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5 Facts about Ancient Make Up Mining

5 Facts about Ancient Make Up Mining

It’s a steep walk up a ladder to a metal platform and down again to get to Lion Cavern in Swaziland but it’s worth it.  The view makes you feel you can see forever.  But that is not why the San people came here 43 000 years ago.

Words and images by Sue Adams

  1. The San came to this south western part of Swaziland near Malolotja Reserve to mine hematite – a soft red rock that had special properties.  They used it in crushed powder form mixed with animal fat to decorate their faces for special ceremonies.  The red of the ochre represented blood. Red ochre was also used to smear on objects or people to signify fertility, purity and sanctity.
  2. The other use for hematite was for San rock art. The rock was crushed and mixed with other substance such as blood and egg yolk and used in San art.  This substance is now called ochre. However they made their paint, most rock paintings have lasted a long time.
  3. Another substance that was mined here is specularite – the glitter of the ancient world. It is a shiny rock which, when crushed and added to other products, gave ancient face paint the bling.
  4. Lion Cavern is the oldest existing mine in the world and has been carbon dated to 43 000 years old. Two other mine sites in the area were destroyed when the modern open cast Ngwenya mine opened up in 1964 to mine iron ore. Mining stopped in 1977 but the area was seriously threatened ecologically when a new commercial venture was given rights to resuscitate the mine.  Fortunately, this ceased when the world price of iron ore slumped. The land was then donated to the Swaziland National Trust Commission.
  5. These miners confined their mining to the tops of the mountains (hence the climb for tourists now) for fear of the great horned snake, the god of the underworld, who they believed lived in the heart of the mountain. The mine is small – more of an overhang than a cavern – but the setting is worth its weight in ochre.


To get there:  Go into Swaziland at the Oshoek border post.  8km from the border turn left on the MR1 and follow the signs to Ngwenya Mine.  You will go in to Malolotja Gate and then to the mine. From there a guide will take you to Lion Cavern. If the guide is busy you might have to wait at the gate a while.

While you’re there, you might also want to try this list of  7 things not to miss in Swaziland. 

Note: You can also visit the Ngwenya Mine Visitors Centre where you can look into the huge open cast mine and see some displays about the mine itself.


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