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Southern Africa the Birthplace of Iron Mining

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Iron mining is one of the major occupation of African during the medieval period, contrary to the belief that African learnt iron mining through their European counterpart

Southern African history contains many valuable historical gems, most of which are unknown in popular cultures, like the discovery of an Egyptian statue inscribed with a cartouche of Pharaoh Thutmose which was brought to our attention by the general history of Africa and even the casual mention of a possible writing form discovered by a Portuguese visitor to the southern African kingdom of Vatua. Apart from these intriguing gems, southern Africa has even more to offer. 

The discovery of iron, in general, is considered by some to be a very important period in human history, scholars tend to break up historical periods based on technological advancement or discovery and the use of iron is certainly one of those valuable historical moments.

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Iron mining can be seen throughout the globe as one of the important phases of human development but what makes Africans in the southern regions unique is that they’re believed by some scholars to have been a world leader, being the first to have an iron mine on the planet. 

Many archaeologists have dedicated their lives to studying the birthplace of iron mining but unfortunately many spent most of their time in the Middle East because it’s considered by some to be the cradle of human civilization, no one investigated the continent of Africa as being a possible candidate. 

Many believe that Persians or Assyrians introduced the knowledge of iron into Africa, very few scholars challenged this idea but the first two prominent scientists to consider Africa as a birthplace of knowledge of iron was Franz boas and Raymond Dart.

franz boas
franz boas
Raymond Dart
Raymond Dart

In Zambia, Raymond carried out research and found a prehistoric mine in which they found tools that were later confirmed to be of great antiquity, upon this discovery Raymond concluded that mining in southern Africa dates back to the Stone Age period but he was met with much resistance and skepticism from western academia. In America, Franz Boas was heavily ridiculed when he and his colleagues suggested that it was Africans who made the first discovery of mining and it was they who separated iron from iron ore by smelting. Franz is quoted as saying the following “it seems likely that a time when the European was still satisfied with the rude stone tools the, African had invented and adopted the art of the smelting iron”.

it wasn’t until 1967 that Franz and Raymond’s work was proven to be true when it was announced that the oldest iron mine in the world has been found at the Bomvu ridge in northwestern Swaziland.

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Ancient mining tools were discovered which piqued further interest in its significance. Archaeologists rushed to the site after its discovery and after much work, they found ancient mining tools and some charcoal which is an indication that fire was being used to separate iron from iron ore.

The Bomvu ridge represents the oldest known mining operation in the world and much older than anything that had been found before.

Most of the site at Bumvu ridge was used to mine specularity for the use and manufacture of cosmetics and other facial creams, however, the finding at Bumvu ridge also indicated that southern Africans certainly knew about iron way before people outside of the continent.

There were several passageways at the site and some of them led to the production of iron, Archaeologists found tools such as choppers wedges chisels, and hammers.

Research also indicates that women may have been involved or at least present at the mining site. African women could have duties such as carrying the iron ore to the smelting site as well as preparing food. 

All of this, of course, is speculative but it is interesting to note that according to the evidence iron was being mined in Southern Africa as early as the middle stone age which is quite impressive considering the stages which the rest of the world was supposedly in.

The oldest iron mining in the world was found at the base of a cliff face on the western slope of the lion peak. This great mine of antiquity called the lion cavern (Ngwenya) yielded a remarkable variety of ancient mining tools. 

The initial excavation conducted inside it produced many Iron Age shirts and stone implements. A few months later after further extensive excavation, several stone mining tools and a variety of more complex implements were unearthed in the cavern. 

Charcoal samples from the site were sent to the University of Groningen for carbon dating the charcoal samples were dated back to around 41 000 bc.

The antiquity and extensive history of mining iron and other earthbound Aquas in southern Africa is such a great testament to early African technology and innovation, the idea that Africans were leading the world in this arena is something that should be explored further and expounded upon.

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