Early Inhabitants

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Information provided by Hans Bornman from his unpublished book, Lowveld Tour Guide:

Inhabitants of the Lowveld pride themselves in choosing this part of the world to live in, knowing that it has a wonderful climate, beautiful scenery, a great variety of vegetation and an abundance of wildlife. They are by no means the first to come to this conclusion, for Mpumalanga Province could be the very cradle of humanity.

Some three million years ago an advanced hominid (Australopithecus), with long arms and a small brain roamed this area, and made his first most primitive stone tools from pebbles. He was followed about 1,5 million years later by a direct predecessor of man, namely Homo erectus, who had the capability of making relatively more complex stone tools.

The next step is the giant step from the Early Stone Age to the Middle Stone Age. Research indicates that this took place about 100 000 years ago when true Homo sapiens first emerged. What is even more exciting is that evidence indicates that this transition occurred here in Mpumalanga and Swaziland. For example, it is known that between 28 500 and 46 000 years ago hematite was mined on Dumaneni, ancient red ochre mine, situated 6 km south of Malalane ), and Lion Cavern, a site in the nearby Ngwenya mountains of Swaziland, which are the oldest mines in the world. The Swazi word for red ochre is ‘ludvumane’ and means ‘power four times the sound of thunder’. The use of red ochre endows great power, which only chiefs and the most highly qualified priest-diviners are permitted to wear, covering their whole bodies and hair with the powder which has been mixed with animal fat. Hematite is also used for wall paintings and even for adding to ceremonial burials in order to represent blood.

Further indications are that the San (Bushmen) also mined the ochre on Dumaneni and at Lion Cavern for centuries before the arrival of the first Black nations. Hundreds of paintings have been found in rock shelters in the Lowveld and the south-eastern part of Mpumalanga.

Middle Stone Age implements is smaller, finer and more sophisticated than those of Early Stone Age, and this marks the much greater brain capacity of Homo sapiens. Hard stone was selected and prepared in the form of a ‘core’ from which stone flakes were struck. These flakes were then used as blades, scrapers and burins, all of which helped in preparing animals and plants for food.

The Late Stone Age is also well represented in the Province and is associated with small, delicate stone implements including arrow heads. They were also the first to make bored stones as an aid to digging and for weighting wooden spears for game traps.

By now we are approaching recorded history. Some 1 500 years ago, Negroid tribes appeared, leaving behind them a history of iron and copper production, tending primitive cattle and sheep, planting a few crops and maintenance of relatively large villages. These people evidently migrated from the north and brought with them various skills including the making of sophisticated pottery. Early Iron Age pottery sites have been recorded in various sites in the Province. Also, there is the now famous Lydenburg site, in the Long Tom Pass area, where Early Iron Age art works in the form of unique clay heads have been unearthed. These have been dated to about 400 AD and constitute a unique art event for that period, in the whole prehistory of Africa.

Finally came the massive second migration of people from the north, around about 1 400 AD, with their huge herds, large populations, sophisticated iron-smelting and typical stone-walled villages.

But before we close – one last jump backwards in time, to 2 000 million years ago. In the mountains in the Barberton area, ‘stromatolites’ have been found, which are the remnants of blue-green algae. The stromatolites are oldest in the world and represent the first period in the earth’s history when significant volumes of oxygen were added biologically to the earth’s atmosphere, thereby preparing the way to the next step in evolution.