Mashariki Bantu Establish Chifumbaze Ironworking Culture Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Chifumbaze segment of Bantu culture produced pottery and iron tools that have been uncovered by archaeologists in eastern, central, and southern Africa.

Summary of Event

Chifumbaze material culture encompasses pottery, iron tools, and perhaps even architectural styles. Chifumbaze refers more generally to the early Iron Age industrial complex and material culture uncovered in Rwanda and Burundi, which resembles other eastern and southern African regional variants of the same broad era. Some scholars have even applied the term Chifumbaze as nomenclature for the various and diverse populations who produced the material culture identified as Chifumbaze wares.

The Chifumbaze pottery complex had developed in the region west of Lake Victoria in Eastern Africa by the beginning of the last millennium b.c.e. (by 1000 b.c.e.). Archaeology across several regions of Africa reveals that Chifumbaze pottery arose out of Urewe ware, also with origins in the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa. Chifumbaze ware began in the west Rift region, spread into Rwanda and Burundi, and then extended out further from the Great Lakes center. Chifumbaze culture extended north of Lake Victoria by the middle of the last millennium b.c.e., and by the third century c.e., Chifumbaze ware had spread east and south from the Great Lakes region into Natal in the eastern enclave of southern Africa. This pottery, which covers eastern and southern Africa and seems to be closely linked to Bantu populations and cultures, appears to have spread over approximately 1,850 miles (3,000 kilometers) north to south in two centuries’ time.

The Chifumbaze pottery and iron tool tradition has a basic common form and yet is manifested in a variety of stylistic expressions across southern and eastern Africa. Chifumbaze pottery is fired stoneware and is characterized by the beveled, fluted rims, narrow slits, and stamped bands decorating the exterior. The various facies of Chifumbaze have been identified outside the Great Lakes proper, for example in northern Angola near Luanda, in Botswana at Toutswe sites, and in coastal East Africa as Kwale ware; in central Tanzania as Lelesu ware; south of the Zambezi as Matola ware; in Shaba Province of Zaire; and in Malawi and Zambia in several manifestations.

In conjunction with the fluted, fired pottery produced from the Chifumbaze complex, Great Lakes smiths of the Early Iron Age smelted iron from local ores to produce tools and items for adornment. The pottery and iron production are closely interconnected technologies in the Chifumbaze archaeological sites, indicating that the two skills spread together and perhaps were produced in tandem as complementary items for consumption. The introduction of the Chifumbaze tool kit provided farmers with iron technology for field preparation and other economic endeavors such as hunting and fishing. Tools of this complex, which have been excavated at sites, include iron axes, hoes, knives, and arrows, more indicative of farming life than of a strictly gathering and hunting system.

Extant evidence indicates that the innovators and subsequent makers of Chifumbaze wares were agriculturalists who produced domesticated millets, sorghums, beans, and gourds that scholars have long associated with Bantu-speaking farmers. Green vegetables, root crops, and grains evidenced in excavations demonstrate the varied diet of the Bantu, who descended from those who had come into contact with cattle-raising and grain-cultivating Central and Eastern Sudanians and adapted some of those techniques, an idea that has long been established among scholars in the field of African history. Foodways and nutritional evidence are important sources of historical information and lend additional support to a history of Bantu production and spreading of Chifumbaze potteries.

Because the tools and potteries of the Chifumbaze genre did not include insignia in written language, scholars have not been able to establish definitively if this is a Bantu innovation. However, the motifs and decorations on the excavated items recovered thus far, together with the economic lifestyle uncovered in the paleobotanical record and other archaeological evidence, strongly suggest that the Chifumbaze wares were spread by speakers of Bantu languages practicing agriculture in settled communities. Archaeological evidence includes Chifumbaze potteries, iron tools, grindstones, and pollens of both grain and vegetal plants, all of which indicate what kinds of foods were consumed, how they were prepared, and some of the other cultural practices that may have been associated with the communities leaving behind such evidence. With some variation, Chifumbaze-producing communities tended to erect residential structures with burnt-thatch roofs and clay walls and floors. At least up to the tenth century c.e., Chifumbaze material culture was one unifying feature of a larger and extremely diverse Bantu continuum of cultures.





