Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal

The manufacturing of weapons dates back to the time when humans started making functional tools with multiple purposes. These tools evolved to become some of the weapons that we know today. The earliest tool industry was Oldowan (about 2.5 to 1.2 million years ago) and it included flakes chipped off with another stone. It was followed by the Acheulean (1.6 million to 200,000 years ago), which is characterised by the hand axe. Like Oldowan, Acheulean implements were made from stone and used for multiple purposes, but the edges were much sharper and could serve many more functions (e.g. hacking wood from a tree, cutting animal carcasses as well as scraping and cutting hides). With time skills improved and more sophisticated tools/weapons were made.

These tools gave human ancestors a competitive advantage over large and ferocious beasts. The spear was among the earliest tools developed by early humans and it was mostly used for hunting and fishing. Archaeological evidence from Western Europe (present-day Germany) shows that wooden spears were used for hunting about 400,000 years ago or even earlier. These spears were made with fire-hardened points. Spears made from iron were manufactured during the Iron Age and they became a very common weapon in Africa.

In southern Africa spears, also known as assegais, were the principle weapon of most of the groups, except the Venda. Different types of spears were used for battles, hunting and even fishing. Battle spears were the most popular as they were used for attack and defence. These spears usually had a long shaft and were hurled at enemies when they came into close range. Shaka Zulu then invented a shorter-style spear (with a shorter shaft and a larger, broader blade) that could be used at close range for stabbing. This spear is known as iklwa or umkhwa. Among the Nguni and Sotho, spears were often accompanied by the shield and knobkierie, which were used for deflecting the spears of enemies. However, the knobkierie was also used as a weapon of assault and hunting, where it could be thrown at birds or game with deadly accuracy from a distance of about 20 to 30 meters. The shield, on the other hand, was mostly used for defence.

The Zulu battle shield, isihlangu, is one of the most recognisable shields in the world, because well-known warriors like Shaka Zulu were always depicted holding it. It measured at about 5 feet (1.5m) in the long axis, and was usually bigger than shields carried by other groups. The other Zulu battle shield, called umbumbuluso, was much smaller and could easily be held with one hand when attacking. The shields of the Sotho and Tswana were much smaller (about 30 cm), with the former resembling a swallow (bird) and the latter was hourglass-shaped. The shield on the Botswana coat of arms that was adopted in 1966, however, is oval, and this has created a lot of confusion. Some argued that it is a Zulu shield, but others said that it was adopted from the Zulu by Tswana groups who came in contact with them. Nonetheless, the hourglass- shaped shield appears on the Bophuthatswana coat of arms.

Unlike the other groups, the main weapon of the Venda was the bow (vhura). It was used for hunting and fighting along with iron and wood- headed arrows (masevha). The iron- headed arrows, which were usually featherless, were used for battles and hunting big game, while the feathered wood- headed arrows were for shooting small game and birds. Iron- headed arrows were normally tipped with poison made from a mixture of dried lutema matanda (a species of mouse that could kill anything it came into contact with) and the powdered seeds of the long pods of the mudulu tree. Bows and arrows were mostly associated with the San/Bushmen, who used them for hunting. The San/Bushmen were regarded as skillful hunters and the best manufacturers of the weapons. Their arrows were also tipped with poison, which was extracted from sources such as the larvae of a small beetle, caterpillar known as ka/ngwa, poisonous plants such as euphorbia, and snake venom. The poison did not kill the animal immediately and could take a couple of hours or days depending on the size of the animal or where it was. Thus hunters often had to track the animal until it collapsed. Once it did, further suffering was ended with a spear.

Another popular weapon in southern Africa was the battle axe. It was widely used by the Tsonga, Sotho and Venda. The Zulu also used the battle axe, but certain writers mention that it may have been introduced to them by neighbouring groups such as the Sotho and Swati (Luggs 1942, Krige 1965, Hammond-Tooke 1993). However, Maggs (1993) believes that the Zulu had been using battle axes for a long time, and cites evidence from rock art paintings by Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers to show the existence of axes in the Natal area. He explains that since the battle axes were not part of the culture of the hunter-gatherers, they could have observed or acquired them from the agriculturalist communities – a reference to the Zulu. Today battle axes are still an important part of Zulu culture and are a visible symbol at the royal house. King Goodwill Zwelithini regularly carries one on ceremonial occasions.

Although weapons are not used regularly nowadays they still serve an important ceremonial and symbolic function in various cultures. For example, they feature at initiation ceremonies and weddings. The assegai, shield and knobkierie also appear on the national symbols (e.g. flags and coats of arms) of most African countries.

Hammond -Tooke, W.D. 1993. The Roots of Black South Africa: An Introduction to the Culture of the Black people of South Africa. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.
Krige, E.J. 1965. The Social System of the Zulus. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter.
Maggs, T. 1993. The Zulu Battle – Axe. Natal Museum Journal of Humanities 5: pp. 175–188.
Stayt, H.A. 1931. The Bavenda. London: Oxford University Press. (Accessed 22/10/18) (Accessed 02/11/18).

Comments are closed.