George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.

Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Sotho mind-mapping diagram

Part Ten
Spread of Pastoralism to the Bantu
— 51 —

The last wave of Bantu expansion, occurring within the historical period, carried the Tswana branch of the Sotho peoples westward into the country now known as Bechuanaland, where they engulfed the indigenous Bushmen. This began around 1720 and continued until after the beginning of European contact in 1801.
The tribes that constitute the Sotho province occupy Basutoland and a considerable area in the interior of the Union of South Africa, in addition to Bechuanaland. Aboriginally they adjoined the Shona and Thonga in the northeast, the Nguni in the southwest, and Bushmen in other directions.
Whatever the reason, political or otherwise, none of the many ethnographers who have described the Sotho peoples has mapped the territories they occupied prior to the Great Trek and to subsequent encroachments by Europeans. The tribal locations indicated on Map 17 are based on fragmentary scraps of information in the literature, and thus doubtless err in serious respects.
The Sotho fall into four major branches:

  • Southern, or Sotho proper
  • Western, or Tswana
  • Eastern, or Pedi
  • Northeastern, or Venda

The Kgalagadi, though here placed in the Western branch, actually constitute a distinct division from a linguistic point of view. The Lovedu, though linguistically closer to the Eastern branch, belong culturally with the Venda. The following classification of tribes omits population data on those of the large Tswana (Bechuana, Becwana, Betschuana) cluster, who number in all about 800,000.

  1. Hururshe (Bahuruthse, Khurutshe).
  2. Kgalagadi (Bakalahari, Bakxalaxadi, Batlaopa, Dighoya, Kalahari, Makalahari, Vaalpens). They are strongly mixed with and acculturated to the Bushmen.
  3. Kgatla (Bakgatla, Bakxatla).
  4. Kwena (Bakwena).
  5. Lovedu (Balovedu, Lobedu), with the Khaha, Makxiba, Mamidja, Narene, Phalaborwa (Borwa), Sai (Shai, Tsubye), and Thabina (Moxoboya) . They number about 80,000.
  6. Ngwakerse (Bangwakerse).
  7. Ngwato (Bamangwato).
  8. Pedi (Bapedi), with other tribes of the Eastern branch. They number about 770,000.
  9. Rolong (Barolong).
  10. Sotho (Basotho, Bassouto, Basuto). Their language, alone among Sotho dialects, contains clicks. They number about 1,400,000.
  11. Tawana (Barawana, Batwana).
  12. Tlhaping (Bachapin, Batlaping).
  13. Tlharu (Batlaro, Batlharu).
  14. Tlokwa (Batlokwa, Dokwa, Tokwa), with the Birwa (Babirwa, Virwa), Kolobe, Koni, Malete (Motlese), Mamavolo, Matala (Madala), Molepu, Tlhako, and Xananwa.
  15. Venda (Bavenda, Bavesha, Bawenda, Vhavenda), with the Lemba (Abalempa, Bahere, Balemba, Bamwenya, Baremba, Malepa, Muwenji, Nalemba, Namgeni, Vhalemba, Wahere, Waremba). They number about 135,000.