Based on archaeological and linguistic data, scholars believe that a core group of Bantu speakers gained knowledge of iron technology from grain-cultivating and cattle-raising communities speaking Central and Eastern Sudanian languages by the last millennium b.c.e. The technologies were adopted and innovated by Bantu speakers and then diffused out from the western side of Lake Victoria eastward across eastern Africa, southward into southern Africa, and even westward into the Congo Basin as a supplement to western production between c. 500 b.c.e. and 200 c.e. These iron- and pottery-producing Bantu lived in relatively small, dispersed village settlements and probably frequently incorporated a variety of non-Bantu speaking cultures and individuals into the life of the settlements.


The pottery of Chifumbaze style found in Rwanda dates as early as the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e., making it one of Africa’s ancient potteries. Chifumbaze belongs to one of the most contentious eras in terms of the scholarly debate on Bantu Africa. Chifumbaze potteries are linked to a spread of culture which may have marked a set or series of population movements, but Africanist scholars have yet to agree how, when, and why they occurred.

The eastward expansion of Bantu culture and language into the Great Lakes Basin may be the result of multiple movements out of the western half of the continent over centuries; it may be a result of population booms; it may be a consequence of non-Bantu adopting some key aspects of Bantu culture; or, more likely, it is the result of multiple factors that resulted in the presence of a community of Mashariki Bantu located in the east, in contrast to the Bantu of equatorial and woodland western Africa. Each migration in all probability involved movement of numerous subgroups over an extended period of centuries. Some scholars have referred to the particular era of Chifumbaze expansion out of the Great Lakes core area as the middle Mashariki era, when two distinctive branches of Mashariki Bantu began to form: the Kusi and Kaskazi. It is entirely possible that the multiple migrations resulted not only in divergences but also in convergences as well as reconvergences, which makes historical analysis of Bantu peoples an exciting challenge for scholars.

Chifumbaze culture notably marks an archaeological break with the types of material culture present prior to the arrival of Chifumbaze wares and tools in most parts of eastern, central, and southern Africa. Chifumbaze makers interacted with and in some cases displaced hunter-gatherer populations who produced little or no pottery and, it seems, smelted no iron or other metal. It appears from available evidence that Chifumbaze economic activities of agriculture, cattle raising, pottery making, and iron smelting spread with Bantu and even non-Bantu speakers who took up the Chifumbaze way of life. Pottery style and iron smelting traditions characteristic of the Eastern and Southern African Iron Age were most likely linked with the spread of Bantu speakers from the Great Lakes region into eastern and southern parts of the African subcontinent.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bisson, Michael S., et al. Ancient African Metallurgy: The Sociocultural Context. Edited by Joseph O. Vogel. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2000. Four scholars examine the evidence and elucidate the debates surrounding when and where iron and copper technology arose in Africa and the role metallurgy played politically, economically, socially, and ideologically. Bibliographical references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. This textbook examines early African civilizations and the cultures they introduced.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, M. Archaeology Africa. London: James Currey, 1996. Discussion of significant archaeological finds in Africa with some attention to the material’s cultural and historical significance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Musonda, F. B. “The Significance of Pottery in the Later Stone Age Sites.” African Archaeological Review 5 (1987): 147-158. Explains why pottery is significant in human culture and particularly how this technology emerged in southern central Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Discussion of archaeological finds in Africa and explanation of what those finds mean, with some special attention to iron production.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Grunderbeeck, M. C., et al. Le Premier Åge du fer au Rwanda et au Burundi: Archéologie et environment. Butare, Rwanda: Institut National de Recherche Scientifique, 1983. Presents primary research data on ancient iron production in Rwanda and Burundi. In French.

Categories: History