Story in stone: From the discovery of ancient fossils to the documentation of human societies of just a few hundred years ago, stone has a story to tell us. Picture: ISTOCK
Story in stone: From the discovery of ancient fossils to the documentation of human societies of just a few hundred years ago, stone has a story to tell us. Picture: ISTOCK

Researchers are in a race against time to preserve a forgotten history of SA. Almost 200 years ago, the wounds on the landscape were still fresh: often blackened husks of villages and homes were all that remained of the tribes and people who populated the Highveld. Civil war had been raging through the land that became SA.

The mfecane — an Nguni word meaning "the scattering" which took place in the early 19th century — decimated the peoples of what is now Gauteng, mainly Tswana and Sotho speakers, forcing them to flee or die. The scars of this history and these societies remain on the face of modern SA in the ruins of their kraals and homesteads that still dot the countryside.

Using satellite technologies, researchers are rebuilding our knowledge of the political, economic and social systems of the Sotho and Tswana ancestors who used to live in this part of Southern Africa.

They are in a race against time, trying to preserve ruins before they are swallowed up by urban growth and the swelling behemoth of Johannesburg. About 20% of the ruins have already been lost. They look like part of the rocky ridges that they are built on — a collection of large and small stones piled together — but when seen from space they point to complex societal structures.

"There are hundreds of thousands of stone-wall ruins scattered through Southern Africa," says Karim Sadr, a professor in the University of Witwatersrand’s school of geography, archaeology and environmental studies.

They range in shape and size, with Sotho and Tswana homesteads having distinctive flavours.

The way these ruins are geographically spaced points to the society that lived in them.

"If the politics and economy is centralised, there is a capital, with secondary and tertiary settlements," Sadr says.

This is evident in "mega-sites", where the ruins are close together — some structures bigger, some smaller. They also demonstrate the wealth of an area through the number of cattle that homesteads had and how they were managed.

Before white prospectors flocked to Johannesburg attracted by the lustre of gold and before the Afrikaner nation moved to the Highveld to escape British oppression, the mfecane destroyed these societies. Academics argue that this is why it was relatively easy for Europeans to conquer central SA.

Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Thomas Huffman, a professor emeritus at Wits, notes that it is difficult to put an exact date to the mfecane, with the period ranging from the 1780s through to the 1830s. He argues that conquering figures like Zulu king Shaka and his former lieutenant Mzilikazi were symptoms of the mfecane, rather than the cause.

But whether a cause or symptom, Mzilikazi is credited with shattering the societies that lived on the Highveld as he attempted to consolidate his power before fleeing north.

He later founded Matabeleland in Zimbabwe.

The cause of this period of devastation is contested. Huffman points to climate change and drought. Rhodes University professor Julian Cobbing put forward the theory — now known as the Cobbing Controversy — that the labour needs of Portuguese slavers drove the wars. Others say that Shaka’s political ambitions drove this period of turmoil.

The archaeological record is like a book, says Sadr: "A book is fine if you can read it from beginning to end: there’s a story, there’s a plot, there’s a beginning, and there’s an end. But if you start randomly tearing pages out of it, you eventually get to a point where the story doesn’t make sense. So that’s why we need to try and keep the book together."

Unfortunately, there is no written record. "There was no writing in southern Africa [from this time]," Sadr says. "There are some oral histories.... [But] the further back in time they go, they get less reliable."

Sadr, with the help of his students, relies heavily on Google Earth to map and identity possible ruin sites. He also purchases LiDAR maps, compiled by a local company. LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, involves aircraft-mounted sensors that visualise the terrain below and create images of possible precolonial ruins.

So far, Sadr has mapped about 9,000km² from the Vaal River to the Witwatersrand ridge. One Wits student is comparing aerial photos of Meyersdal and Alberton from between 1937 and 1962 with Google Earth images. "She’s going to try and see how much of it was properly recorded and how much has been lost," he says.

But while Sadr laments the loss, it is because the ruins were not recorded before they were destroyed. "It’s not necessary to protect every one of these ruins anyway. There are thousands of them….

"It’s a question of recording it and these days technology would allow us to, for very little money, just send up a drone and take a few photographs — that’s all we need."

He hopes to create an online repository of these sites, where developers could also upload images of the ruins before they are destroyed.

Sadr says it is necessary to save this history because it is important for people’s perceptions of Southern Africa and the identity of people living here.

"There is a very negative impression [both externally and internally] that there hasn’t been much development, no new things coming out of Africa, and that is entirely wrong," he says.

"There were very complex societies, kingdoms and very densely populated towns 500 years ago. If I were a Tswana and didn’t know that part of history and thought that there was nothing here before the Trekkers came, it would make a difference [in my identity].

"If I knew that there were big precolonial towns and cities, I could go and see them and marvel at the complexity of their organisation."

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