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News > South Africa

South Africa: 'Lost Metropolis' Gives Clues to Country's Past

  • With the help of the cutting-edge laser technology, LiDAR, researchers were able to locate the city of Kweneng.

    With the help of the cutting-edge laser technology, LiDAR, researchers were able to locate the city of Kweneng. | Photo: Karim Sadr, University of Witwatersrand

Published 31 January 2019

"It gives us a broader idea of the southern African people, who they were and the activities they did," the scientists said.

A gap in pre-colonial South African history has been filled with the discovery of the ancient city of Kweneng, archaeologists say, estimating the metropolis has been ‘lost’ for 200 years.


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Home to some 800 families and with a population of around 10,000 people, researchers were able to locate Kweneng with the help of the cutting-edge laser technology, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging).

Archaeologists had stumbled across some ruins in Johannesburg 30 years ago but were oblivious to the 20 sq kilometers of 19 century history hidden meters below ground due to heavy vegetation and overgrowth.

"What this means is filling in a huge historical gap, especially for southern Africa, because we know pre-colonial history of southern Africa has no written record," said Fern Imbali Sixwanha, an archaeologist from the University of Witwatersrand who participated in the dig.

"One of the most enlightening things is, as I’ve been able to understand what we were doing in our past you know. It gives us more broader idea of the people of southern Africam who they were, and the types of activities that they did, because you can now rediscover that activity line and just general interaction within the society," Sixwanha said.

The area was occupied from 1500’s to the 1900’s by Tswana speakers before it was destroyed during the Diequan civil wars in the 1820s.

In a report, lead archaeologist Karim Sadr wrote, “It is difficult to estimate the size of its population… Many features of the built environment at Kweneng seem to signal the wealth and status of the homesteads or suburbs that they are associated with.”

Large piles of bones, broken pottery, and ash from dung fires were found outside the homes which, Sadr said, is another sign of wealth and were likely left over from feasts.

“The use of refuse dumps as landmarks of wealth and power is known from other parts of the world , like India, as well. Even the contemporary gold mine dumps of Johannesburg can be seen in this light,” Sadr said.

Another decade or two of research will be required to fully understand the birth, development, and demise of the African city, he said.

“Ideally, the descendants of those who built and inhabited this city should be involved in future research at this site. Some of my postgraduate students are already in contact with representatives of the Bakwena branch of the Tswana who claim parts of the landscape to the south of Johannesburg. We hope that they will actively become involved in our research project,” said Sadr.

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