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.
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.
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.