A number of authorities have bracketed the Venda with the Shona as the Bantu tribes associated with the culture of Zimbabwe. As evidence they cite the presence among them of the Lemba, an itinerant tribe of metalworkers, potters, and merehants, who allegedly possess markedly Semitic features and who exhibit a number of cultural traits that distinguish them sharply from their neighbors, e.g., circumcision, absence of totemism, tribal endogamy (unless the alien spouse is ceremonially adopted), a predilection for fish, burial in an extended rather than a crouched position, a distinctive new-moon ceremony, and a taboo on eating the flesh of animals unless their throats have been cut before death. The fact that they reveal no trace of either Judaic or Islamic religion, however, argues against the hypothesis of their descent from Jewish or Moslem traders of the Arabic period. Could they be a remnant of the Cushitic founders of Zimbabwe? Their fondness for fish, to be sure, is un-Cushitic, but the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea records a similar exception for the ancient Azanians (see Chapter 26).
The Lovedu and Venda tribes in the northeast closely resemble the neighboring Shona in most aspects of culture. From this we may reasonably assume that they reflect the ancestral culture of the Sotho as a whole in the many respects in which these people differ from other Southern Bantu. The basic economy provides one example. The Lovedu and Venda raise the very same crops as the Shona and display the same emphasis upon agriculture as opposed to animal husbandry. In all Sotho tribes except these two, together with the Pedi and Tlokwa, animal husbandry ranks with agriculture in importance. Goats, dogs, chickens, and a few sheep are kept, but cattle hold the center of interest. The roster of food plants duplicates that of the Nguni, and maize here too has replaced sorghum as the staple. The Sotho peoples do a moderate amount of hunting but no fishing, even among the Lovedu and Venda. len hunt, herd and milk the livestock, and clear new land, but leave most agricultural operations to the women. In contrast to all other Sotho, the Lovedu and Venda do not observe the usual ritual separation of women and cattle, although women usually milk only in emergencies.
Cone-cylinder dwellings with thatched roofs and walls of wattle and daub prevail throughout the province. They are grouped in small hamlets, or kraals, among the Lovedu and Pedi, in larger villages with a central plaza among the Venda. Other tribes exhibit a totally different settlement pattern, consisting of a large town with a number of satellite villages or hamlets. Tswana towns often have populations of 5,000 or more and are divided into wards.
In general, a territorial organization into wards has replaced a structure based on kinship. Though wards and subwards bear some resemblance to clans in their composition, this is merely incidental, resulting from the prevalence of patrilocal residence. Patrilineal sibs with animal names exist, but they do not regulate marriage or fulfill any other significant function. Most Sotho, indeed, permit marriage with any first cousin, even a father’s brother’s child.
The Lovedu and Venda resemble other Sotho tribes in requiring a substantial bride-price in cattle, in practicing general and preferentially sororal polygyny, in establishing each co-wife in a separate hut, in observing patrilocal residence, and in possessing kinship terminology of the Iroquois type, but they differ radically in most other aspects of social organization. Both have exogamous, corporate, and localized patrilineages, though sibs are agamous. The Venda are even characterized by double descent, since they also possess matrilineages which function prominently in the ancestor cult. The Lovedu, like the Shona, group their sibs into phratries on the basis of totemic resemblances.
Both the Venda and the Lovedu favor marriages with a mother’s brother’s daughter, which in the latter tribe actually constitute 60 per cent of all marital unions. The Lovedu even group lineages into rings to expedite and stabilize their rule of matri lateral cross-cousin marriage. Within such a ring, women pass from lineage to lineage in one direction, and the cattle received for them in marriage payments circulate in the opposite direction. This exemplifies perfectly the system of “generalized exchange” described by Levi-Strauss (1949).
The Lovedu, incidentally, demonstrate how unsafe it is to infer the functioning of a social system from its structure. With polygyny, patrilocal residence, patrilineal descent, local exogamy, and patricians, the Lovedu structure brings together in a settlement a group of closely related men who have known one another since childhood and a disparate collection of adult women assembled from other localities and often initially strangers to each other. It might seem reasonable to infer from this a low and depressed status for the female sex. The exact reverse is true. By capitalizing upon certain possibilities inherent in the system, women have gained for themselves an enviable position.
