Rise of the Toutswe Kingdom Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Archaeological evidence shows that the Toutswe kingdom existed in a territory flanked by the Zambezi River in the north and the Limpopo River in the south, from approximately the early ninth century to the fourteenth century.

Summary of Event

The Toutswe culture of southern Africa developed from a group of Bantu Bantus people whose language derived from the Sala-Shona branch of languages. The Bantu populations that came to be known by historians as the Toutswe seem to have inhabited lands also utilized by the Khwe (non-Bantu-speaking) populations of livestock-herding, wild-food-gathering peoples. [kw]Rise of the Toutswe Kingdom (9th-14th centuries) [kw]Toutswe Kingdom, Rise of the (9th-14th centuries) Toutswe kingdom Africa;9th-14th cent.: Rise of the Toutswe Kingdom[0830] Agriculture;9th-14th cent.: Rise of the Toutswe Kingdom[0830] Government and politics;9th-14th cent.: Rise of the Toutswe Kingdom[0830]

Archaeological excavations carried out by James Denbow demonstrate that early cattle raisers, who practiced many of the lifeways indistinguishable from the later Toutswe, began to settle Toutswe sites beginning in the seventh century. These sites are characterized by hilltop settlements, scattered homesteads, and evidence of cattle raising. The evidence indicates that the region occupied by the Toutswe state was previously occupied for several centuries by Bantu speakers, coinciding with the Iron Age developments that were occurring in the late first millennium in many regions of Africa.

The Toutswe economy was agropastoral, with a population inhabiting communities that were organized as scattered homesteads. These separated settlements probably were a response to sparse food sources and limited natural resources, which were unable to support denser settlements. The settlements were also typically located near water sources—probably another reason that the homesteads were scattered.

The Kalahari Desert is believed to have served as one of the hunting grounds for the Toutswe people. The most important sources of meat for the Toutswe were domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats, but large bovids, such as the zebra, the eland, and the wildebeest, enhanced the main sources of meat for the Toutswe. Other sources of food were cultivated crops: millet, sorghum, nuts, and melons. Hunting, Toutswe

The headwaters of the Limpopo River served as the primary settlement grounds for the Toutswe. Here they settled in large hilltop communities in locations that offered security: Hilltops are easily defended against attacking enemies. Their settlements were arranged in a circle, and the buildings themselves were circular.

Large Toutswe settlements and villages have been identified by the presence of a grass, Cenchrus ciliaris, whose reflective properties make it easy to identify in aerial photographs. It is believed that these grasses thrive in the soil left by cattle in kraals (pens or enclosures), where the animals’s dung has enriched the soil with nutrients especially favorable to the grass’s growth. The grass thus became a marker for Toutswe settlements. The presence of Cenchrus ciliaris has also pointed to three main settlements—Toutswemogala (which means Toutswe Hill), Bosutswe, and Shoshong—at three main hilltop sites. Evidence suggests that these three dominant subkingdoms of the Toutswe existed by the twelfth century.

Each of the three main hilltop sites encompassed an area covering just over 1.5 square miles (more than 40,000 square meters). At these main hilltop sites, archaeologists have uncovered enormous dung deposits and remains of trade items from the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. The largest site, Toutswemogala, was occupied for approximately five hundred years and covers more than nearly 4 square miles (100,000 square meters).

Secondary sites covered an area half that of the three main hilltop sites. Typical of these sites are Mmadipudi, Thatswane, and Taukome, occupied for approximately two hundred to three hundred years. The kraal deposits of the secondary sites were large but not comparable in size or volume to that of the main site, Toutswemogala. Trade items have also been found at the secondary sites.

Yet smaller, tertiary sites include Maipethwane and Kgaswe, which range from about about 2,400 to 6,000 square yards (2,000 to 5,000 square meters) in area. The tertiary sites contain small kraals usually around 33 yards (30 meters) in diameter. Numerous ceramics and stone artifacts have been found at these tertiary sites.

There has been speculation of a fourth-level site, which arose from the finding of stone concentrations indicating that certain elements of the Toutswe milieu focused on hunting and gathering rather than herding and farming. The stone concentrations include stone tools and spears, used particularly for hunting. Whether these were Bantu or non-Bantu populations within the realm of Toutswe rule remains unknown.

