In sub-Saharan Africa, every cultivator of the soil in a precolonial, agriculturist society needed a digging implement, and this normally took the form of a hoe with an iron blade hafted on a wooden handle. This paper marks the first attempt to document the surprising variety of hoe blade styles and map their regional distributions within South Africa. While the primary function of the hoe—this key item of material culture in African farming communities—was to cultivate the soil, the large quantity of metal and therefore labour required to make a hoe blade accorded it great value in the years before European industrial copies flooded the market. The hoe was an important item in trade networks, in marriage transactions and in a number of symbolic contexts associated with individual and collective ancestry. This biographical approach to hoe exchange, use and recycling reveals the complex significance of this tool in the lives of precolonial farmers. In particular, we are able to show that hoes could in some circumstances be accorded the same values as cattle in marriage exchange.