Zambia: Stone Age to the Iron Age

Updated April 2021

Zambia is part of the cradle of the human race that stretches along the Great Rift Valley from Ethiopia to South Africa. Archaeological work has uncovered crude implements of stone from the Zambezi river valley dated 3 million years ago. Pigments used for self decoration and possibly rock painting have been found near Lusaka dating back at least 200 000 years. The use of fire 60 000 years ago has been documented at Lalambo Falls (Holmes 2004).

The earliest evidence of modern humans in Zambia dates back 25 000 years ago, with signs of greater sophistication tool making and of the burial of the dead; these earliest people were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Late Stone Age indications of cave dwelling and religious painting dated to some 15 000 years ago as well as the invention of the bow and arrow have also been unearthed (Holmes 2004, Barham 1999).

The earliest hunter gatherers, who seem to be of the same group as the modern bushman, were gradually displaced or absorbed by Iron Age Negroid populations between 300BCE and 400CE. Their settlements are found with increasing density throughout Zambia. These people brought with them metal working, slash and burn agriculture (which persists in parts of Zambia today) cultivating sorghum, beans bananas and yams, husbandry of cattle and goats, pottery and dwellings made from boards and plaster. Settlements were small (perhaps a dozen dwellings) and largely self-sufficient (Holmes 2004, Lambert Undated).

From 350CE onwards there is evidence of copper mining and copper is used both for jewelry and as trade currency. By 800CE a great deal of diversity in material culture is evident and signs that competition for control of trade and mineral resources led to the emergence of small polities. It is perhaps at this time that the ancestors of the Tonga people settled in the area (Holmes 2004, Columbia Encyclopaedia 2005a).

The development of regional trade networks, the emergence of the Shona trading states to the south and higher population level stimulated the development of more complex and stratified societies at Ingombe Ilede in the Zambezi valley. In about 1300CE a small trader state emerged there whose burial goods included gold beads from the south and glass beads imported from the Swahili Indian Ocean states as well as copper trading currency. Manufactures included cloth woven from cotton weaving, ivory carving and copper jewellery (Holmes 2004, Giblin 1999, Lambert Undated).


BARHAM, L 1999 "From art and tools came human origins" IN British Archaeology 42, March, [www] (offline 28 Apr 2021).

COLUMBIA ENCYCLOPEDIA 2005a, "Zambia", Sixth Edition, [www] (accessed 28 Apr 2021).

GIBLIN, J 1999 "Issues in African History", Art & Life in Africa, [www] (offline 28 Apr 2021).

HOLMES, T 2004 "The History of Zambia", The Zambian, [www] (offline 28 Apr 2021).

LAMBERT, T UNDATED "A Short History of Zambia", IN Local Histories, [www] (accessed 28 Apr 2021).