New arrivals to Zambia
The Zambian Stone Age people probably resembled the present-day San, but towards the end of the period here, there is evidence, from skeletal remains, of Negroid physical features, the first indication that the hegemony of the aboriginal population is coming to an end. During the centuries between 300BC and 400AD Zambia was gradually taken over by Negroid people, who by the later date had occupied the whole country, even if so sparsely in some areas that the earlier way of life persisted into the present era.
The newcomers’ material culture was radically different from that of the Stone Age. They were cultivators who kept domestic animals, they mined and worked metals, made pottery and lived in lath and plaster houses. We cannot know what language these Early Iron Age people used, but they were possibly the first of the ‘Bantu’ speakers – Black Africans whose millennia-long migration from, it is believed the Nigeria/Cameroon highlands, has made them dominant over most of the continent south of roughly 7 degrees N – a process completed in South Africa in 1994.
A glance at the National Heritage Map of Zambia shows that Early Iron Age sites occur throughout the country and in the south this population was probably dense enough to displace (or absorb) the aboriginals completely. Iron Age technology triumphed, not merely because metal made good strong weapons, but because the how, axe and the knife allowed agriculture to establish itself and to expand through the forests. Slash and burn, known as chitemene is the prominent system of agriculture in parts of Zambia to this day.
As iron ore does not outcrop everywhere, there was no doubt trade between places producing the metal and others which could sell, for example, dried fish from lakes or rivers, pottery or salt.
Besides Iron, copper began to be mined and refined about 350 AD. It was used to make jewellery and, cast in the for of a cross, as currency: as copper is today Zambia’s largest industry that this has been a mining country for at least 1600 years.
The archaeological record shows that by 800 AD the Early Iron Age population was becoming less homogenous, with for instance, distinct pottery styles in different areas and indications that political entities were developing. Some of these were related to the control on mineral resources and trade routes, and by 1300 AD the Early Iron Age had been superseded by a more complex culture.
In the Zambezi Valley, a few dozen kilometres downstream from the present Kariba Dam is a site called Ing-ombe Ilede (where the cow lies down) which was uncovered accidentally during civil engineering works in 1960. Here, one below the other, are villages dating from about 700 – 1000 AD and another from about 400 years later. The first settlement is typically Early Iron Age, but the second testifies to a far more sophisticated economy. The pottery is of a much higher quality than that found elsewhere in the country: the dead, presumably only the rulers, were buried with beads of gold (probably from the mines of Zimbabwe) and with copper currency crosses. There were also large numbers of glass beads which could only have been imported from the Indian Ocean seaboard, 1000 kilometres to the east of the site where the Muslim Swahili were trading with Asia. (The Ing-ombe Ilede Treasure, as it is called, is on display at the Livingstone Museum)
Ing-ombe Ilede was obviously a small commercial state or principality, ruled by nobles, perhaps a plutocracy – and markedly different in structure from the village societies of the preceding period. It was a prototype of the kingdoms which characterised the Later Iron Age. They like Ing-ombe Ilede had firm trade patterns with the distant outside world.
The centuries between 1500 and 1800 AD saw many of the peoples of Zambia organised into chieftaincies or monarchies. The Chewa in the East, the Lozi in the West, the Bemba and Lunda in the North, were the largest of these, all established under the influence, some as direct extensions of the large and powerful Lunda Empire of the Mwata Yamvo in what is now southern Zaire. By the 18th Century, probably much earlier, the empire was trading with the Atlantic Coast, and other states on the eastern seaboard, where the world economy was represented by the Swahili city-states from Somalia to south of the Zambezi delta. Copper, ivory, rhino horn had a ready market as well as slaves.