Disrupting past narratives - Ruby-Anne Birin in The Conversation

Ruby-Anne Birin (DPhil Archaeological Science) writes in The Conversation "How pots, sand and stone walls helped us date an ancient South African settlement". 

Based on her research, recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Ruby has broken new ground about the Bokoni sites of South Africa, and solved a mystery that’s puzzled scientists for decades – when the first sites were built. Her research findings could disrupt past narratives that decry the presence and ability of African farmers before and during colonisation. 

Ruby-Anne Birin, Maria H. Schoeman, Mary Evans, (2021) The construction and habitation of one of the earliest homesteads at Komati Gorge Village 1, Bokoni, South Africa, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Volume 38.


Bokoni is a unique archaeological region in South Africa, with settlements ranging from scattered homesteads to large towns. Research into the development of this region has been constrained by the limited number of directly dated sites. Radiocarbon dating has not yet been successful in the region because no charcoal-hosting middens were found, and organic preservation is generally poor due to soil type and related moisture retention. As an interim measure, oral histories were used in combination with architectural and spatial changes to define four occupation phases in Bokoni. However, this approach is not applicable to Phase I sites because these predate oral traditions, which narrates Bokoni history from the 17th century onwards. Consequently, until this research, the age of the start of terrace construction was unknown.

Here, we present optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) ages of pottery and sediment samples from two homesteads (KG80 and KG81) in the site Komati Gorge Village 1, which based on settlement configuration, is believed to form part of Phase I. The dates constrain the timing of the initial construction and use of homestead KG80 from 1489CE ± 54 to 1577CE ± 30, and reuse of KG80 by the builders of KG81 from 1682CE ± 20 to 1765CE ± 20. KG81 itself was occupied and reused from 1738CE ± 19 to 1912CE ± 7.