiced with salt taste excellent to them.” He is incorrect in saying that the Khoe who lived in areas where no natural salt deposits existed were deprived of it. They would have received it from the meat they ingested. Before the colonists arrived at the Cape, the land belonged to the Khoe who lived there and moved in and out of the area. It is however interesting how emphatic he is about the fact that salt was not part of their culture. It is my opinion that the distinction that local people did not have an intimate relationship with salt is a typical European distinction, a bias reflected in the work of many authors of the time and not necessarily bearing any resemblance to reality.
He reveals the value we must place on his opinion when he writes that one should “beware of generalising about anything pertaining to the Hottentots. We shall not have a general history of the Hottentots in a hundred years, and not before someone has taken the trouble to travel not only among their tribes but also among their families and to describe their habits and customs.” Certainly, much of his comments should then be taken “with a grain of salt!” 🙂 In his work, he is not only Eurocentric but derogatory towards the Khoe and for him, the use of salted meat is a sign of the superior culture of the Europeans. Just how much this influenced later interpreter is a good question and how pervasive was this view at the time? It certainly would have skewed their information related to the subject of salted meat.
The first quote of interest from Schapera who is far more objective than Mantzel and is a possible reference to the antiseptic value in ash. He writes, “Scarification seems also to have been employed among the Cape Hottentots, and still is among the Naman, in connexion with a large variety of ceremonies — -boys’ puberty rites, hunting rites, remarriage, healing of disease, etc. It consists in a number of small cuts made by the officiating person on the chest of the individual concerned, and the wounds are rubbed with ashes, producing slight permanent scars.“
It is very likely that one of the earliest encounters of humans with salt was in ash when they scavenged on carcasses of animals killed in wildfires. “Grinding” and “dissolving” was probably two of the earliest investigative techniques developed by early humans, probably even before the invention of technology to produce fire. Once this technology was invented, it took the investigation to another level when they were able to burn and dissolve and salt was undoubtedly have been one of the earliest discoveries in plant ash.
The percentage of salt in ash, however, depends on the plant itself and the soil it grew in. There are also a number of other “salts” besides sodium chloride which would have aided in disinfecting the wound. The alkaline character of ash is the main reason behind its disinfecting ability. It is just as likely that they would have noticed that seawater (salt water) had a similar “cleansing” effect on wounds. Far more complicated mixtures were used as medication from ancient times. It is unlikely that they would not have valued sea and salt water in a similar manner. In a time when nothing was wasted and any human excrement was valued, they may have even kept and stored urine for exactly the same reason. (How did Ancient Humans Preserve Food?) Whether it was kept and stored or not, it is clear that among the Khoi people of southern Africa, urine had a value.
Upham reports on one such a reference, from Mentzel, related to the coming-of-age ceremony of young men. Mentzel writes that “the sons do not mix with adults until they are fairly grown-up and are at least 18 years of age. They are then supposed to have outgrown their childhood and are initiated into manhood. This is accompanied by some ceremonies and a feast, the youth being well rubbed in with fat, soot, and sprinkled with buchu by the oldest inhabitant of the kraal.” (Upham) (Notice the prominent feature of soot)
“The youth, thus liberally smeared with fat, is not slow to scratch deep ruts in the ointment with his hands and nails across the length and breadth of his body so that they can be well filled with the essence to follow. The old man then approaches the youth and urinates all over him, from top to bottom, as long as there is a drop left in his bladder, and the youth busily rubs this costly balsam in as thoroughly as possible to get full use out of it.” (Upham)
Mentzel displays a severe case of misplaced Eurocentricity in interpretation and misses the point when he states that “some writers see in this ceremony a religious act, but it is nothing of the kind, being only a ceremony invented to provide something out of the common and festive, to attract a measure of attention. Similar festive acts are practised by all idolators and heathens which, in the absence of scientific knowledge, have been invented by their priests and druids, to make a hocus-pocus for the common people, and which have neither a mystical nor mythological nor an allegorical meaning. Superstition, which is much worse than unbelief, demands something perceptible and dazzling. The Hottentots possess no skill, imagination or power of invention and have too few things they might pretend to be mysterious. That is why they have seized upon this most convenient means of providing something, at least at such a festivity, a means which they have at hand without any trouble or expense. They use the same ceremony, called the “Pisplechtigheid” (‘Urinal Ceremony’) by the Hollanders, when 2 persons wish to cohabit or get married.” (Upham) Most certainly, the act of urinating on the boys or the couple to be married was filled with meaning and in all likelihood reflected a rich tradition from prehistory. Liquids, potions, and substances of various kinds had a deep spiritual as well as functional meaning and the earliest inhabitants of the region undoubtedly devoted much time to investigating these matters.
