Ngwenya Mines

Date of Submission: 31/12/2008
Criteria: (iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Swaziland National Trust Commission and Swaziland National Museum
State, Province or Region:
Swaziland, Hhohho
Ref.: 5421

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Ngwenya Mine is situated on the north-western border of Swaziland. Its iron ore deposits constitute one of the oldest geological formations in the world, and also have the distinction of being the site of the world's earliest mining activity.

Deposits at Ngwenya were worked at least 42 000 years BP (Before Present) for the extraction of red haematite and specularite (sparkling ores). The peoples concerned belonged to the Middle Stone Age, which flourished in southern Africa for about 100 000 years, until almost 20 000 years ago. The red ochre was also used by later peoples. the ancestors of the present San (Bushman) peoples for their rock paintings, of which there are many in Swaziland. The Swazi names of these pigments "libovu" (red ochre) and "ludumane" (sparkling ochre) indicate that exploitation of these minerals extended into historical times.

By about 400AD other, Bantu-speaking, peoples had arrived from north of the Limpopo River. They were agro-pastoralists who also smelted iron ore. They extracted the ore by using extremely heavy iron hammers and traded the iron widely throughout the region.

There is modem open cast mine which was opened in 1964 to mine iron ore. The open cast mine was a catalyst to industrial and economic development for Swaziland. The railway line and the electricity reticulation lines were established because of the open cast mining. The Matsapha Induslrial Site area was developed as a direct result of the needs and proceeds of the open cast mining.

On the same site there is a sacred pool that is widely used by the local community. The community believe that the waters form this pool can heal different illness and misfortunes.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

This mine is known to be one of the oldest mine in the world. In 1964 charcoal nodules from the site were sent for radio carbon dating and a date of 43000BC was obtained making this one of the oldest known mining operation in the world. However the mine can be older than this date. It is thought this ores were mined until 23000BC. Ancient mining tools found in the site were more specialised and foreign to those that were found on Stone Age sites. These were choppers. picks and hammers made of dolerite and were identified as mining tools. They produced evidence of early iron ore mining and mining of red ochre that was widely wed in cultural activities and in rock paintings. C14 dates obtained before hand place the beginning of iron ore mining at about 400AD. This mine constitutes of two mines. The red ochre and haematite mine which date to 43000BC and the iron ore mine which date back to 400AD.

This mine is not only important to the Swazi people but it contains history of early industrial development for the Southern African Region. Iron Ore was also mined and supplied to other parts of the region. This iron ore mining eventually led to the gradual change of tools in the region from stone tools to iron tools.

Criteria (iii): The mining technology dating back to 43000BC is representative of a period in the development of ancient traditional industries in Southern Africa. This is extinctly demonstarated in these mines as it starts with the mining of cosmetics (red ochre and specularite).

The mines bear a testimony of a cultural tradition of mining that has disappeared. The country therefore celebrates a group of people and technology, although disappeared but was able to influence the whole subregion as it lead to the gradual change from stone tools to iron tools as well as the wide use of these minerals (red ochre) in rock art.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The site maintains a high degree of authenticity and integrity in material and substance. There has been no attempt to rebuild the walls and roof of the mine. The Dresent state is as a result of the age of the mine and human factors (during the modem mining period which was closed down in 1979). The entrance to the mine and the two channels are still clearly visible including the haematite and glittering specula rite are still in their beautiful different colours.

There are no new materials introduced except for a staircase and viewing platform that is blending with the environment which enhance the authenticity of the site. The site is also about 300m away from the parking bay making it less likely to be disturbed by cars and other human related activities.

There are, however, development threats as the Government is considering reopening the mine. The site is, within the Malolotja Nature Reserve (it acts as a buffer zone) which is a protected area and mining within it, is strictly prohibited by the Swaziland National Trust Commission Act of 1972.

Comparison with other similar properties

Though the world has other mines for earlier periods like the mining area of the Great Copper Mountain in Falun (Sweden) and the lwami Ginzan Silver Mine in Japan, they all date to a far later period (13th and 16th century respectively). They all boost of mining a single mineral. Ngwenya on the other hand not only boost of being the oldest mine in the world dating back to 43000BC, but also boost of mining rare minerals that no other country has mined like specularite which was used for cosmetics all over the region. Ngwenya also show evidence of three mining activities within the site 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 morden iron ore mining. This site shows clearly the earliest mining technology that was used way before Europeans came with modem tools. Earlier mines in the world also used modem tools like shovels but in this one there was wide use of choppers, hammers and picks made of dolerite.