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Wells of Experience: A pastoral land-use history of Omaheke, Namibia

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Wells of Experience: A pastoral land-use history of Omaheke, Namibia


"The conventional view on the Kalahari in southern Africa expresses that the area is unsuitable for livestock herding. For this reason, it is argued that livestock herders avoided the Kalahari in the past and were only able to establish themselves in the later half of the twentieth century, when deep-reaching boreholes were introduced in the area. An effect of this concept was that the archaeological record of pastoralists in the Kalahari either was perceived as non-existent or received little attention from scientific enquiry.

Based on an archaeological survey in the Kalahari of the northeastern part of Namibia, the purpose of this study is to construct an alternative approach to the archaeology of livestock herding. The aim is to contribute to a better understanding of the areas unrecorded land-use history.

I depart from the notion that the main ecological constraint for dryland pastoralism is the availability of dry season water and fodder resources. For this reason, the fundamental basis for a pastoral land-use system is places that contain dry season resources. By reviewing recent ecological research, historical and anthropological accounts and previous archaeological research, I establish a link between livestock herders’ procurement of dry season key resources and the practice of digging wells. The link can be motivated from the pastoral ambition of accumulating livestock and high water requirements in the restrained dry season. On this basis, I suggest that artificial wells are useful indicators of pastoral land use in the Kalahari.

The most crucial task for the study is to address the archaeological visibility of pastoral well sites. By a research approach integrating the theoretical understanding of pastoralism and a methodology including ecology, archaeology, history and the knowledge of the people who keep livestock in the region today, the archaeological survey revealed 40 well sites, including nearly 200 well structures that have all been used for watering livestock.

However, it would be unfortunate if a study of pastoral wells would solely address the ecological foundation and the archaeological visibility of pastoralism. I suggest that the wells signify the labour of peoples with common or separate histories, with or without own herds, but probably talked about in relation to herds. I will also argue that the wells can be used for tracking and reconstructing a pastoral land-use system that predated the colonial era. Furthermore, the wells can be used to identify changes of the land-use that took place during the twentieth century, which involved that livestock herding was more or less abandoned in large parts of northwestern Kalahari.

The study surmises that the critical historical perspective is valuable for development projects and conservationist interventions active in the region, especially in the light of the recent trends in the dryland ecology, which shows a larger appreciation for the indigenous understanding of the management of dryland ecosystems. With modifications, the developed approach can be applicable for land-use historical research elsewhere in southern Africa."


Karl-Johan Lindholm


Uppsala Universitet




Bernard C. Moore


PDF File




PhD Dissertation



Karl-Johan Lindholm, “Wells of Experience: A pastoral land-use history of Omaheke, Namibia,” Namibia Digital Repository, accessed April 23, 2019,

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