A second interesting Schapera quote relates to the naming of tribes. He writes about a group of San called Xom-khoin. He explains this name by stating that it referred to the “people who xom or scrape together” and then says that “the name indicates their method of collecting salt on the Etosha Pan, along whose southern border they live.” This correlates with what one would expect namely a collection of salt by scraping or gathering it from the surface of the salt pan. There is, however, the possibility that he is wrong in his interpretation of the reason behind the name as he himself acknowledges.
The third interesting Schapera quote relates to the knowledge that animals either congregate around water or salt. Schapera describes a hunting technique used by the San where the men “lie in wait for the game on its way to the water, or in the vicinity of a place where it comes to lick salt. The men hide themselves between stones, or dig a hole in the ground, piling up the earth in front and sticking green branches on top to deceive the game. Occasionally, again, several men surround game in a pan, some standing to leeward ready to shoot, while the others drive from wind-ward, approaching from different quarters.”
The observation that animals are drawn to salt is without a doubt one of the ways that early humans discovered the value of consuming salt. Simple observation would have led them to likewise taste the salt and it would have tasted good due to our own physiology in having special receptors that taste it. If for no other reason, humans would have consumed salt even from a time before we developed complex cognition simply because we like the taste. For the same reason, we would have been drawn to honey. This fact alone would place the incorporation of the consumption of salt at least 100 000 years ago and probably much earlier.
“Tasting” as an investigative technique is undoubtedly behind our very early discovery of different salts and working out how to separate them. We would have tasted the potassium in most of the ash compared to the sodium in some. Dissolving the ash in water, scraping off the particles that float and crystallising what was left by evaporating the water is without a doubt a very ancient technique of extracting two different kinds of salt. We would soon have discovered that different salts re-crystalize at different rates by simple observation and by continuing to taste the water.
Schapera, however, gives more details of the Khoe’s relationship to salt. He writes that when they killed an animal, “there is hardly a single portion of the animal not eaten. Even the skin, when not required for other purposes, is roasted in the fire, so that the hair may burn away, and is then cut into strips, which are beaten soft with stones and cooked in water, or preferably milk. All meat is as a rule prepared; sometimes it is cooked in water in wooden (formerly clay) pots, sometimes roasted on spits over the fire, or it may be baked in hot ashes. Fire was formerly made by friction, by the same drilling method as used by the Bushmen.” This was one of the ways that the San and the Khoi added salt to meat.
He then continues with the most interesting reference to meat as it directly speaks to preservation. He writes that “when not eaten immediately, or when plenty of game has been caught and not all of it can be taken home, the meat is cut into thin strips, which are salted and dried in the air. In this condition, it will last for a considerable time, and can also be eaten raw.” This 1930 report on a Khoe practice becomes my earliest possible reference to meat preservation by an indigenous southern African tribe to preserve meat. He writes that “the Boer method of making “biltong” is probably derived from this old Hottentot practice.” As an interesting side note, notice the love of fat which is similar to something I learned from the Maori people. He writes that “meat broth is not specially esteemed, but the fat of the animal, either raw or as dripping, is highly appreciated and is sometimes drunk warm as a separate dish.“
The question is of course if the Dutch farmers saw the salting of Bilting from the Khoe or were it the other way round. I don’t for a second believe that salt preservation of meat was something completely unfamiliar to the San and Khoe people and I am convinced that salt was generally available throughout the region, albeit as a “luxury item” and scarce in many areas. Whether one can rely on one reference from one author in the 1930s to say that the Khoi made biltong and that this is its origin is a hard sell. I think it is far more plausible that biltong is the slight reworking of an old Dutch dish. (Saltpeter, Horse Sweat, and Biltong: The origins of our national food)
Upon publishing this article, M. G. Upham sent me a note and referred me to the work of Anders Sparrman. He published his 1786 account entitled, “A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, towards the Antarctic Polar Circle, and Round the World: but chiefly into the Country of the Hottentots and Caffres, from the year 1772 to 1776. He writes about the Khoe “that they absolutely detest salt.” It is a sweeping statement. I have never come across people who “absolutely detest” salt. The context of the statement refers to the use of salt in meat. If his statement means that they detest the European heavy salted meat – they would be in good company as most people, even in Europe detested this taste which is one of the reasons why sugar was added at this time in curing recipes (to break the extremely salty taste) and why even bacon was first left in fresh water to draw some of the salt out before consuming it.
