Evidence recently uncovered, has pointed to the possibility that black Africans were likely the first humans to engage in mining around 43,000 years ago. Deposits of minerals at Ngwenya Mine, located on the northwestern border of Swaziland in southern Africa, were worked on at least 42,000 years before this present day. The key minerals extracted were likely red haematite and specularite (sparkling ores).
The civilization and time in which these mines were used were of Middle Stone Age. The glorious African civilizations flourished and spread in southern Africa for almost 100,000 years, much until around 20,000 years ago. Much of the red ochre was later used by the present San (bushman) people of present-day Swaziland for their paintings.
Even the Swazi names of these pigments “libovu” (red ochre) and “ludumane” (sparkling ochre) are pointers to the possibility of these mineral exploitations having started since prehistoric times.
Around 400AD, Bantu-speaking people arrived from north of the Limpopo River, the majority of whom were agro-pastoralists who smelted iron ore. They went ahead to extract the ore using heaving iron hammers and then traded the iron widely across the region.
In modern times, there is an open cast mine that was created in 1964, where iron ore is mined. It signaled and served as a catalyst for the industrial and economic development of Swaziland. Much of the infrastructure, including the railway lines and electrical wiring, was established on the backbone of the open cast mining system. Also, the Matsapha Industrial Site development was a direct result of the need to feed the open cast mine.
Considered one of the oldest mines on the planet, charcoal lumps, and molds from the mine site were sent for radiocarbon dating in 1940. The result indicated they dated back to 43,000BC. However, there is a strong possibility the mine itself could be older than the stated date. There is growing evidence the ores were mined as early as 23,000BC.
Evidence of ancient mining tools found at the site indicates they were more specialized and foreign to those found at the Stone Age sites. These were choppers, picks and hammers cut from dolerite. The tools presently show clear evidence of early mining activities that were widely found even in rock paintings.
While the mine is of historical importance to the Swazi people, it also contains a history of early industrial development for the Southern African region. The mining of iron ore, which was also supplied to other parts of the region, led to a gradual change of tools in the region from stone to iron over time.
These mines serve as a testament to a culture of mining that has all but disappeared in the modern age. Swaziland, therefore, celebrates and hold in high esteem a people who used their technological prowess to influence industrialization in the region even in prehistoric times the presence of the mine helped to fasten the change from stone tools to iron as well as encourage the wide use of red ochre in rock art and paintings.
Comparison with Other Similar Mines
Though there are a plethora of other old mines around the world, such as the Great Copper Mountain in Falun (Sweden) and the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine in Japan, they all point to a far later period (13th and 16th century respectively), and they all boasted of mining one single mineral.
Ngwenya, apart from dating back to around 43,000BC, is also renowned for being the site for the mining of such rare-earth as specularite, used in cosmetics across the region. The site also shows evidence of three mining activities which is the Lion Carven mine for specularite and red ochre, Castle carven for 400AD iron ore mining and two open casts for the 1964-1977 modern iron ore mining.
It also shows that, long before the Europeans came with modern mining tools, black Africans have also perfected the art and science of mining. Finally, while earlier mines used such modern tools as shovels, the mines at Ngwenya made wide use of choppers, hammers, and picks made from dolerite.
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