Negotiating meaning and change in space and material culture: an ethno-archaeological study among semi-nomadic Himba and Herero herders in north-western Namibia

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This contextual archaeological narrative explores the relationship between material culture and social relations, with reference to social, economic, environmental and political changes taking place in Himba and Herero settlements in far north-western Namibia. A starting point is that changes in the organization of space and use of material culture cannot be understood as merely expressing changed social and economic conditions and/or changed value systems. It is necessary to examine how socio-economic conditions and cultural values and ideas work together to transform, produce and maintain cultural representations. By focusing intimately on one semi-nomadic herding community over a five-year period,(where domestic space has to be reconstituted, both physically and conceptually, each time a group relocates,} the study probes how meaning is differentially invested in the spatial order that people build and live in, how the material goods they make, borrow, lend, buy and use recursively come to have and hold meaning, and how and why this meaning changes. In mapping space and material goods at more than 100 wet season and dry season camps and homesteads, a number of discourses are tracked: changing gender relations, changing relations between different generations, people's relationships with natural resources, the spatial relations of former hunter-gatherers now living as herders, as well as material culture conformities and nonconformities between Himba and Herero households. A key concern is to re-empower social actors, past and present, in the creation of (archaeological) meaning. A number of case studies show that meaning is not inherent in space or material goods; people activate meaning by their strategic interpretations. This has implications for both method and theory in archaeology, as well as for the contemporary research and rural development process in Africa. While challenging assumptions about what is knowable from the past's material remains when such remains are, inevitably, recontextualized in a particular present, the thesis contributes to knowledge about material culture and social change and thus offers a number of research directions which could contribute to a more reflexive, dialogic and socially relevant archaeology.

University of Cape Town
PhD Thesis
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