Climate and the mfecane (with erratum)

  • Michael Garstang 1 Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA 2 Simpson Weather Associates Inc, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
  • Anthony D. Coleman Battlescenes Tours, Dundee, South Africa
  • Matthew Therrell Department of Geography, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA
Keywords: southern African drought, Natal history, coupled ocean–atmosphere model, tree-ring analysis, volcanism


The mfecane is thought to be a massive upheaval and devastation of Nguni tribal chiefdoms in the second decade of the 19th century in what is now KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Other historians have challenged this extreme interpretation suggesting that the use of the term mfecane be discontinued. We show that pervasive cycles of drought and cold periods in southern Africa are significantly amplified and extended by volcanic eruptions and that, in particular, the eruption of Tambora in 1815 triggered a prolonged and extreme climatic event which bears all of the characteristics ascribed to the mfecane. These findings are supported by a coupled ocean–atmosphere numerical model and by tree-ring rainfall and sea surface temperature analyses, suggesting that the term mfecane is an appropriate description of a singular climatic event.


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