Recent Past of The Victoria Falls

Artist Geoff Hunter's painting of early traders crossing above the Victoria FallsAbout 2 000 years ago, new migrants from further north in Africa brought with them not only a new way of life, but a completely different ideological relationship to the land. These were the Bantu-speaking pastoralists, who introduced farming to southern Africa.Adept at smelting and forging iron into agricultural implements and weapons, the Bantu speakers initiated a dramatic shift in human culture in the subcontinent as they gradually displaced or absorbed existing hunter-gatherer communities.

Their presence in the Zambezi Valley dates back to about 1?600 years ago, their legacy revealed in the decayed housing and storage structures, iron tools and broken pottery that have been found at several sites on the sand escarpments above the Zambezi flood plains.

Initially, these newcomers established semi-permanent communities, growing millet and sorghum and tending cattle, staying in one location for a few seasons before moving on.

Pottery as a Pointer to The Past

Archaeologists often rely on broken pottery to interpret the past. The problem, however, is that there is no simple way of knowing how this reflects historical reality - does the pottery indicate groups of people with a common language, political unity, a common history or simply just the style favoured by a local group of potters and their clients?

This results in conflicting academic interpretations and often considerable vitriolic debate. The Victoria Falls sequence is no exception.

Our current understanding of the Victoria Falls ceramics suggests a changing sequence starting from between the 5th and 8th centuries. A marked change about the 10th century may represent a new migrant population from the west, but could as easily have been in situ evolution of this form. By the 12th century, a new pottery style appears to have spread southward from northern Zambia and was integrated into existing communities.

This probably represents the evolution of the Tonga peoples. Further regional variations have been noted, but their significance remains uncertain.
Traditionally, pottery was a craft practised only by women. According to Shona folklore, only women beyond menopause were allowed to collect the clay used in making pots, because of the ancestral taboo on mixing blood and milk.

Pictured here: Early Tonga pottery from the Victoria Falls area, from the 6th century (above) and from the 13th century (below)

Between 600AD and 800AD, there appears to have been particularly intensive human settlement in the Victoria Falls area. Permanent settlements of up to 200 people in each village were invariably sited along the edge of seasonally flooded, marshy watercourses known as dambos.Iron Age historian Joseph Vogel has argued that these dambos were an important feature of village life - wells were sunk in the watercourses, and the soils were rich and fertile so they were ideal for grazing livestock and cultivating crops on a sustained basis.

These communities were probably self-sufficient yet, as Zimbabwean historian Rob Burrett has pointed out, they were probably linked to other communities in the wider region through marriage and the trade of scarce resources such as salt, ivory and copper.

A marked feature of these earlier periods was the extensive use of decoration that characterises their pottery. This style is best known from several sites just west of Livingstone including the site of Dambwa near the international airport.

Grinding maize and sorghum is a local tradition stretching back almost 2 000 years

By the 10th century, however, there seems to have been a depopulation of the area, probably due to climatic shifts that adversely affected agriculture. Hunting and gathering may have assumed a renewed importance as indicated in excavations at Kamangoza and Simbusenga near Livingstone although agriculture would have remained the basis of society. This period was known as the Kalomo Tradition and is characterised by a distinctive, somewhat simplified decorative style.

By the 12th century, there appears to have been a repopulation of the Victoria Falls region in what historians call the Early Tonga Tradition. Vogel believed that early Tonga-speakers moved into the area and formed joint villages with the Kalomo people already present. From this point on, villages were no longer restricted to the edge of dambos and spread out into other habitats.

This may indicate changes in farming methods, which laid the foundation for the manner of community life that has continued in rural Zambia until recent years. A distinctive cultural development that accompanied the Early Tonga Tradition was the manufacture of clay animal and human figurines.

In time, these simple communities evolved into more extensive, centralised political systems with a national kingship supported by a hierarchy of regional chiefs and headmen. These indigenous states were made possible by the ruling elite controlling resources such as cattle, labour, minerals, surplus food production and trade.

Power and Stability

The success of both the Lozi and the Nambya states lay in their incorporation of diverse groups into a centralised system. The scattered and politically fragmented Tonga clans of the Victoria Falls area would have been persuaded to acknowledge the power of these two groups, and would have paid their tributes with dried fish, game meat, honey, ivory and smithed iron products. It does not appear that slavery was practised on any large scale at any stage in the region.One such kingship that remains today is that of the Lozi, who have their origins in the Congo Basin. Oral tradition has it that they established themselves in the Barotse flood plains of southwestern Zambia during the 17th century, and it is a tribute to their social cohesion that they have managed to maintain a distinct identity to this day.Historically, the Lozi were the dominant grouping north of the Zambezi, while, on the south bank of the river, the Nambya state, a Shona-speaking group, rose to prominence during the 12th and 13th centuries. They were a dominant political grouping until they were crushed by the invading Ndebele under Mzilikazi around 1838.At the time of Livingstone's expedition along the Zambezi in 1855, the Lozi had been displaced by a Sotho-speaking elite known as the Mokololo, and it was their principal chief Sekeletu who first guided the British explorer to the Falls. Sekeletu was eventually overthrown by the Lozi elite who re-established their dominance along the Zambezi, heralding a period of bloody civil and inter-community strife that culminated in several battles in the Victoria Falls area during the 1870s and 1880s.The Lozi Litunga (king) Sepopa resorted to feeding many of his subjects to crocodiles in the Zambezi, and these reptiles used to gather in large numbers eagerly awaiting his executions, which used to take place on the river above Mwandi (Old Sesheke).

Image: Czech explorer Emil Holub's impression of canoes at Sesheke. Courtesy Rob Barrett

The Matabele attacked the Lozi three times during the 1880s in their bid for dominance towards the end of the 19th century. It is said that the Lozi and the Tonga had a hiding place between the third and fourth gorges below the Falls, to which they used to retreat during these attacks, and that all boats were hidden on the north bank of the river.

Brett Hilton-Barber and Lee R. Berger. Copyright © 2010 Prime Origins.

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