The lost his­tory of a con­ti­nent, un­cov­ered by lasers

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight -

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

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