The forest-savanna interface typical of central Gabon is well preserved in the park, and ecological and archaeological evidence shows that the area was inhabited almost continuously from late Palaeolithic times 350-400,000 years ago to the present.
Scattered across the landscape is an exceptional archaeological record of successive cultures including the remains of Palaeolithic tools, Neolithic villages around 4,000 years old and Iron Age metal-working sites from 2,500 years ago.
The Lope area has been inhabited for nearly 400,000 years and there are numerous artifacts telling the tales of the ancient hunter-gatherer settlements. The Ogooué River has been a major trading route through these times and a road was built through the north of the park in the 1960s. The area was opened to forestry by the building of the railway in the 1980s this connects the national park to both Ivindo and Libreville. One can conclude that there was a lateral transmission from the East to the West, not only across the southern Sahara, but also across all of the Sudan to the Nile and Niger, the location of origin being in both cases Nubia.
However, in the absence of certain dating, not only for the beginning of the iron age in Nubia, but also for all of the other sites mentioned in central and western Sudan, this could also signify an immense dispersion area of iron industry, even before population migrations began in the valley of the Nile towards the west, south-west and the south during the 6th century B.C. Because of the lack of sites in forested central Africa with well-maintained stratography dating to early or middle Stone Ages.
We are currently unable to say much about the way these earlier peoples lived. From about 10,000 B.C.E. onward we possess a relatively detailed picture of population dynamics in the middle Ogooue valley, which demonstrates the arrival of a long sequence of civilizations, particularly from the Neolithic (c. 4,500 B.C.E.) onward. It seems that the major migrations of Bantu ironworkers were linked to a dry climatic phase in the Kibangian B (3,500-2,000 B.C.E.), which probably resulted in decreased forest cover and may have enabled these savanna-dwelling peoples to avoid the prospect of a daunting trip into extensive forest vegetation (Maley 1992, Schwartz 1992;).
These migrations were undertaken through Gabon following ridge lines (Oslisly 1995), although elsewhere river navigation was used (see, e.g., Eggert 1993). The migrating peoples seem to have favoured areas with at least some savanna vegetation, reflecting their origins outside the forest ecosystem, and it is not surprising that the middle Ogooue valley was appealing to them. It seems that they systematically supplanted resident cultures, although it is possible that they also assimilated some local knowledge.
The Lion Cavern at Ngwenya Mountain, just north of the Swaziland Capital Mbabane, is thought to be the oldest evidence of human mining in the world. Carbon-dating has shown mining activity for red ocre (haematite) within this cavity dating back to a period between 41000 and 43000BC. The site is preserved as an open-air museum of visitors and is a popular tourism attraction. In the case of this mine, it is even known where the ancient miners "mined" their tools. Dart and Beaumont (1967, p. 408) wrote:
"Quartz, white quartzite’s, grey and white dappled quartzite, black indurates shale and greenish cherts were the principal materials used by the miners. These rock types occur mostly on a ridge overlooked by, and about 0.25 miles from, the cavern. The exposures there are patently flaked. Dappled grey and white quartzite exposures occurs about a mile and more northwest of the site."
The interesting thing about this mine is what was being mined.
The ancient peoples were not mining flint, which would be considered useful for obtaining food.
Lion cave is a pigment mine. They were mining red ochre, a pigment used by primitive peoples as body paint for their rituals.
The amount of material moved is quite impressive. In the literature, I have heard estimates of 50-100 tons.
But if the entire cavern carved out by the miners was hematite, I calculate that nearly 2700 tons of material was removed from this site.
This is an incredible amount of material for paleolithic man to have removed from the site. Obviously, red ochre was an important item. What was it used for?