The lost history of a continent, uncovered by lasers
From close up, all that is visible are some broken walls among the scrubby brush, a mound covered by parched grass, a dry river gully. But to Professor Karim Sadr and his team of archaeologists from Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, the ruins at Kweneng tell an extraordinary story of a longlost city.
Kweneng, about 50km south of South Africa’s commercial capital, was once a thriving metropolis with hundreds of households, a vast meeting place, scores of walled family compounds and a bustling market. It was ruled over by kings who regulated trade, waged wars against other similar city states and settled disputes.
The discoveries are important not just for South Africa – which some still claim was largely uninhabited before white settlers colonised the western coast and then pushed inland – but the African continent as a whole.
In recent decades researchers have conclusively shown that western imperialists and historians who dismissed sub-Saharan Africa as a vast wasteland awaiting “civilisation” by Europeans were entirely wrong.
Instead they have explored the riches, power and sophistication of cities and civilisations such as Great Zimbabwe, the empire of Mali, the kingdom of Benin and many others. Research has also revealed a continent that was part of global systems of commercial and intellectual exchange, well before the arrival of the first European explorers in the 15th century.
“Over the last 20 years there has been growing interest in small settlements like Kweneng, says Thomas Vernet-Habasque, a Johannesburg-based historian from the Sorbonne university who is an expert on the history of pre-colonial Africa. “Now we understand that there was a network of settlements across very large territories and trading connections. These didn’t have a single major site and have left limited written or oral traces so have gone under the radar.”
Kweneng was one of several large settlements across northern parts of what is now South Africa that were inhabited by the Tswana-speaking peoples for many centuries before the first European settlers. Many were devastated – but not entirely depopulated – in violent upheavals at the beginning of the 19th century.
The existence of Kweneng has been known for decades but new laser technology has revealed its extent. The laser system works in a similar way to radar detection, except that instead of radio waves, it sends out laser pulses. A computer then converts the pulses to a high resolution image, from which archaeologists can reconstruct how the area looked.
The city appears to have been split
‘There was a strong egalitarian tradition and the king went out of his way not to stand out’
into three main neighbourhoods spread over 20 sq km, with two large, stone-walled enclosures that may have held cattle.
Evidence suggests considerable sophistication: “There were four or five levels of local government, probably with regiments organised by age that could be called up for work or war. They buried their important dead under the walls of the central cattle enclosures but there was a very strong egalitarian tradition and the king went out of his way to not stand out,” says Sadr.
Finding a precise date for the end of Kweneng’s days as a major metropolis is difficult, as current archaeological techniques are not accurate to within decades. But the final days of the city may have been fearful and violent, a victim of the chaotic conflicts known as Mfecane , or great scattering, triggered by the military expansion of the Zulu kingdom southwards.
In South Africa, archaeology has long had a political dimension. The history of the trading state of Mapungubwe, which was capable of manufacturing magnificent gold objects 800 years ago, was deliberately obscured by racist officials during the apartheid era. They wanted to hide evidence that land occupied by white settlers had not only been home to a major African civilisation but also that local populations they dismissed as fit only for manual labour were capable of sophisticated artistic production.
Work at Mapela, once thought to be a small town under the authority of the kings of Mapungubwe, is showing the settlement was much bigger than previously thought. Archaeologists have found thousands of glass beads, which suggests that it was a thriving trade centre.
The history of land ownership and habitation remains a sensitive issue today. If Kweneng was still inhabited in the middle of the 18th century then claims by local people to ownership of the land on which the city stood will be strengthened. Demands from local communities to reclaim land they say is theirs have been blocked in a series of court cases for decades.
The findings may also change the way visitors to southern Africa understand the environment. “Those environments that we saw as ‘wild’ are not wild at all,” said Vernet-Habasque. JASON BURKE IS THE GUARDIAN’S AFRICA CORRESPONDENT
Professor Karim Sadr on the site of Kweneng, once a bustling settlement, part of a wider trading network across the south of Africa