First of all, they have turned polygyny to their own advantage. Most African societies reguire a polygynous husband to treat his wives impartially. The Lovedu women insist on this with unusual strictness, so that if a man exhibits the slightest act of favoritism toward one wife, all of them “gang up on him” and render his life miserable until he makes amends. Since a single wife lacks such a punitive weapon and can perhaps even be dominated with relative impunity, the first objective of a woman, when she marries, is to plan and scheme to obtain a second wife for her husband. Small wonder that the Lovedu women, when they observed the deterioration in status of the wives of the first monogamous converts to Christianity, presented a solid front against further missionary enterprise.
Second, the women have assumed the principal role in the arrangement of marriages. The preference for matrilateral cross-cousin marriage gives the mother an obvious advantage over the father in negotiating with her brother to obtain a daughter of the latter as a wife for her son. In this way women have gained large control over bride-price payments. If one wife has more daughters than sons, bringing in more cattle than are going out, the husband cannot claim the surplus to pay the bride-prices for his sons by other wives. Instead, the fortunate mother “invests” the excess cattle with her lineage mates in prepayment of the bride-prices of her daughters’ sons. Alternatively, a woman with a plethora of daughters may assume a male role, paying bride-prices for women as her own “wives.”
Women have even achieved political power. Like the Venda and many Shona tribes, the Lovedu have long been organized in a moderately complex state with a territorial administrative organization and a divine monarch. The latter must be physically fit and may not continue to live if any serious blemish develops. Around 1800 a woman succeeded to the throne, presumably in default of male heirs, and the Lovedu have not had a male ruler since. Indeed, over approximately the next century and a half they had only three monarchs, all women, suggesting that female common sense overrode all such nonseme as killing the divine king. Actually the case is not quite so simple, for the female kings continued to respect the principle, and the second of them, in 1894, committed suicide by poison when she judged herself no longer fit to rule.
We have spoken advisedly of the Lovedu monarchs as “female kings” rather than as queens because they very consciously play a male role. They take no husbands but do marry a large number of wives. It is apparently from among the children of these latter women, not those borne by the ruler in her own promiscuous sex life, that the successor is chosen. If such is actually the case, the Lovedu present the only instance on record where a woman’s own children are, by cultural definition, necessarily illegitimate.
The Southern and Western Sotho reveal a totallydifferent type of political organization. Their states are based on conquest and resemble closely in many respects those of the Zulu and other Nguni tribes, which doubtless served as their model. However, they incorporate a number of features specifically adapted to the absorption and integration of alien peoples, including both voluntary immigrants and conquered groups. Individual tribes differ in modest respects, but the organization of the Tawana will serve as a reasonably representative example.
The Tawana themselves reside mainly in the capital town of Maun, where they are organized into wards under hereditary leaders. When the ruler dies, new wards are split off for his younger sons, being strengthened by the affiliation of dependent alien elements. Such accretions, coupled with the occasional affiliation of the families of resident sons-in-law and sisters’ sons, prevent the ward from becoming a genuine patrician. The principal conquered tribes, the Koba and Mbukushu, are organized into districts, each with its hereditary native chief, and these in turn into wards. Tribute flows through this territorial hierarchy into the capital, where the district chiefs are required to live and where the ruler has his counselors and personal servants and retainers.
Like all Sotho tribes except the Lovedu, the Tawana keep no slaves. They do, however, exhibit a complex stratification into four social classes:

  1. A hereditary aristocracy comprising the ruling Tawana tribe
  2. Commoners, consisting largely of the fully absorbed Koba and Mbukushu people
  3. Aliens, comprising recent and as yet unabsorbed refugees from other Bantu tribes
  4. Hereditary serfs, mainly Bushmen and Kgalagadi, who are attached to chiefs and other prominent men for whom they herd, till the soil, and perform menial household labor.

A special form of conditional servitude also prevails among the Tawana upper classes. Chiefs and other wealthy men give cattle and other livestock to friends, who are free to use them in any way, even to kill them, and to transmit them to their heirs. The donor, however, may repossess them at any time, together with, not only their increase, but all the recipient’s possessions. This, however, occurs extremely rarely, usually only for disloyalty or refusal to render assistance when called upon. The ruler makes much use of this technique to bind his friends and leading counselors to him in such a way as to assure their enduring loyalty.

Selected Bibliography


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
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