Upper Zambezi Iron Age Sites

Early Iron Age sites of southwestern Zambia.
Southwestern Zambia has a rich archaeological heritage that is completely different to that on the southern banks of the Zambezi. That's because the drainage system on the Zambian side of the river lent itself far more easily to the rudimentary farming techniques of the Bantu-speaking Iron Age pastoralists. They first appear in the archaeological record approximately 2000 years ago. While there is a record of almost continual settlement in the Zambian marshlands, there is a patchy early Iron Age history across the river in Zimbabwe. The river itself must have been a formidable barrier to southern expansion of early Iron Age communities, the low carrying capacity of what is now northwestern Zimbabwe must also have been something of a deterrent. In contrast the dambos of Zambia enabled these early communities to sustain themselves by growing sorghum, tending livestock and hunting and fishing.The bi-annual movement of the greater Zambezi system, expanding into the flood plains towards the end of the wet season and ebbing again towards the end of the dry season, dictated the rhythms of human settlement. By the end of the first millennium, there was a far more established set of communities on both sides of the river. Among the more interesting Early Iron Age sites of southwestern Zambia are those detailed on the map above.

1. Kumadzulo

This was a large 7th century village about 55km northwest of Livingstone on the edge of the Bovu River dambo. Archaeologists believe it was burnt down before it was abandoned, but have determined that it consisted of several sub-rectangular, 2 to 3m wide huts that had mud floors and walls made of upright poles interwoven with grass and covered with clay.

They assume thatch grass was used for roofing. Kumadzulo was part of a large agricultural community in which people kept cattle, grew sorghum or millet, hunted wild game and fished. A large collection of iron artifacts was found during excavations, including axes, knives, spearheads and arrowheads, while fish hooks, grinding stones and a cow figurine were also discovered. An intriguing find at the site was a fragment of green glass, which indicates that there was some form of trade with communities further afield.

2. Chundu Farm

The remains of an 8th century village were discovered about 20km upstream from the Victoria Falls. Among the finds were a number of shallow graves containing human remains, the skeletons found with their knees up against their chests and their arms folded over them. A number of pits alongside the graves contained what appear to have been deliberately buried funeral offerings that may have indicated the deceased's wealth. Each pit contained at least one hoe, with the largest having a hoe, axe, copper and iron bracelets, cowrie shells and ostrich egg beads. In only one grave were funeral offerings part of the burial - a pit lined with pieces of pottery.

3. Kamangoza

This was a small agricultural settlement dating back to the 10th century and was part of the Kalomo Tradition at a time when agriculture was strongly supplemented by hunting and gathering. The presence of copper at Kamangoza indicates trade with communities in northern Zambia.

4. Dambwa

This important site lies in what is today western Livingstone. It was seriously damaged by sand extraction and only a small section was left intact by the time archaeologists were made aware of its existence. Several small excavations revealed the remains of a village, a good collection of pottery and iron tools and a couple of poorly preserved skeletons.

5. Sinde, Simbusenga and Mukuni

These were early Tonga sites where the huts were small and round (diameter about 2,5m) with wall poles set in shallow trenches. There is more evidence of clay figurines from this era, with a model of huts and bird effigies found at Simbusenga. Many of these figurines were buried in pits at the base of baobab trees, which often formed the centre of villages. Iron hoe blades and cattle bones are more frequently found in excavations from this era compared to earlier times.Brett Hilton-Barber and Lee R. Berger. Copyright 2010 Prime Origins.

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