Nyanga and the missing gold mines

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A YEAR ago, against my better judgment, and in the company of my family, I climbed Mount Nyangani, making it to the peak with my two sons.
Mount Nyangani is steeped in centuries-old mysteries.
It has swallowed its fair number of daring mortals.
That we survived the climb, only the spirit world can explain.
It was not lost on me that the mountain spirits had spared a Hungwe/Dziva family whose ancestry had roamed the neighbouring Ziwa/Chihwa country well before the Simboti and Nyamuziwa people sighted the enigmatic Nyangani Mountain. As we trekked down the mountain path to the base, my imagination stretched beyond the mountain; wondering about the people who had occupied the landscape for millennia.
The most famous of these are agriculturalists from the last millennium who are credited with many innovations way ahead of their time; terracing the mountainous country for crop farming, genetically dwarfing Mashona cattle species so that they could be penned in pit enclosures, using liquid manure as fertiliser in the extensively terraced fields and deriving good cereal yields that defied scientific logic.
A mysterious and genius people who left behind no traceable stately archaeology unlike their counterparts at Mapela Hill, Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and the Mutapa State in the north-east.
So, from Mount Nyangani I headed for pit structures ruins within the National Park.
At the ruins I regurgitated to family remnants of my archaeology, explaining how the locals used to pen their hornless dwarf cattle to protect them from natural predators like hyenas and lions.
The boys would have none of my dwarf cattle explanation.
From what they had seen in the village during holidays, they reasoned only goats could be penned there.
Crawling through the tunnel into the pit, I could barely hold onto the dwarf cattle theory.
I corrected myself that it’s only one view.
Clearly the community that built the pit structures had built them for something special, most unlikely the extinct dwarf cattle species.
Unfortunately, my sons’ inspired skepticism ended there, with no answer, adding to layers of the mysteries of Nyanga.
That was until this week.
Someone dropped a freshly published booklet, The Gold-mining landscapes of Nyanga, on my desk.
Written by Anne Kritzinger, the booklet is a populist version of research that she carried out in the Nyanga region.
In one breath, Kritzinger not only dismisses the dwarf cattle theory and irrigable terraced fields claim, she advances a very plausible gold mining explanation.
And in the process, she has stirred a hornet’s nest.
Every establishment archaeologist has bought into the dwarf cattle theory and fertiliser manufacturing claims without much questioning.
Kritzinger has, using simple common sense arguments, backed by empirical scientific evidence, sought to disprove all past claims.
And in the process, her revolutionary findings have seen her labelled a dissident archaeologist.
In short, Kritzinger has questioned millet farming potential on the terraced fields.
She has dismissed the dwarf cattle theory, not only questioning the absence of surviving remnants of the species, but showing the tunnel entrance and gradient, even at right size, would not have hosted cattle.
Several tests for gold in surrounding soils at pits and terraces point to ore and residual dumps as opposed to background gold levels.
In short, Nyanga terraces and pits attest to a highly specialised gold production process that lasted over a millennium.
Kritzinger has posited a very interesting hypothesis that should jolt Zimbabwean archaeologists and historians into action.
The new research has been quite accommodating of multi-disciplinary approaches; roping in soil scientists, mining engineers and metallurgists.
And any refutation would have to be equally thorough.
But for the common man, for my sons, the new explanation makes great sense.
And to Mutapa historians, could this be the missing Mutapa mines?
When the Portuguese first docked at Sofala, they heard abundant stories about the gold riches of Mutapa in Karangaland.
When they eventually penetrated the state, the mines remained a mystery.
Poorly explored mining linguistics still do point to widespread gold mining of pre-Portuguese activity in what is now Zimbabwe.
Of southern African languages, only the Shona have what appears to be an indigenous name for gold, ndarama, which the Chewa also use to refer to money, ndalama.
Some linguists have claimed ndarama is corruption of the Arabic/Swahili dhahab.
Clearly gold, as an industry, is pre-Portuguese and perhaps even pre-Islamic.
It has also been pointed out that Shona is in fact derived from the Hindi word for gold, sona, a view that would further push the Zimbabwe gold industry into the first millennium AD.
Yet with the farming theory, local terms like manyowa, fetiraiza and hei are all recent English derivatives.
Kritzinger has fired the first warning shots in re-interpreting Nyanga archaeology.
She will understandably be criticised for her etic views.
But she will be in good company.
When the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (circa 570-495 BC) proved that the earth was round and Aristarchus suggested that the earth and planets revolved around the sun, few believed them.
Even when in 350 BC, the great Aristotle declared that the earth was a sphere, he met with skepticism.
And when Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), an Italian mathematician, scientist and astronomer, became one of the first people to build a telescope and propounded the solar system theory, he was put on trial in 1633 for ‘grave suspicion of heresy’ and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his live.
Today, each of those heretic views is considered a milestone in the advancement of science.
Kritzinger’s work should make every archaeologist/historian in this country take a long pause and reflect on whether we have not dwarfed our thinking in search for agriculture on ancient gold workings.
Have we allowed the Nyanga landscape to swallow the mining evidence, as it has often so done, with daring mountain climbers?

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