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.