A Million Years of Heritage

Written By: The Lowdown - Oct• 30•12

The LuangwaValley- those three words evoke images of elephant, lion, leopard or perhaps a carmine bee eater.   Whatever your wildlife preference, the Valley is renowned for its natural beauty, and rightly so.  Less well-known is its long and rich cultural history.  Did you know that people have lived in the Valley for at least one million years, or that the first farmers arrived 2,000 years ago?  Probably not, unless you just happened to bump into the researchers from the University of Liverpool, England, who have been working in the Valley in recent years.  The first phase of their ‘Past Peoples and Environments’ programme is now finished, and before the second begins it is time to take stock, look at a few highlights and consider the uncertain future of the Valley’s cultural heritage.


How long have humans lived here?

When the project started, no one could say just how long humans have lived in the Valley, and we are still trying to answer this basic question.  Stone tools litter the surface in some areas – and have been reported since the 1930s – but such finds tell us only that the tools are there, not when they were made.  To establish the age of the artefacts we need to find them buried in sediments where they have lain undisturbed.  Modern scientific dating methods can then give us an age range for the sediments surrounding the artefacts – that is the good news.  The bad news is that the sands of the Valley are difficult to date using conventional methods, so we have had to use more experimental techniques.  The results tell us that early humans were already in the Valley one million years ago, and probably much earlier.  Similar stone tools have been found in the Rift Valley of East Africa where they have been dated with great accuracy to at least 2.6 million years old using volcanic sediments.  Unfortunately, we don’t have such sediments in the Valley and there is another problem we face with the early record: it is eroding away.  Our one dated site is (was) along an active tributary of theLuangwa, and seasonal flooding has washed away the sands containing the oldest stone tools.


But there is no need to despair, because erosion also reveals new sites. In a large and still unexplored region we can and must rely on ‘nature’ to do some of the hard work for us.  The public can help by reporting any new exposures with stone (and bone if you’re extremely lucky) to the National Heritage Conservation Commission and the Zambia Wildlife Authority (and not picking things up!).  Our research also suggests that very early sites may be preserved closer to the Muchinga Escarpment, further away from the erosive effects of seasonal flooding.  Part two of the project will target this more remote area, and we hope to bring a new dating method into the field which will help unlock the age of the very earliest human settlement.


Farmers meet hunters 2000 years ago

At the other end of the time scale, theLuangwaValleycan now boast some of the best evidence in the region for the arrival, 2000 years ago, of farmers who brought with them a new way of life.  They arrived in a landscape already inhabited by peoples who lived by hunting and gathering foods.  Humans have long been hunters and we can see evidence of inventions in the archaeological record – like the stone-tipped spear – that made us even more effective predators.  The bow and arrow was a later innovation (perhaps 70,000 years old in southernAfrica) that came into use well before farming.  The ‘Later Stone Age’ hunters and gatherers of the Valley left their characteristic small stone tools over large parts of the landscape.  With a little training, you can quickly spot these artefacts that once were the hafted inserts of knives, scrapers and arrowheads.


A combination of systematic survey with excavation has given us an excellent understanding of where these hunter-gatherers lived in the Valley during the past 10,000 years.  They chose locations that offered a mix of water, plant and animal foods and the resources for making tools.  The escarpment and Nchindeni Hills also provided rock shelters as temporary homes, and these were often painted in the same geometric patterns found elsewhere inZambia(visitNachikufuCaveor the many caves at Kasama to see examples of this widespread tradition).


For me, the most interesting ‘moment’ in the Valley’s long prehistory was the first contact between the resident hunter-gatherers and the immigrant farmers.  Two very different cultures met 2,000 years ago, and from the archaeological, historical, and genetic evidence we’ve gathered we can say that they lived side-by-side.  It is only recently (circa 1800 AD) that we lose sight of the Later Stone Age peoples.  Some may have adopted farming and others may have left the Valley in search of hunting grounds elsewhere.  Perhaps their descendants are the Batwa who live today in the wetlands of northern and centralZambia.  The fate of the Valley’s first peoples will be a focus of our next phase of research.


A heritage for all to see?

We have just scratched the surface of the Valley’s prehistory, figuratively as well as literally.  Huge gaps remain in our basic understanding of all periods, but at least we have made a start on piecing together this enormous puzzle.  Another challenge now remains: to find a local home for all the artefacts we have uncovered.  The people of Mfuwe and visitors alike ought to be able to see and learn from this material.  That is not yet possible, but we hope that a local heritage interpretation centre will be built soon which can be a place of study, education and enterprise.


We have more than prehistory in mind – the predecessors of the dinosaurs once roamed here.  There is much recent history too from European explorers including Livingstone to the ravages of the slave trade, and in the 20th century the establishment of the national park and the relocation of the Bisa and Kunda.  The heritage interpretation centre is one way of giving back a past to the Valley’s humans as well as helping to make a more informed future – for locals and for tourists.


To learn more about the proposed heritage centre: www.liv.ac.uk/giving/africa


By Larry Barnham



A potsherd representing the early farmers in the Valley



Stone pick ('Early Stone Age') more than 300,000 years old

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