He says that they either eat the meat fresh or else dry it in the sun. The fresh meat is “dressed” by “broiling” it over coals. According to Sparrman, meat preservation of the Koe was sun drying without salt being added. So far, then, I can only find the statement of Schapera about salt used by the Khoe to produce a kind of biltong. More references by different authors on this matter will swing the weight of the evidence, but for now, I remain sceptical.
There is one further Schapera-reference to look at. He writes about the burial practices of the Khoe people. “As soon as a death has taken place, the body of the person is prepared for burial. Formerly according to a description given by Scheppmann, the hands were crossed over the breast, and the head bent forward between the legs, which were sharply folded at the knee. The body was then fastened together and wrapped in skins. Hahn adds that before the body was wrapped up in this way or sewn up in skins, the son of the dead man first killed a goat and smeared the body of his father with the blood — a practice not mentioned by other writers.” Nowadays the eyes of the dead person are closed, then the body is washed by old women, and stretched flat on its back; the arms lie along the sides, and the hands, palm downward, are folded over the bosom. The body is then wrapped and sewn up in skins, whose hairy side, strewn with huchu is turned inwards. The face remains free till shortly before burial, when it is covered with a bit of skin which has been set aside and which is now loosely stitched to the others.“
The fascinating part of the quote is a reference to a 1712 work by Biden and Kling which says that “in these more degenerate days the body may sometimes be sewn up in old bags, if obtainable, and a small amount of salt is placed on its chest, to prevent it from decomposing. Burial takes place as a rule on the afternoon following the day of death. Till then the corpse is left alone lying on the ground skins in the hut, while the relatives, neighbours, and friends spend the whole night together outside the hut singing.”
The dating of the reference is of interest. It is made 60 years after the arrival of Van Riebeeck at the Cape of Good Hope. The possible reference to meat preservation is certainly in reference to a time before any Western influences changed the Khoe’s burial culture. Of course, there is the possibility that Biden and Kling misinterpreted the purpose of the salt. In reality, placing salt on the chest of the deceased would not have contributed to preserving the body in any way and he states in the very next sentence that the body was buried the next day which makes it even more irrelevant.
Unlike the biltong reference, there are ample references from history, African history and southern African history in particular related to salt being used in preserving human bodies, as a medicine for people who develop complications due to a meat-deficient diet and its value as an antiseptic and the treatment of wounds. These references all stem from Botswana and Zambia and it refers in all likelihood to traditions which predate European influences.
David Livingston, working in Botswana, describes that he often saw conditions in the early 1800s on his travels in Africa, where poor people were forced to live on a vegetarian diet alone and as a result of this developed indigestion. His comment came in the context of a reference to the Bakwains, part of the Bechuana people, who allowed rich and poor to eat from the meat hunted. He mentions that the doctors knew what the cause of the indignation was and that it was related to a lack of salt intake. (Hyde, A., et al.; 1876: 150)
When Livingston passed away in Zambia in 1875, the tribe used salt to preserve his body after which his body was exposed to the sun for 14 days to dry in an embalming ceremony. Livingston’s embalming was done in order to facilitate the repatriation of the body. (Hyde, A., et al.; 1867: 150)
This shows that even though salt consumption in this region was by all accounts low, especially in light of the abundance of the resource, the knowledge of its benefits existed and was a part of pre-Colonial life.
Another credible report came to us from the father-in-law of David Livingston in the person of Robert Moffat (21 December 1795 – 9 August 1883), the Scottish Congregationalist missionary to Africa. The observations of Moffat is reported by Johnston (1914) in his work, Pioneers in South Africa. Around 1826 Moffatt made the following observation which directly speaks to salt as a preservative. Not for animal flesh, but insects. Locusts in particular. He wrote that “whenever a cloud of locusts alighted at a place not far distant from a native town or village, the natives turned out with sacks and even with pack-oxen, and returned to their homes with millions of locusts, which were soon afterwards prepared for eating by being boiled, or rather steamed, in a large pot with a little water, closely covered. After boiling for a short time they were taken out and spread on mats in the sun to dry. Then, by winnowing, they were rid of their legs and wings, and were afterward packed into sacks or thrown in heaps on the clean floors of huts. The natives either ate them whole with a little salt, or pounded them in a wooden mortar into a kind of meal, which they afterward mixed with water and made into a cold porridge of locusts. On food like this, the natives would become fat, and even the missionaries did not refuse to eat the locusts; for, when well fed on new vegetation, they were ” as good as shrimps“
Whenever salt was available and preservation with salt was an option, it can be well imagined that the native inhabitants of southern Africa did not hesitate to use it as such. Indeed, the knowledge was part of this lad before the arrival of Europeans and there is no reason to doubt that it has been the case for aeons of time. It is, after all, not such a difficult thing to figure out!
