Economic and Ideological Roles of Copper Ingots in Prehistoric Zimbabwe

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The collections in the Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences in Harare include a number of copper ingots (Figure 1) found by chance on the ground surface or as a result of shallow diggings, particularly during ploughing. None of them has been recovered by archaeological excavation; hence none can be securely dated by association with datable material from the same stratified deposits. Similar material excavated from a burial site at Ingombe Ilede (Fagan et al. 1969) across the Zambezi River in Zambia provided relative dates, and an important study of the Zimbabwean material argued convincingly that many of the ingots were products of the Mbara kingdom in the mid-second millennium AD (Garlake 1970). Here I refine the chronology of the ingots found in Zimbabwe, and enhance and enlarge the interpretation of their social significance.

Copper in Zimbabwean prehistory

Copper was evidently in use in southern Africa from the inception of farming in this region. Archaeology shows that agriculture and animal husbandry expanded into the summer rainfall areas of eastern and southern Africa and this is thought to coincide with the spread of Bantu languages into the same region, reaching southern Africa roughly 1800 years ago and gradually replacing the existing hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the centuries that followed. The set of radiocarbon dates available shows that copper was extracted and smelted in south-east Congo in the mid-fourth century AD (de Maret 1982) and north-western Zambia from the mid-fifth century AD (Bisson 2000). It was smelted at Chinhoyi Caves in the eighth century AD (Robinson 1966) and probably at the Gokomere Tunnel site in central Zimbabwe in the seventh century (Robinson 1963). Copper was mined at Phalaborwa in South Africa from the eighth century (van der Merwe & Scully 1971). Archaeological copper mine workings have been recorded in several areas of Zimbabwe (Stagman 1959; Summers 1969) but little is known about which specific population groups mined or had political control over these resources. Research at Copper Queen Mine, in the north-west, established that the copper resources there were mined from the latter half of the first millennium AD until the fifteenth century and again in early colonial times (Swan 2002).


Copper was usually used for items of personal adornment, specifically beads and bangles, and seldom for manufacturing utensils. Fragments of copper have been found in the earliest dated farming settlements in Zimbabwe and South Africa (Robinson 1961; 1963; 1967; Maggs & Whitelaw 1991; Miller 2002). Copper bracelets, beads and ingots were in use at the Zambian site of Kumadzulo in the sixth to seventh century (Vogel 1972) and copper beads and chain links were used at Makodu in eastern Botswana in the late first millennium AD (Kiyaga-Mulindwa 1992). From these early beginnings, copper was used more frequently and it was common for people to adorn themselves with copper bangles and beads during the second millennium AD (Swan 1994).

Copper ingots in Central Africa

Analyses of ingot moulds from the Zambian Copper Belt and ingots from Zambia and the Upemba depression (de Maret 1995; Bisson 2000) provide a comparative base which, together with Garlake's work in the Urungwe district of Zimbabwe (Garlake 1970), enable reconstruction of a broad chronology for ingot types in Central Africa (Table 1).

De Maret speculated that the cross form developed from mid-first-millennium AD flat bar-shaped ingots found in Zambia, some of which had concave ends (de Maret 1995; Bisson 2000), gradually giving rise to the four arms of the cross shape. HI ingots may be a chronological link between the bar-shapes and HIH croisettes. Ceramic moulds for HIH croisettes on the Zambia-Congo border showed that the earliest of these were manufactured from the ninth to the twelfth century. By the thirteenth or fourteenth century, HIH croisettes were traded northward and were found in Kabambian (A) period burials in Upemba, principally at the site of Sanga (de Maret 1999). …