Malawi: Pre-history to early state formation(c 2.5 million BP - c 1550CE)

Updated February 2010

The history of Malawi has been extended to the Early Stone Age by the finding on the shore of Lake Malawi of the fossilized jaw bone of a hominid dated to about 2.4 million years ago variously identified with Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis (Bower 1993, 277). More abundant are data pointing to Middle Stone Age occupation in the form of tools related to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle ancestral to Late Stone Age technologies (Pike 1968, 28, 29). Evidence for Late Stone Age occupation dates back to about 17 000 BP and are primarily associated with rock shelters, with microlithic tool making and cultures engaged in hunting, gathering and fishing (Seitsonen 2004, 31, 32, 34; Pike 1968,29, 30). Skeleton remains found indicate people of small stature related to the Batwa (pygmies) rather than to the San people of southern Africa, being larger and more robust than the latter (Pachai 1973, 1). From the Late Stone Age period come geometric engravings and paintings found in shelters and caves unlike the figure paintings produced by the contemporary San cultures to the south (Pachai 1973, 2).

After the 1st century CE Malawi was infiltrated slowly from the north proceeding along the plains west of Lake Malawi by Bantu speaking people who introduced pottery, agriculture, animal husbandry and iron working (Robinson 1976, 166; Pachai 1973, 3). The gradualness of the process is indicted by the continuity of Late Stone Age tool making in southern Malawi alongside iron Age technologies and oral traditions amongst the Chewa reflect encounters with Batwa people at the time of their arrival in the region in late 15th or early 16th centuries (Seitsonen 2004, 34; Pachai 1973, 2). These traditions speak of intermarriage and assimilation of the Batwa, but suggest that cattle theft by Batwa in later times led to spirally conflict and their eventual extermination of the few unassimilated groups in the early 19th century (Seitsonen 2004, 34). The possession of iron tools to clear the forests and woodlands of Malawi and for agriculture were crucial to the successful intrusion of the settlers from the north (Pachai 1973, 3).

The low density character of early settlements and extensive unused land enabled successive waves of migrants to settle without conflict with earlier Iron Age groups. So the Nyiha-speaking clans that migrated from south-western Tanzania after 1100 CE, possibly as a result of prolonged drought and driven by consequent intrusions by others into their homelands, settled mainly in hill country, away from the Mzembe and Chiluba in the Phoka Highlands and the Mwenekisindile, Mwenifunmbo and Chilima on the plains west of Lake Malawi introducing advanced building and ceramic techniques (Kalinga 1983, 49, 51). Later the Mwambale Mwaphoka settled amicably among the Mzembe and Chiluba bringing with them smelting expertise that facilitated specialization and exchange between the natives and the settlers, with the former supplying agricultural products and coal and the latter iron tools and weapons (Kalinga 1983, 49, 50; Ogot 1999, 302).

All these groups were organized in autonomous clans and, though some clans might have exercised dominance in certain areas and particular times, no state formation took place until the arrival of settlers of the Phiri clan in the late fourteenth century under dynastic chiefs titled the Kalongas (Ogot 1999, 302; Kalinga 1983, 50; Kalinga 1979, 18). The Kalonga chiefdom established control over the peoples of the central areas of Malawi with their power extending into eastern Zambia and was organized into a hierarchy of chiefs of the Phiri clan under the most senior lineage under the Kalonga whose authority was consolidated and legitimated by the annual veneration of the spirit of the Kalonga that first led the people to Lake Malawi (Schofeleers 1972, 75; Ogot 1999, 304). The Kalonga brought with them significant advances in mining and iron production techniques that the Mwambale Mwaphoka learned from them, which enabled the Mbale to expand their settlements into the coastal lowlands and eventually enabled them to establish a polity that dominated both the highlands and the plains (Kalinga 1983, 50, 51). To the north of the Mbale the Simbowe clan, which alone of the Nyiha-speakers had settled on the Karonga plain, were drawn into a trading network that extended to the Swahili settlements on the Indian Ocean littoral and the wealth generated through the ivory trade primarily enabled them to form a polity that dominated the plain (Kalinga 1983, 49, 51-53). Between the Mbale and the Kalonga to the south of them emerged a second trading polity amongst the Tumbuka speakers dominated by the Mkandawira clan (Kalinga 1983, 51-53).

The Phiri chiefdom split in the first half of the 16th century as the result of a dispute over succession that led to a brother of the deceased Kalonga, Undi, defecting, with a large number of supporters and moving to south east Zambia (Klien-Arendt 2004, 944). This and subsequent defections and migration led to the formation of the Moravi Confederacy of related chiefdoms as new Phiri chiefdoms emerged outside the territory of the Kalonga. The Kalonga and Undi paramount chiefdoms (and the Lundu that formed later) were not centralized polities, but consisted of highly autonomous sub-chiefdoms loosely bound together under the paramounts whose authority was buttressed by centralized religious cults (Schofeleers 1972, 75, 76; Klien-Arendt 2004, 945). The authority of the Undi chiefdom extended to the lower Shire River valley, where the indigenous Mang'anja were ruled by their tributary Chief Kaphwiti (Schofeleers 1972, 75). They were engaged in trade with Quelimane on the Indian ocean coast through Swahili merchants, but from the 1530s onwards the Portuguese penetrated the interior along the Zambezi river valley and established trading centres at Sena and Tete at the confluences of the Zambezi with the Shire and Mazowe Rivers respectively (Schoffeleers 1987, 340, 341). Though Portuguese efforts were aimed primarily at trade in gold and ivory with the Kingdom of Monomotapa in present day Zimbabwe, trade with the Kaphwiti in ivory, cloth and slaves was also undertaken (Schoffeleers 1987, 341, 344).


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