Lost city buried in Gaut­eng hills

Wits pro­fes­sor dis­cov­ers a lost city buried un­der rocks and veg­e­ta­tion, re­veal­ing the in­ge­nu­ity of an­cient Tswana peo­ple


TO THE un­trained eye they look like bor­ing old rocks. Most peo­ple vis­it­ing the Suiker­bosrand Na­ture Re­serve near Hei­del­berg in Gaut­eng would walk past them with­out giv­ing them a sec­ond glance. But for a Wits Univer­sity pro­fes­sor they were an end­less source of fas­ci­na­tion. As Karim Sadr hiked around the pop­u­lar re­serve, about an hour’s drive from Jo­han­nes­burg, he could see there was a pat­tern to the stony mounds.

These were no or­di­nary rocks, he knew, they were ru­ins. But who’d once lived in the struc­tures?

Karim – a ge­og­ra­phy, ar­chae­ol­ogy and en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies lec­turer – was de­ter­mined to find out. It was a mys­tery that would con­sume sev­eral years of his life – but he’s glad he stuck it out be­cause what he dis­cov­ered is truly mind-blow­ing. These aren’t a few ran­dom rocks he stum­bled across – it’s an en­tire lost city.

To­day the area is a tran­quil haven for hik­ers and moun­tain bik­ers but a few hun­dred years ago the lower west­ern slopes of the Suiker­bosrand hills near the town of Hei­del­berg con­tained a bustling city which could have been home to as many as 10 000 Tswana peo­ple.

For more than two cen­turies much of the city has lain hid­den un­der veg­e­ta­tion, but thanks to the won­ders of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy Karim (59) was able to get a clear view of the long-for­got­ten past. Roads, lanes and other fas­ci­nat­ing fea­tures sud­denly came into fo­cus.

He says when he started out he as­sumed what he was ex­plor­ing was a se­ries of aban­doned vil­lages. But one day the penny sud­denly dropped that he was onto some­thing much big­ger. As he con­nected the dots, he re­alised he was look­ing at a sin­gle set­tle­ment that stretched for nearly 10km and was a good 2km wide.

“I was see­ing road­ways and there were a lot of fea­tures that were mon­u­men­tal,” he says. “It re­ally is a city.”

IT STARTED out as a bit of fun. In his spare time Karim en­joys hik­ing and be­fore he sets out he some­times uses Google Earth, a handy app that gen­er­ates 3D im­ages of Earth based on satel­lite im­ages, to help him find an ex­cit­ing area to ex­plore. The Suiker­bosrand hills were a lo­ca­tion that par­tic­u­larly ap­pealed to him. “For a while I was go­ing ev­ery week and walk­ing 10 to 20km, just hik­ing,” he says as he chats to us in a café at Wits.

But what re­ally in­ter­ested him were the rock mounds that were dot­ted around. “Oth­ers may just see rocks ev­ery­where but you start to see there’s a pat­tern, that these are walls, etcetera.”

Ea­ger to find out more, he roped in dozens of stu­dents and a com­pany in In­dia to help him re­search them. They started out by try­ing to com­pare them with other such sites in the prov­ince.

“We went over Google Earth im­agery for all of the south­ern half of Gaut­eng,” he says. “It’s a huge area.”

This way they found about 6 000 ru­ins.

“There are lit­tle bits ev­ery­where but when you get to Suiker­bosrand hills sud­denly it’s like the mega cen­tre of all of these things,” Karim says.

The re­search car­ried on for sev­eral years and progress was slow. But when Karim re­ceived a “big grant” from South Africa’s Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion in 2014 he sud­denly had the means to take things much fur­ther.

AT CON­FER­ENCES Karim heard about a new tech­nol­ogy called LiDAR, which had been used to un­cover the re­mains of Mayan cities be­neath a thick canopy of rain­for­est in North Amer­ica. It was mu­sic to his ears. Un­til then his team weren’t able to get an idea of the full ex­tent of the set­tle­ment be­cause veg­e­ta­tion hid many of the ru­ins. But LiDAR, which uses laser light, al­lowed them to cap­ture im­ages from the air then strip out things such as trees and shrubs to re­veal what was be­neath.