The abundance of food – a possible reason for low salt usage
It is undeniable that salt was scarce in many regions in southern Africa. This is however not true for vast regions where salt was in abundance. The question comes up why not even in these regions salt never became entrenched in the culture of local peoples, at least not those in recent history that we still had contact with before European influences changed their culture. Deacon (1993) found no evidence that stone age foragers stored plants for future consumption other than oil-rich seeds and fruits used as cosmetics. It seemed that there was a heavy reliance on the bounty of food in the environment and sharing networks. Peoples living in the Kalahari relied heavily on plant foods which in the past possibly made up as much as 80% of all food consumed.
This would have applied to meat preservation also and despite the fact that it occurred, there is no evidence that it was a regular practice by either the Khoe or the San. The abundance of food in prehistoric southern Africa must have been something to behold. I recently spoke to a man who told me when he was a small boy and they went fishing with his father, the size of shellfish they used to pick up on the beach was astronomical. This is a small example of the scale of the abundance of food in southern Africa which places the question of meat preservation in a completely new light. Coupled with this the realization that ancient humans probably ate fermented and partially decomposed meat for the largest part of prehistory, it puts the lack of salt-preserved meat even further in context. BUT, the notion that the people, native to southern Africa did not know about the antiseptic and preserving nature of salt is in my opinion not probable.
Ash in Food
In 2019 Minette and I drove up to visit Lauren at Timbavati Game Reserve where she was doing an internship. On the way there we visited a cave on the way to Echo Caves that have been intermittently inhabited since 85 000 before the present. The interesting thing was the guide at the cave whose memory through his father goes back at least 170 years. He gave a very definitive link between dried meat and salt. Not in the form of salt, but in the form of ash. He clearly remembers his dad telling him that before meat that was hung out to dry is consumed, the meat is either boiled again or roasted in ash.
This speaks to the entire issue of the history of biltong, but it shows that meat was indeed, as one can expect, cooked “in the ash” and was probably done so for many years before cooking pots were invented. That the ash gave a flavour to the meat is evident from the enduring nature of the practice and from the testimony of the elder at the cave. Not only is it improbable for the ancients of Southern Africa not to have known about the preserving power of salt, but in all likelihood, they regularly supplemented their diet with salt through ash. The percentage of salt is dependent on the type of tree or shrub used for the source of the ash, but that they received a variety of minerals through this practice is clear.
FAR more important than any of this, he remembers that they rolled the meat in the ash before it was hung out to dry. He makes a very interesting point that if you don’t do that, how else will you keep the flies and other insects from the meat. This is a remarkable statement. It means that salt and minerals like potassium were definitely applied to the meat BEFORE it was hung out to dry.
I give the video we recorded where I draw these conclusions and also the original interview at the cave.
Elanor Muller sent me the following additional information regarding the practice of drying meat and then rehydrating it in a stew. The Zimbabwean Ndebele people have a traditional dish which they call Ewomileyo. Modern-day people add peanut butter to the dish. This is no doubt done in accordance with an old practice of adding nuts to the meat dish. It is also called Umhwabha or the Zulu name for it is Umqayiba. In Venda, it is done in two ways. Dried meat is placed on a braai or they grill it and stump it. It is then cooked, or dried meat is recooked and mixed with peanuts. All vegetables and meat, mixed with peanuts are called Dovhi.
The fact of dried meat as something that was customarily done when large game was killed is by now a well-documented fact and one that reaches back into antiquity. The thing that everybody probably omits when they describe the practice of drying may be the rubbing of the meat with ash because even in rural Africa today, there are today other ways to keep flies and insects off the meat. In describing the way it is currently done, eyewitnesses may either omit the testimony by the elder at the cave or they may, in reality, use different modern methods. Their purpose in antiquity for rubbing or rolling the meat in ash may have been to manage the flies, but in actual fact, they achieved the rapid kind of dehydration required to lower the water activity in the meat to a level where microorganisms could no longer proliferate. This dehydration (lowering of the water activity) is even today the main reason why salt is used. In many ways, preservation IS the removal of free, unbound water from meat. The dehydration would be achieved through the salts as well as the air movement in the form of wind as the meat hangs in the trees. If this was done in the cool of the day and sufficient dehydration occurred before the meat temperature was raised to levels that would favour microbial growth (through the sun), the ancients of Southern Africa would have indeed cured their meat! If the curing was not effective, the meat would be roasted in ash again, as explained by the elder at the cave, which would have mitigated the off-flavours in exactly the same way as we use garlic or pepper or any other strong spice to “mask” off flavours today.
