Botswana - Background information


History
Natural environment
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Botswana: the Bradt Travel Guide

Early peoples

Rock art, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana by Radek Borovka, Shutterstock
Archaeological evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer peoples have lived for about 60,000 years at sites like the Tsodilo Hills © Radek Borovka, Shutterstock

Read about the country’s geological history and it’s framed in terms of hundreds, or at least tens, of millions of years. Thus it’s sobering to realise how relatively recent any human history is, and how much more compressed its timescales are. Our knowledge about early human life in Botswana is derived from archaeology and from oral histories, which go back about 700 years. Written records date only from the arrival of Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of these are personal accounts, which are interesting, but subjective. In many places the story is confused and incomplete, or even deliberately misleading.

However, archaeological evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer peoples have lived for about 60,000 years at sites like the Tsodilo Hills in the Kalahari. We know, too, that the ancestors of the Khoisan (comprising both the San and the Khoi people) were once widely dispersed throughout the continent, and probably had exclusive occupation of southern, central and eastern Africa from about 60,000 years ago up to the last 3,000 years.

Rock paintings found at the Tsodilo Hills are evidence that the living was good enough to allow the people to develop a vibrant artistic culture.

Skeletons of a Khoisan-type people, dating back 15,000 years and more, are found throughout southern and eastern Africa. It is believed to be these people who made the rock paintings of people and animals that are found all over eastern and southern Africa and even in the Sahara Desert. The earliest paintings have been found in Namibia (the ‘Apollo 11’ cave) and are thought to date back 26,000 years.

Rock paintings found at the Tsodilo Hills are evidence that the living was good enough to allow the people to develop a vibrant artistic culture. Most experts believe that many of the paintings have deeper significance, probably connected with spiritual, religious or mythological beliefs. It is impossible to interpret them accurately without an in-depth knowledge of the culture and beliefs of those who created them. Unfortunately no group today claims historical responsibility. The local Zhu Bushmen claim that their god, Gaoxa, made the paintings. The animals of Africa, such as antelope, eland, rhinos and giraffe, are the subject of many paintings.

Natural environment

Abridged from the Natural environment section in Botswana: the Bradt Travel Guide

Habitat and vegetation

In many ways a brief description of some of the main habitats for plants is really a step through the various types of environment that you’ll encounter in Botswana. As with animals, each species of plant has its favourite conditions. External factors determine where each species thrives, and where it will perish. These include temperature, light, water, soil type, nutrients, and what other species of plants and animals live in the same area. Species with similar needs are often found together, in communities which are characteristic of that particular environment. Botswana has a number of different such communities, or typical ‘vegetation types’, within its borders – each of which is distinct from the others. The more common include:

Mopane woodland

The dominant tree here is the remarkably adaptable mopane (Colophospermum mopane), which is sometimes known as the butterfly tree because of the shape of its leaves. Although it doesn’t thrive on the Kalahari’s sands, it is very tolerant of poorly drained or alkaline soils, and those with a high clay content. This tolerance results in the mopane having a wide range of distribution throughout southern Africa; in Botswana it occurs mainly in the Okavango–Linyanti region, and throughout the eastern side of the country.

Mopane trees can attain a maximum height of 25m when growing on rich, alluvial soils. These are then called cathedral mopane, for their height and the graceful arch of their branches. However, shorter trees are more common in areas that are poor in nutrients, or have suffered extensive fire damage. Stunted mopane will form a low scrub, perhaps only 5m tall. All mopane trees are deciduous, and the leaves turn beautiful shades of yellow and red before falling during the late dry season. Then, with the first rains, the trees become tinged with light-green young leaves. They flower around December and January, with clusters of small, yellow-green flowers.

Large areas of Botswana are still covered by relatively undisturbed natural vegetation, and hunting is not a significant factor for most of Botswana’s 560 recorded species of birds. Thus, with a range of natural habitats, Botswana is a superb birding destination.

Ground cover in mopane woodland is usually sparse; just thin grasses, herbs and the occasional bush. The trees themselves are an important source of food for game, as the leaves have a high nutritional value – rich in protein and phosphorus – which is favoured by browsers and is retained even after they have fallen from the trees. Mopane forests support large populations of rodents, including tree squirrels (Peraxerus cepapi), which are so typical of these areas that they are known as mopane squirrels.

