Botswana - Background information

Natural history
People and culture

The lush landscape of the Okavango Delta by Pearl Media, ShutterstockThe beautiful, lush landscape of the Okavango Delta © Pearl Media, Shutterstock


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

Early peoples

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.

Botswana and the British

British foreign policy in southern Africa had always revolved around the Cape Colony, which was seen as vital to British interests in India and the Indian Ocean. Africa to the north of the Cape Colony had largely been ignored. The Boers were on the whole left to their farming in the Transvaal area, since they posed no threat to the Cape Colony.

However, from the 1850s to the 1870s the Batswana leaders appealed to the British for protection against the Boers, who had formed their own free state ruling the Transvaal, but were continually threatening to take over Batswana lands in Botswana.

When Germany annexed South West Africa (now Namibia) in 1884, the British finally began to take those threats seriously. They became afraid that the Boers might link up with the Germans and prevent British access to the ‘north road’, leading to the interior of Africa – now Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was really to safeguard this road that the British finally granted Botswana protection in 1885. Significantly, the German government was told about the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland before the chiefs in Botswana.

Natural history


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.

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).

Acacia 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.

Acacia 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.



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. Rhino had largely been wiped out throughout the wilds of northern Botswana, though are now being slowly reintroduced into one of the private areas of Moremi, and on the western edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Initially, only white rhino were brought in, but black rhino are now being reintroduced too.

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.

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.

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


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.

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.


Men of the Bushmen tribe, starting a fire, 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.

Bessie Head’s book, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, offers an invaluable and very readable introduction to Batswana culture, Bamangwato style. (The Bamangwato tribe rose to ascendancy over the other tribes, following the Difaquane Wars. This was due partly to their prime location for trading contacts and partly to visionary leadership.)

The book gives a wonderful insight into an African village and the lives, knowledge and skills of the inhabitants. Writing in 1981, Head describes Serowe as a typical traditional village. Most people had three homes: one in the village, one at the lands where they ploughed, and one at the cattle post where they kept their cattle. The homes were all round, thatched mud huts and people moved from home to home all the time.

We learn how the homes are constructed – that the walls of the mud huts were built and externally decorated by the women, but were thatched by the men. The weaving of grass baskets was a woman’s occupation, but tanning hide to make leather Batswana mats and blankets was a man’s profession.

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