Iron ore was mined 43 000 years ago

Africa’s Gold: An ancient story

by Ina King (Potgieter) June 20, 2019

Since ancient times, mining and quarrying have carved humankind’s path through history. Our ancestors’ forged their way through the mountains and created civilisations, communities, and monetary systems.

Metals of Antiquity

Process metallurgy is one of the oldest applied sciences. Its history can be traced back to 6 000 BC when metals were used by the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Currently there are 86 known metals, though only 12 were known by the end of the 17th century. Arsenic, antimony, zinc and bismuth were discovered in the 13th and 14th centuries, while platinum was discovered in the 16th century. Metals of Antiquity are the metals upon which civilisation was based: Gold (6 000 BC); Copper (4 200 BC); Silver (4 000 BC); Lead (3 500 BC); Tin (1 750 BC); Iron (1 500 BC), and Mercury (750 BC)

Ngwenya Mine, SwazilandWest Africa: The Gold of Ancient Ghana

Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Akan people lived in Koumbi Saleh, the capital city of the Ancient Kingdom of Ghana. Described as “a fabulous land of gold”, Akan women were responsible for panning for gold along the rivers, while their male counterparts were responsible for mining within the earth for gold. From 700 to 1 240, this West African country one of the most powerful civilisations of the time as they traded gold for salt.

Ngwenya Mine, Swaziland

Humans first started chipping away at the iron ore of the Ngwenya mountain over 43 000 years ago. Vying with the chert quarries of the Nile Valley as the oldest mine in the world is the Lion Cavern in the Ngwenya Mountains of western Swaziland. For Middle Stone Age people, the site provided a rich source of red and specular haematite, used in cosmetics and rituals. The San people also extracted red ochre from the site and used it in rock paintings.

Between 1958 and 1977, the Swaziland Iron Ore Development Company (SIODC) carried out open cast mining of Ngwenya mine, which significantly enhanced the area’s economic development by establishing a railway line connecting the mine with the Mozambique Railway System, as well as an electricity supply network. Modern mining methods, while they destroyed two other adjacent mines, created the dramatic mine pit that we can see today. The mine used to supply Japan with iron for all its cars and an estimated 20 million tonnes of iron ore have been extracted from the mine since its inception. Mining stopped in 1977 and the land was subsequently donated to the Swaziland National Trust Commission.

Barbrook Mine, South Africa

Mining started in the Barberton area in 1885 and has continued intermittently since then. The Barbrook mine, consolidated in 1975, covers 2 286 hectares and is made up of numerous small Archean gold deposits in the Barberton Greenstone Belt. Exploration was done for surface diamond drilling before the state-of-the-art gold plant was commissioned in 1989. Operations continued until 1997 when the mine was forced to close pending a re-assessment of the reserves and resources. Mining recommenced in 2002 and produced 33 000 tonnes of ore until December 2003.

mapungubwe gold rhinoLily and Barbrook mines in Barberton, owned at the time by Vantage Goldfields South Africa (VGSA), were closed after a fatal collapse at Lily mine in February 2016. VGSA is in business rescue and the fight for ownership of the mines continues.



Mining, gold and minerals are synonymous with Africa. West Africa is a gold mining hotspot, with Ghana having recently taken over from South Africa as Africa’s largest gold producer, producing 4.8 Moz in the last financial year.

South Africa’s gold sector has been gradually declining in recent years and mines operators have to dig deeper into maturing mines at escalating costs. On the other hand, Ghana and countries like Mali and Burkino Faso, are benefitting from low cost mines, friendlier policies and new development projects. If you’re looking to invest in gold in Africa, these are the countries to watch. The future of Africa, like its past, is deeply rooted in mining; and Africa is certainly open for business.

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