Pan

Though not an environment for rich vegetation, a pan is a shallow, usually seasonal, pool of water without any permanent streams leading to or from it. Mopane woodlands are full of these small pans during and shortly after the rainy season, the water being held on the surface by the clay soils. They are very important to the game that feeds here during the summer, but dry up soon after the rains cease.

Salt pan

Quad biking, Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana by Brian S, Shutterstock
The huge Makgadikgadi Pans are the residues from ancient lakes © Brian S, Shutterstock

A salt pan is, as its name implies, a pan that’s salty. The huge Makgadikgadi Pans are the residues from ancient lakes. Because of the high concentrations of mineral salts found there – there are no plants there when they are dry. When they fill with water it’s a slightly different story as algal blooms appear, sometimes attracting the attention of specialist filter-feeders like flamingos.

Kalahari sandveld

A number of trees and bushes thrive on Chobe’s extensive areas of Kalahari sand, including various Acacia, Terminalia and Combretum species. ‘Kalahari sandveld’ is a general term that I’ll use to describe any of these plant communities based on sand.

In appearance they range from a very open savannah with a few tall trees separated only by low undergrowth, to quite dense tickets of (often thorny) shrubs which are difficult to even walk through. If you want to be a little more technical about this, then biologists will often divide this into distinctive subgroups, including:

Terminalia sericea sandveld occurs where you find deep, loose sand – these are unfertile areas which cover large areas of the Kalahari. The main species found here are the silver terminalia (Terminalia sericea), or silver cluster-leaf as it’s sometimes called, and the Kalahari appleleaf (Lonchocarpus nelsii). These generally occur with wild seringa bushes (Burkea africana) and the bushwillow (Combretum collinum). Underneath these you’ll often find the rather beautiful silky bushman grass (Stipagrostis uniplumis).

Vachellia erioloba woodlands also occur on sand, but often where there are fossil river valleys that have an underground supply of water throughout the year. Camelthorn trees (Acacia erioloba) have exceedingly long taproots that reach this, sustaining large stands of these mature trees reaching an impressive 16–17m in height. They grow slowly but give good shade, so the bush cover beneath them is fairly sparse.

Vachellia tortilis woodlands are not found on such deep sand; instead they prefer the fine alluvium soils, which water has deposited over time. Although it forms homogenous stands less often than the camelthorns, a number of the very distinctive, flat-topped umbrella thorns (Acacia tortilis) can often be seen together. Between these you’ll find low grasses rather than much undergrowth. This results in a beautiful, quintessentially African scene which fits many first-time visitors’ picture of the continent as gleaned from the blockbuster film Out of Africa.

Floodplain 

Floodplains are the low-lying grasslands on the edges of rivers, streams, lakes and swamps that are seasonally inundated by floods. The Okavango and, to a lesser extent, the Linyanti–Chobe region has some huge areas of floodplain. These often contain no trees or bushes, just a low carpet of grass species that can tolerate being submerged for part of the year. In the midst of most of the floodplains in the Okavango you’ll find isolated small ‘islands’ slightly raised above the surrounding grasslands. These will often be fringed by swamp forest.

Fauna

Mammals

Because the Okavango area is so well-watered, its natural vegetation is very lush and capable of supporting a high density of game in the dry season. This spreads out to the surrounding areas during the earlier months of the year – accounting for the sheer volume of big game to be found in northern Botswana’s parks and private reserves.

Overall, Botswana’s large mammals are typical of the savannah areas of southern Africa. The large predators are here: lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog and spotted hyena. Cheetah are found in higher densities here than in most other areas of the subcontinent, and northern Botswana has one of Africa’s three strong populations of wild dogs.

Elephant and buffalo occur in large herds that roam throughout the areas where they can find water. Black and white rhino, which had largely been wiped out throughout the wilds of northern Botswana, have now been reintroduced into the private areas of Moremi and the Delta, and are gradually spreading across the region.

Antelope are well represented, with impala, springbok, tsessebe and red lechwe all numerically dominant in different areas – depending on the environment. The sheer range of Botswana’s ecosystems means that if you move about there is a really wide range of totally different species to be seen. 

Pelicans by the waterside, Botswana by Pearl Media, ShutterstockDepending on the time of year, you can catch huge flocks of pelicans just after the rains © Pearl Media, Shutterstock

Birds

Large areas of Botswana are still covered by relatively undisturbed natural vegetation, and hunting is not a significant factor for most of Botswana’s 597 recorded species of birds. Thus, with a range of natural habitats, Botswana is a superb birding destination.

