The East African (Nairobi)

3 August 2008

Tanzania: Prehistoric Weapons Factory

Nairobi — THE ISIMILA STONE AGE SITE in Tanzania provides fascinating insights into how ancient man developed the tools to master his environment.

Stone tools and artefacts found at Isimila near Iringa town, over 500 kilometres from Dar es Salaam, show that the Hehe -- one of the ethnic groups in the region -- used the site as a sort of Stone Age weapons factory.

Excarvation in Iringa region, especially Mtera and Upper Kihansi, indicate that there were settlements in these areas from as early as 200,000 years ago to as late as the Iron Age.

According to Mohammed Ngoma, a conservationist at the Isimila Stone Age Site, Upper Kihansi too was a production site for stone tools of the Neolithic period, which include pot shards and remains of iron works.

The Iron Age settlements in Iringa district and rock paintings at Kombangulu in Kilolo district also provide fascinating glimpses into the lives of early humans.

The Isimila site is reputed to have been inhabited from 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. The soil erosion that has been occurring there over the millennia, has uncovered remains of stone tools, animals and plants that have contributed to the understanding of the pre-history of the area.

The stone tools currently preserved at Isimila include knives, slingshots, stone hammers, hand axes, scrapers, and spears. A magnificent "Mgoha" spear on display at the site, for instance -- made in the year 1700 by the Hehe ethnic group -- was donated to the site by one Zuberi Mwamwitala.

SUCH TOOLS AND WEAPONS served to protect the people from enemies -- both human and animals as well as to hunt animals for food.

The Isimila site was discovered in 1951 by D.A McCleman of Saint Peters School in Johannesburg. On his way from Nairobi to Johannesburg, he collected some stone tools from the site and deposited them with the Archaeological Survey Union of South Africa.

The first excavation works at the site were done from July to November 1957, followed by another excavation from July to August 1958.

During these two excavations, a detailed geological survey of Isimila was carried out and Dr Louis Leakey became the first researcher to examine the fauna remains recovered from the two excavations.

The Isimila Stone Age Site is one of the richest exposures of Stone Age tools in Africa. According to Mr Ngoma, Stone Age implements found at the site are called Acheulian type because they are similar to implements found at St Acheal in France.

Similar implements, which are estimated to be as much as half a million years old have also been found at Olduvai Gorge.

The Acheulian tradition worldwide is known to date from about 1.5 million years ago. Erosion at Isimila has exposed many layers of soil and rocks of different types, marking the different historical periods.

The tools are made from a variety of rocks such as granite and quartzite. Fossils found in the area suggest the existence of animals such as elephants, a variety of extinct pigs, giraffe and hippo.

ARCHAELOGICAL RECORDS from Iringa indicate that the area had contact with the outside world by the 15th century. The ultimate control of the areas by outsiders started with the onset of Germany as a colonial power in 1891.

The Germans arrived in Tanganyika in 1885 and established their capital in Bagamoyo district, some 45 kilometres from Dar es Salaam. From there, they started to consolidate their rule along the coast.

This colonial venture ignited resistance by the people of the Coast. People like Abushiri (in 1888 to 1889) and Bwanaheri (from 1889 to 1894) resisted the German invasion.

In Uhehe, now Iringa, German troops arrived in 1891. When Chief Mkwawa of the Hehe was informed of this, he immediately sent his solders to Lugalo to prevent them from approaching his capital at Kalenga.

In August 17, 1891, Mkwawa's solders ambushed the Germans at Lugalo. The Germans were defeated and their leader, Zelewinsky, was killed.

The name Lugalo was later used by the Tanzania Peoples' Defence Forces for one of its biggest barracks. Zelewinsky's pyramid shaped tomb, where he was buried along with a number of his solders, is still to be seen at Lugalo, a few metres from the Tanzania-Zambia highway.

The Germans sent troops again in 1894 under new leadership. Mkwawa continued with his resistance for several years until he shot himself in 1898 to avoid being captured by the Germans.

After the First World War, the Germans were defeated and their colonies placed under British authority. On independence in 1961, Adam Sapi Mkwawa, the grandson of Chief Mkwawa, became the first African Speaker of the Tanzanian National Parliament.

THE REGION'S CLIMATIC conditions and landscape, history and cultural heritage offer rich potential for both foreign and domestic tourism. Unfortunately, the tourists who visit the site are usually foreigners with very few local people being aware of the site. Mr Ngoma said this can be blamed on poor promotion of such historical sites.

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