Facebook  Pinterest  Twitter

History written in stone

History written in stone

History written in stone

Stone bird baths. It seems that almost any house in the suburbs of Bulawayo has at least one, usually and strategically placed under the garden tap or artfully arranged in the flower bed. Many people know that these stones had something to do with food preparation, but few ever consider the fascinating history hidden in their unprepossessing appearance.

Known as lower grinding stones, these were instrumental in converting unappetising grains into a powdery meal that could be used to make porridge, griddle cakes, pancakes – the list goes on. There are two types of lower grinding stones that are simple for anyone to tell apart. Soft sorghum and millet grains were prepared with an upper stone held in one hand, that pressed the grains against the sides of a long narrow groove. Maize kernels are too hard for this treatment, so people (usually the women) would use a heavier upper stone held with two hands to grind against a wide, flat surface, dished to catch the pips.

Where did this food originate? Currently we think sorghum was domesticated in the savannah that stretches from Lake Chad to the border between Ethiopia and the Sudan, while millet and finger-millet trace their origins to north-west Africa.

Agriculture was introduced into southern Africa around 2000 years ago, at the same time as metalworking, building houses and domestic animals. Collectively this is also when black people moved into the sub-continent from west Africa, something known to historians, linguists and archaeologists as the Bantu Migration.

This ‘package of technologies’ that the Bantu brought with them is referred to, perhaps somewhat incorrectly, as the Iron Age. Millet and sorghum were the staple food for over 1500 years in Zimbabwe, supplemented by various vegetables and wild fruits. And a bit of meat, usually cattle, goat or sheep. The odd bit of hunting and gathering of wild fruits also helped with the diet in lean times.

The Portuguese introduced maize which soon became the staple of the subcontinent, some time after their arrival on the Zimbabwean plateau in the early 16th Century. They also introduced peanuts that are the basis of many Shona recipes. They may have introduced rice, lemons and sugar cane. They certainly introduced guavas, granadilla and avocados.

There are food plants from India too which the Portuguese or the Arabs may have brought like pineapple, papaw, prickly pear and sweet potatoes. Conversely, the Arab traders may have helped millet reach that continent 1000 years ago. Tobacco and cotton also appear during their period, as do donkeys and pigs. Indeed it would be difficult to imagine a Zimbabwean farm today with none of these things, and we have to thank the Portuguese for most of them.

So that ‘birdbath’ lying under the tap has a bit of history behind it after all. Often such items are all that mark the locations of long-lost villages and I would like to ask that people do not collect them as mementoes or garden features. This is against the law, but as importantly, valuable information about a piece of the puzzle that is our past is lost forever. Rather report your find, with appropriate information about location and site conditions, to the nearest museum.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 12, March 2013)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Bulawayo & Matobo Hills

Archaeologist and guide Paul Hubbard's new book, co-authored with Mark Igoe, Zimbabwe: A Simple History, is available from Amazon.com exclusively as an ebook.
Email : hubcapzw@gmail.com