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The name Tsumeb is derived from the Hain//om Bushman word 'Tsomsoub', which menas 'to dig a big hole in loose ground', and from the Otjiherero word 'Otjisume', which means 'place of the frogs'. The Hain//om originally inhibited the area, and were based at Otjikoto Lake, 18 km away.
The Hereros gave it the name 'Otjisume' because of the varied colors an hues of the bright green, brown and grey streaks of the copper and lead ores on the rocky outcrops that resembled dried scum scooped out of a waterhole and scattered on surrounding rocks.
The diverse mineralisation originates in a volcanic pipe or throat, which was filled to the brim with astonishing richness of material. Tsumeb's ore deposits contains mainly copper, lead, zinc, silver, sulphur, and traces of gold, and no less than 240 different kinds of minerals are mined here. The of these minerals are found nowhere else in the world (such as feinglosite, leiteite, and ludlockite). Tsumeb is also a source of of many kinds of beautiful crystals and precious stones, including green malachite, azurite, smithonite, cerussite, galena and dioptase.
The pipe was discovered in prehistoric times and worked by several different indigenous cultures, who started to smelt the carbonate ore. The Hain//om use to dig green copper ore (chiefly malachite from the Tsumeb area), which they transported back to Otjikoto and sold to Owambo tradesmen. Originally the ore body protruded some 12 metres above the surface in the form of a low hill composed of minerals of brilliant variegated colors. It was later mined beyond the level of surface to a depth of 60 metres before it became too deep to transport ore to the surface and it was decided to sink shafts to reach the ore on lower depth.
European explorers and prospectors were informed of this dazzling outcrop. On 12 January 1893 a prospector named Mathew Rogers, working for the South West Africa Company, reached the outcrop and in a report to his company stated:
"In the whole of my experience, I have never seen such a sight as was presented before my view at Soomep, and I very much doubt that I shall ever see another in any other locality." Rogers negotiated with the local tribe for rights to the outcrop and began a detailed assessment of the quantity of ore, its nature and viability for a mine in so remaote a place. In 1990 the Otavi Mining and Railroad Company (Otavi Minen & Eisenbahn Gesellschaft - OMEG) was formed to work the concessions over the area. The company sent a party of 33 miners under Christopher James to commence mining. Two shafts were sunk into the hill of copper and a hint of the wonders lying beneath the surface was revealed.
In December 1900, the first shipment of ore was sent by ox-wagon to Swakopmund, 566 km away. The mine was developed in the face of tremendous difficulties with transport, while a narrow gauge railway was being constructed from the coast. The railway reached Tsumeb on 24 August 1906 and within 12 months the little narrow gauge trains had carried 25 700 tons of ore to the coast. A settlement slowly began to develop around the maining operations and the town of Tsumeb was officially established in 1905. The Tsumeb Minen (established 1906) and Makalani (established 1907) hotels are still in existence today.
Tsumbe's motto 'Glück auf' is derived from a traditional German miner's greeting, which translates fully as: 'May luck be with you and bring you safely up again'.