Copper & Currency
The largest and most extensively decentralised ancient mining industry found in Southern Africa was around Phalaborwa. The ores mined here were then azurite and malachite for copper (the metal does not occur here in its pure form), red ochre as a highly valuable and symbolic colouring agent and magnetite (as a source of iron).
It is puzzling how ancient miners were able to trace the presence of copper-yielding minerals. It is generally accepted that plant growth was likely to have been an important indicator as the presence of the metal as a trace element stimulated the growth of certain species of, for example, grasses. The intensity of the green of the leaves of trees in copper areas may also have been an indicator of promising spots to mine.
Phalaborwa had extensive historic open and underground stopes and, according to a report published by Friedrich Jeppe in September 1893, "everywhere pits, shafts and tunnels as well as waste-dumps could be seen. Thousands of tons of ore must have been moved".
Modern mining begins in Phalaborwa with the excavation of Loolekop in 1962, obliterating the historic records on a grand scale
Much of the evidence of early mining activities has been destroyed by modern prospectors and miners. However, evidence discovered at Loolekop, the site of the current Phalaborwa mine in the 1960s showed that a number of horizontal shafts had been dug into the hill over a thousand years ago. These extended in length to around twenty metres and they were around a metre in diameter, widening where the earth became harder indicating the presence of the ore-body.
Extensive historic surface shafts found on Loolekop 1943 and revealed during excavation
Conditions were dangerous - the tunnels were unsupported by props; torches had to be brought in for light which consumed the precious oxygen. Dust became a menace, and some vertical shafts of small diameter were sunk; fires lit at the junction of these with the horizontal tunnels turned them into chimneys which had the effect of expelling some of the dust and drawing fresh air down from the mine entrance.
Chisels and dimpled stone hammers were used to chip away the ore, which was taken to the surface and sorted by hand. The paucity of copper furnaces and copper objects suggests that there was not much copper smelting at Phalaborwa. Only three furnaces with traces of copper have been found to date. This was probably because the copper was more difficult to obtain than the iron (concentrations of the metal in the ore peaked at only 1%).
It appears that the ore may have been traded rather than the extracted metal. There was, however, a form of "currency" in the district hundreds of years ago.
Copper ingots known as Lerale (sg) or Marale (pl) have sacred meaning for the traditional mining peoples of Phalaborwa
An object, called a "Lerale" (plural "Marale"), was used much as coinage is in modern times. It was a copper rod about 45 centimetres long and about 12 millimetres in diameter, with a projection at one end that made it look rather like a sawn-off golf club. The modern equivalent would be an ingot.
The copper content of these lerale has been found to be extremely high- 95% or more. They were amenable to being melted down in order to be recast into other shapes - copper collars and heart shaped ornaments worn on both sides of the head were worn by dignitaries to indicate status. Copper wire was also a highly-prized commodity, made by pulling the hot smelted metal through a draw plate using a giant pair of iron pincers.
Other information available about these copper rods, other than that they were, and are, valuable, is extremely vague. They were certainly traded as far away as Delagoa Bay in present day Mozambique. The old men of the tribe maintain that their forebears made these castings.
They are greatly prized and are not obtainable today at any price. The present chief of the tribe does not even possess one, so thoroughly has colonialism divested the indigenous people of their culture through conquest and oppression.
In 1965 Dr N. J. van der Merwe, then Associate Professor of the Department of Anthropology in the University of Binghamton, New York, conducted excavations at Phalaborwa. While he was there, blasting operations revealed ancient workings, including a narrow six metre shaft, a relic of early mining operations. At the bottom of this shaft were found deposits of charcoal. These were subjected to the now well-known radio-carbon tests that can establish the age of organic specimens.
The tests that Dr van der Merwe conducted showed that the tree from which the charcoal came died roughly 1,200 years ago. Assuming that 50 to 100 years elapsed between the death of the tree and the burning of the wood, this gives a date of about A.D. 860.