Karim was be­side him­self when he re­alised the scope of his dis­cov­ery.

“I knew from old trav­ellers’ re­ports, the first mis­sion­ar­ies that came through the north­west for ex­am­ple, that they talked about see­ing Tswana cities in the early 1800s.”

But he’d never dared to imag­ine he’d one day dis­cover one of them.

It’s dif­fi­cult to guess the pop­u­la­tion of the city but they’ve recorded about 850 home­steads in the set­tle­ment, which took shape from the 15th cen­tury and was oc­cu­pied un­til about 200 years ago.

“Given what we know about more re­cent Tswana set­tle­ments, each homestead would have housed an ex­tended fam­ily with at least the male head of the homestead, one or more wives and their chil­dren.”

Although these fam­i­lies are long gone, things still re­main that give a hint of their wealth and sta­tus in the com­mu­nity. An ex­am­ple is the trash dumps that are a com­mon fea­ture out­side many of the homes. If the dump was big, it means the owner was wealthy and gen­er­ous, threw big par­ties and had a good heart, Karim ex­plains.

There are also two large stone-walled en­clo­sures, with a com­bined area of just less than 10 000m². “They may have been kraals and, if so, they could have held nearly 1 000 head of cat­tle.”

But what was it that gave rise to the city? And what caused it to dis­ap­pear so com­pletely from lo­cal his­tory?

“In the 1820s all these Tswana citys­tates col­lapsed in what be­came known as the Di­faqane civil wars. Some had never been doc­u­mented in writ­ing and their oral his­to­ries had gone un­recorded,” Karim writes on The Con­ver­sa­tion Africa, a web­site that cov­ers the ac­tiv­i­ties of the lo­cal re­search com­mu­nity.

And that’s why, when the first for­eign trav­ellers and mis­sion­ar­ies ar­rived in what’s now known as Gaut­eng, the city was no longer there, he ex­plains.

The city was ini­tially given the generic place­holder name SKBR (Suiker­bosrand) but the Bak­wena branch of the Tswana, who claim parts of the land­scape to the south of Jo­han­nes­burg, have now given it a proper name: Kwe­neng, which means the “Land of Bak­wena”.

Karim be­lieves there could be more lost cities ly­ing hid­den in veg­e­ta­tion.

The dis­cov­ery of Kwe­neng could mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple, he says. “For the gen­eral pub­lic, it’s just to know that there was a city here be­fore Jo­han­nes­burg.”

But for the Tswana peo­ple it has ex­tended the size of their na­tion, from North West Prov­ince to within al­most spit­ting dis­tance of South Africa’s fi­nan­cial hub. It also de­bunks colo­nial think­ing that “Africans didn’t build cities and don’t know what a city is”, Karim adds. “It’s a way to de­colonise his­tory.”

But there’s still a lot of work to do. The pro­fes­sor is pre­par­ing to write pa­pers on Kwe­neng’s roads and its ar­chi­tec­ture.

“There’s no end to it. There are about 900 struc­tures, so it will take an­other decade or two. This will see me through re­tire­ment. I won’t live long enough to fin­ish but I’m hop­ing that my stu­dents can take over and go for­ward with it.”

It’s been a labour of love but Karim is sat­is­fied with what he’s achieved so far.

“It takes pa­tience to sit and look at these pho­to­graphs for hours. I’ve had stu­dents tell me they’d rather watch paint dry,” he says with a chuckle.

“But I en­joy it any­way. It’s good for an old man.”

‘In the 1820s all these Tswana city-states col­lapsed in the Di­faqane civil wars’

Pro­fes­sor Karim Sadr and his stu­dents did a lot of field work un­cov­er­ing de­tails of stone walls and stone huts found in the Suiker­bosrand hills about an hour’s drive from Jo­han­nes­burg.

LEFT: LiDAR, a tech­nol­ogy that has been used to un­cover the re­mains of Mayan cities, was used to “re­draw” the re­mains of the Tswana city, along the lower west­ern slopes (ABOVE) of the Suiker­bosrand hills.

One of the stone-walled ru­ins found at Suiker­bosrand near the town of Hei­del­berg.

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