There are fairly clear distinctions between the birds that you’re likely to find in areas of swamp or open water, those that frequent riverine forest, and those found in the drier areas. None are endemic, though several have very restricted distributions. These include the slaty egret and the wattled crane, which are restricted to the Okavango, Linyanti and Chobe river systems, the brown firefinch, and the Natal nightjar. The Okavango Delta is a particularly good place for birdwatching as the habitats change from dry, to flooded, to deep-water over very short distances.

In addition to its resident bird species, Botswana receives many migrants. In September and October the Palaearctic migrants (ie: those that come from the northern hemisphere – normally Europe) appear, and they remain until around April or May. This is also the peak time to see the intra-African migrants, which come from further north in Africa. The rains from December to around April see an explosion in the availability of most birds’ food: seeds, fruits and insects. Hence this is the prime time for birds to nest, even if it is also the most difficult time to visit the more remote areas of the country.

People and culture

Social groups or ‘tribes’

The people of Africa are often viewed, from abroad, as belonging to a multitude of culturally and linguistically distinct tribes – which are often portrayed as being at odds with each other. Whilst there is certainly an enormous variety of different ethnic groups in Africa, most are closely related to their neighbours in terms of language, beliefs and way of life. Modern historians eschew the simplistic tag of ‘tribes’, noting that such groupings change with time.

Sometimes the word ‘tribe’ is used to describe a group of people who all speak the same language; it may be used to mean those who follow a particular leader or to refer to all the inhabitants of a certain area at a given time. In any case, ‘tribe’ is a vague word that is used differently for different purposes. The term ‘clan’ (blood relations) is a smaller, more precisely defined, unit – though rather too precise for our broad discussions here.

Generally there is very little friction between these communities (whose boundaries, as we have said, are indistinct), and Botswana’s various peoples live peacefully together.

Certainly, at any given time, groups of people or clans who share similar language and cultural beliefs do band together and often, in time, develop ‘tribal’ identities. However, it is wrong to then extrapolate and assume that their ancestors will have had the same groupings and allegiances centuries ago.

In Africa, as elsewhere in the world, history is recorded by the winners. Here the winners, the ruling class, may be the descendants of a small group of immigrants who achieved dominance over a larger, long-established community. Over the years, the history of that ruling class (the winners) usually becomes regarded as the history of the whole community, or tribe. Two ‘tribes’ have thus become one, with one history – which will reflect the origins of that small group of immigrants, and not the ancestors of the majority of the current tribe.

Botswana is typical of many African countries. As you will see, there are cultural differences between the people in different parts of the country. However, in many ways these are no more pronounced than those between the states of the USA, or the different regions of the (relatively tiny) UK. There continues to be lots of inter-marriage and mixing of these peoples and cultures – perhaps more so than there has ever been, due to the efficiency of modern transport systems. Generally, though, there is very little friction between these communities (whose boundaries, as we have said, are indistinct), and Botswana’s various peoples live peacefully together.

Culture

Men of the Bushmen tribe, Botswana by Dietmar Temps, ShutterstockMen of the Bushmen tribe attempt to start a fire © Dietmar Temps, Shutterstock

Botswana’s diverse ethnic mix results in an equally diverse cultural heritage, although the importance of music and dance runs like a common thread throughout. Visitors to the country will often be treated to displays of traditional dancing and singing that will reflect in part the area in which they’re based, and in part the traditions of those taking part.

Arts and crafts

While the ancient rock art of the Tsodilo Hills has gained international recognition, modern visual arts are much harder to find, at least outside of Gaborone, which is home to the National Museum and Art Gallery.

Visitors, however, should have no problem in finding examples of local crafts, especially basketwork. The tradition stems from items woven for practical purposes such as storing or winnowing grain. Most of these are produced by women from the Bayei and Hambukushu groups in northwest Botswana, where the mokolwane palm – source of the fibres for basket weaving – is widely grown. Now increasingly popular as souvenirs, these baskets can be deceptively complex in construction, something that is reflected in their costs. Many are plain, but others have intricate patterns woven into their design.

Clay pots also have their place in traditional culture, being used both for storing water and for brewing beer, as well as for cooking. In rural villages, such pots were moulded from natural clays, then baked in the sun to dry, but today most potteries use kilns to fire their work.

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