Various organizational features distinguish the three tiers of the site: length of occupation, size of cattle kraals, proportion of exotic trade items, relative numbers of domestic stock, the area of land covered by houses, and additional variations in features of the settlement communities.

From the various sites and archaeological evidence, it is clear that the Toutswe kingdom was a hierarchal society, consisting of three primary economic or social classes, determined by the quantity and quality of cattle possessed. Cattle announced the class and wealth and were used for significant social and political transactions. Those with the most cattle occupied the top of the social hierarchy and lived on the hilltops in elaborate homesteads that were capable of housing hundreds of cattle. Local chiefs possessed fewer cattle and lived in smaller homesteads, typically 7,000 square meters (about 8,400 square yards) in size. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the majority of the Toutswe people. Their homesteads were approximately 1,000 square meters (836 square yards) in size, and they were fortunate if they possessed a small livestock pen. In some of the smaller hilltop villages and all of the capital towns, there were the essential large community cattle kraals. Cattle;Toutswe and

The increase in trade across the Indian Ocean after the commencement of gold mining in the twelfth century greatly affected the value of cattle to the Toutswe culture. Although cattle retained their value as a food source, they began to decline as a form of wealth as surrounding states de-emphasized the value of cattle. With luxury items such as gold and imported foreign goods in circulation, cattle were no longer the most important means to gain social power and political importance. Higher-order Toutswe sites began to see a decline in the value of cattle, which in turn led to a reorganization of cattle herding. The cattle were shifted from core centers to lower-order communities as the higher-order classes began to accumulate other forms of wealth.

The Toutswe kingdom came to an end between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although the reasons are unclear, the Toutswe people evidently moved elsewhere and abandoned their homesteads. Various explanations have been put forward: A drought may have caused the Toutswe to move eastward, or too many cattle may have caused a drain on resources and finances. The scattered hierarchical layout of the kingdom may have contributed to the demise of the Toutswes, as well. The greater population had continuously growing herds of cattle whose grazing was more than the land could support, evidenced in remains at Taukome, where the Toutswe often slaughtered juvenile and postreproductive animals to help control herd maintenance.


The exact cause of Toutswe decline is unknown, but scholars hypothesize that severe environmental degradation from cattle raising, environmental shifts from desertification (expansion of the Kalahari), dissensions within the state, or a combination of these are the most likely causes of the collapse. Another distinct possibility is that Toutswe’s decline was the result of the increasing power of Great Zimbabwe to the east. As resources were drawn toward Great Zimbabwe, neighboring states may have found it difficult to compete or maintain their established standards of living.

Toutswe was one of the few centralized states of interior southern Africa. While there were many populations of nonsedentary hunter-gatherers in this region prior to the emergence of the Toutswe state, at the cusp of the first and second millennia, there is little material evidence of those populations. Thus the archaeological evidence on Toutswe sites provides important insights into the probable lifeways of earlier populations in the Botswana region of southern Africa, including with which other communities the Toutswe may have had social or economic interactions.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denbow, James R., and Edwin N. Wilmsen. “Paradigmatic History of San-Speaking Peoples and Current Attempts at Revision.” Current Anthropology 5 (1990): 489-524. Discusses the importance of food gatherers in Botswana.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Isichei, Elizabeth. A History of African Societies to 1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A general history of Africa that includes ethnographic descriptions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McIntosh, Susan Keech, ed. Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Contains a section on the excavation of Bosutswe from 1990. Demonstrates how the enclosed towns were laid out, where vitrified dung was located, and where granaries were located.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A survey of African history through archaeological data. Includes a small section on Toutswe and maps that identify the kingdom’s location.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Thurstan, Paul Sinclair, Bassey Andah, and Alex Okpoko. The Archaeology of Africa: Foods, Metals, and Towns. New York: Routledge, 1993. Covers a number of historical topics in ancient and medieval African history, from climate and geography to Iron Age tools and economies. Draws heavily on archaeological data, with a section on Toutswe archaeological traditions.

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