A few days after our arrival in the far North East of the country, we had a fascinating discussion with Piet Otto. Piet grew up as a Zulu boy, even undergoing their inauguration rights. As a young man, he was so fascinated with the ability of the Bushman to track their pray that he lived with a tribe of Bushman in the wild for almost 8 months. In small pouches, Bushman, to this day carries a small quantity of salt with them for a variety of purposes. He further attests to the practice that many tribes cooked their meat by burying it in the hot ash or laying it on top of the ash and the nice flavour that was imparted into the meat in this manner. He told us that there are many ancient salt mines in the area and that salt was not unknown to the local tribes. They, however, seldom used it in its pure form the way Westerners did and still do.
The clear evidence, however, stands that some local people of Southern Africa salted and dried their meat. The salting was achieved through ash. Once I knew not to look for salt, but for ash, I found the practice remarkably well-documented. In his 1908 publication, Travels in Southern Africa, Henry Lichtenstein records, about the Tswana people from Bechuana Land that “salt properly, they have none; instead of it they make use of natron, or the ash of a certain salt succulent plant: their favourite mode of dressing their meat is to roast it in the ashes.” (Lichtenstein, 1803)
Evidence from 1687
Evidence is clear that the people from Southern Africa were well aware of salt including its use as a preservative. In 1897 George M’Call Theal published his “History of South Africa Under the Administration of the Dutch East India Company, 1652 to 1795″. He tells a story that goes back to 1687 when “a party of shipwrecked men arrived at the bay of Natal.” They were from the Bona Ventura of London which was lost on 25 December 1686 at St. Lucia Bay. “One of her crew was drowned, and the remaining eight men and a boy set out with the intention of walking overland to the Cape of Good Hope, but to their great joy they found at Natal a party of Europeans and a vessel nearly ready for sea. The newcomers were welcomed to a share of whatever the others had, and in return joined them in the labour on hand.”
“Soon after this, the little vessel was launched and named the Centaurus.” He then makes the following fascinating statement. He writes that “a supply of provisions was purchased from the natives (at the bay of Natal), consisting of about six or seven thousand pounds of millet, a thousand pounds of salted and smoked meat, a quantity of millet ground into meal, twenty goats, between two and three hundred fowls, and a hundred and fifty pumpkins. Seventeen small casks of water were put on board, and the ivory which the Englishmen had obtained in barter was shipped.”
The native people of Natal smoked and salted their meat. That is clear.
To complete the story, “the difficult task which they had undertaken was at length finished, and on the 17th of February 1687, a year and a day after the wreck of the Stavenisse, the Centaurus was ready for sea. But at the last moment throe of the Englishmen who had been wrecked in the William Christian of the Good Hope resolved to remain behind. They had formed connections with the natives, and contrasting the ease of life at Natal with the hardships endured at sea, they clung to the former. An Englishman and a Frenchman of the Rmoi Ventura’s crew also preferred to stay where they were. There sailed then in the Centaurtis the eleven men of the Stavenisse, seven of the Bona Ventura, and John Kingston and William Christian of the Good Hope.”
“They had neither chart nor compass, so they kept in sight of the coast all the way to Table Bay, where they arrived safely on the 1st of March.” (M’Call Theal, 1897) The facts of the knowledge of salt and its many uses by the peoples of southern Africa are obscure, but when one begins to dig, it evidence becomes replete. It becomes clear that curing and smoking of meat are not confined to the people of Italy, Germany, Spain or England and that Africa itself has a rich and long history, stretching back into antiquity.
Possible reasons why local people seemed to have been restricted in their use of salt are interesting. They may have been aware, not only of salts preserving ability but also its necessary intake for good health. They worked out meat and ash is good sources of salt and that certain plants yielded more salt than others. Those who lived along the coast supplemented their sodium quotas with seafood.
As far as salts preserving power, tribes used the salt from ash to primarily keep away flies, but in reality, salted their meat.
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Johnston, H. 1914. Pioneers in South Africa. Blackie and Son Ltd, London
Mentzel, O. F.. Beschreibung des Vorgebirges der Guten Hoff-ftung,” published at Glogau in two octavo volumes, the first appearing in 1785, and the second in 1787.
Animal illustrations from Sparrman, A. 1786. A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, towards the Antarctic Polar Circle, and Round the World: but chiefly into the Country of the Hottentots and Caffres, from the year 1772 to 1776. G G J and J Robinson, London
The interviews about salt in another format (not Youtube)