Victoria Falls History


Diggings in Archaeological sites found around the falls area have yielded Homo habilis stone artifacts that date back to some 3 million years ago. Middle Stone Age tools (50 000 years) and Late Stone Age weapons and digging tools (10 000 and 2000 years) have also been found.

Khoisan hunter gatherers using iron tools displaced these Stone Age people and they in turn were displaced by the Southern Tonga people now known as the Batoka tribe, these people still live in the area today.

Iron-using Khoisan hunter-gatherers displaced these Stone Age people and in turn were displaced by Bantu tribes such as the southern Tonga people known as the Batoka/Tokalea, who called the falls Shungu na mutitima. The Matabele, later arrivals, named them aManz’ aThunqayo, and the Batswana and Makololo (whose language is used by the Lozi people) call them Mosi-o-Tunya. All these names mean essentially “the smoke that thunders”.

Later many more tribes arrived these included the Matabele and the Makololo tribe, also still present in the area.

It was members of this Makololo tribe that escorted David Livingstone the first person to spread the word of the existence of the falls to the Western World on the 17th November 1855.

However, Nicolas de Fer’s 1715 map of southern Africa has the fall clearly marked in the correct position. It also has dotted lines denoting trade routes that David Livingstone followed 140 years later.

There also exists a map from c.1750 drawn by Jacques Nicolas Bellin for Abbé Antoine François Prevost d’Exiles marks the falls as “cataractes” and notes a settlement to the north of the Zambezi as being friendly with the Portuguese at the time.

The falls were well known to local tribes, and Voortrekker hunters may have known of them, as may the Arabs under a name equivalent to “the end of the world”.


During his 1852–56 journey from the upper Zambezi to the mouth of the river, Livingstone had been told about the falls before he reached them from upriver on 17 November 1855 and was paddled across to a small island that now bears the name Livingstone Island on the Zambian half of the river.

Livingstone had previously been impressed by the Ngonye Falls further upstream, but was astounded with the new find, and gave them their English name in honour of Queen Victoria.

He spent the night on Kalai Island a few kilometers upstream of the Falls, having come down river by foot, and the next morning he was paddled out by the local villagers in a small canoe to approach the thundering smoke. He landed on the biggest island on the lip of the falls, now called Livingstone Island and from there obtained his first view of the Falls.

” Creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad leaped down a hundred feet and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen to twenty yards….the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa.”

Of the surrounding area he wrote: “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight” (Livingstone 1857).

He sent word of the Falls to England deciding he would name them after Queen Victoria.

Locals still refer to the Falls as Mosi Oa Tunya and the area continues to be revered as a sacred site among the local tribes.

David Livingstone was obviously not the first person to see the Victoria Falls, although he is always credited as having discovered it.  Many locals feel they should be rebranded Mosi Oa Tunya.  

In 1860, Livingstone returned to the area and made a detailed study of the falls with John Kirk. Other early European visitors included Portuguese explorer Serpa Pinto, Czech explorer Emil Holub, who made the first detailed plan of the falls and its surroundings in 1875 (published in 1880),[17] and British artist Thomas Baines, who executed some of the earliest paintings of the falls.


The falls were seldom visited by other Europeans, until the area was opened up by the building of the railway in 1905.

European settlement of the Victoria Falls area started around 1900 in response to the desire of Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company for mineral rights and imperial rule north of the Zambezi, and the exploitation of other natural resources such as timber forests north-east of the falls, and ivory and animal skins. Before 1905, the river was crossed above the falls at the Old Drift, by dugout canoe or a barge towed across with a steel cable. Rhodes’ vision of a Cape-Cairo railway drove plans for the first bridge across the Zambezi and he insisted it be built where the spray from the falls would fall on passing trains, so the site at the Second Gorge was chosen. See the page on Victoria Falls Bridge.

The falls became an increasingly popular attraction during British colonial rule of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), with the town of Victoria Falls on the Southern side, becoming the main tourist centre.

By the end of the 1990’s almost 300,000 people were visiting the falls annually, and this was expected to rise to over a million in the next decade.

The two countries permit tourists to make day trips from each side and visas can be obtained at the border posts. Costs vary from US$45-US$80 (as of 01 December 2013). Visitors with single entry visas will need to purchase a visa each time they cross the border. Regular changes in visa regulations mean visitors should check the rules before crossing the border.


In 1989 Victoria Falls was inscribed as a World Heritage Site. What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seek to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.

This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972. UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The falls also enjoyed the position of one of the seven natural wonders of the world for many years. (this is voted on and changed from time to time).

A visit to this spectacular and breathtaking natural phenomenon – the Smoke that Thunders, is truly a must see on any visit to Africa. And with the many varied activities to do in the surrounding area, it makes the trip all the more worthwhile