South Africa Archaeology

Sterkfontein caves

If it's true that Africa is the cradle of all mankind - and most palaeontologists believe this to be so - then Sterkfontein Caves is surely one of the continent's sacred sites.
Palaeontological significance aside, the caves are awe-inspiring, and a tour into their dark, chill, primeval depths leaves a lasting impression on visitors. Discovered by an Italian prospector in 1896, this labyrinth of interconnected caverns was formed over millions of years by underground waters slowly dissolving the dolomitic rock. The largest cavern is the soaring Hall of Elephants, 23m high and 91m long. Other imaginatively named chambers include Fairy Chamber, Bridal Arch, Lumbago Alley and the Graveyard. The cave system also has an immense underground lake, whose tranquil, crystal-clear waters extend some distance into unexplored chambers.


Several interesting dripstone formations are to be seen, although, sadly, many of the cave's more spectacular stalactites and stalagmites were removed or damaged by early limestone-mining activities. This quarrying also exposed parts of the caves' ancient consolidated infill, known as breccia, which contains the fossilized bones of extinct hominids, monkeys, antelope, horses, sabretoothed cats and many other mammals that lived between one and a half and three million years ago. Also found were the earliest stone tools used in South Africa, close to two million years old.

It was from these deposits that, beginning in 1936, Dr Robert Broom of the Transvaal Museum extracted many fosilized bones during the course of his excavations, which culminated in the discovery of an almost perfectly preserved cranium of a female specimen, estimated to be two and a half million years old, which he named Plesianthropus transvaalensis. Later, 'Mrs Ples' was re-classified as Australopithecus africanus when the skull was positively recognized as belonging to the same species as the 'ape-child' skull discovered by Professor Raymond Dart at Taung in the northern Cape in 1924.

The caves form part of the Isaack Stegmann Nature Reserve and are owned by the University of the Witwatersrand. Guided tours of the cave leave every 30 minutes, and have a taped commentary in three languages. At the mouth of the cave you may browse around a small museum or relax in the restaurant.

History revealed at Bakoni Malapa

Although the entire Bakoni Malapa Museum is a reconstruction, the site itself is of great archaeological significance. Various groups made their homes at the foot of this koppie over many thousands of years, and the numerous artefacts excavated by the University of the Witwatersrand during 1980 provided fascinating clues about the identity and lifestyle of these people. Stone-Age people lived here between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago, as evidenced by the numerous Middle and Later Stone-Age implements that were discovered on the site.

A rock engraving was found at the southern foot of the koppie, indicating the presence of San (Bushman) hunter-gatherers at some stage. The remains of stone-wall complexes and many pottery shards yielded a wealth of information about groups who occupied the site in later years. It is believed that the Northern Ndebele lived here from around 1600 to 1650, and that they melted both copper and iron on the site. Fifty years later they were succeeded by the Northern Sotho, and from about 1850 the site was occupied by Tsonga-Shangaan people, who finally moved away in about 1900.

The huts that presently form part of the reconstructed kraal were built using traditional methods employed by the Northern Sotho some 250 years ago. No surviving example of this type of hut could be found in the area, so the new huts were constructed with the help and advice of a few elderly men and women of the Matlala people, who could remember having lived in them as children.

Bushman Drawings

The earliest work of art in South Africa are the rock paintings and engravings of the Bushmen (San). The origins of this old-established people of hunters and gatherers are unknown, as are the origins of their art. Some of their drawings may be as much as 30,000 years old, ranking them among the oldest in the world.

The drawings are found at thousands of sites, often in caves, over a wide area extending from the Limpopo to the Cape. Drawings on sandstone or granite are mostly to be found in hilly regions and river valleys, engravings or incised drawings in open country. Usually they are in remote areas and difficult to access, and subject to damage by weathering, vandalism and ignorance. All Bushman drawings are protected national monuments. They are particularly numerous in the eastern and north-eastern Cape and the southern Giant's Castle Game Reserve alone there are over 700 rock drawings of animals. Later the Bushmen, confronted by European settlers advancing from the south and the Bantu peoples moving in from the north-west, withdrew into the inhospitable Kalahari. Copies of their art can be seen in various museums.

The rock drawings are difficult to date, since for religious reasons the Bushmen stuck to particular themes and to their particular artistic canon. They may date from prehistoric times or may be only a few centuries old. The more recent drawings can be dated more accurately, since they depict Europeans and the animals they brought in.

Folk art

Until a few years ago the policy of apartheid and the cultural boycott, with different aims, produced the same result: the false impression that though there is important tribal art in West and Central Africa there is little or none in South Africa. With the purchase and the return of collections from abroad a rich tradition has been revealed in woodcarving and the making of glass beads. Since the early nineties three South African museums in particular have displayed fine collections of woodcarving (mostly elegant everyday objects - head supports, spoons, pots, staffs, etc.) and glass beads. The Johannesburg Art Gallery (Brenthurst and Horstmann collections), the National Gallery in Cape Town (glass beads from the Eastern Cape and a collection of traditional art acquired from the United States in 1994-95) and the museum in Ulundi (KwaZulu /Natal), with a collection of Zulu glass beads.

Some notable works of art, such as the Lydenburg heads (richly decorated terracotta heads of about A.D. 1500; now in South African Museum, Cape Town, but seldom on display) show that South African history did not begin with the arrival of white settlers, as until recently South African schoolbooks maintained.

History of folk African art is mainly of religious origin. The commonest forms of expression are figures of ancestors, spirits and animals and fetishes, together with sacred vessels and symbols of rank and dignity (staffs, sceptres, pipes, fly-whisks). Sculpture served as a medium for establishing contact with the world of spirits: it had to be so beautiful that the spirit liked it and agreed to dwell within it. The spirit then became involved in human life and granted fertility, wealth, children, advice or protection. It was the same with animal figures or a fetish, an object enriched with magical substances and consecrated by the medicine-man which protected a supplicant in all conceivable situations. Masks gave visible and palpable form to the souls of the dead and the various protective spirits and enabled mythic events to be re-enacted. Both ancestor figures and masks were consecrated, and when the initiate donned the mask the divine force entered into him. Among the favourite materials used were wood, worked with a hatchet or a knife, which in the climate of South Africa was particularly perishable, and clay, which was only lightly fired and was therefore fragile.

Other techniques and materials, too, have a long tradition behind them, and are still used in the manufacture of typical craft products in some parts of the country. Among them are pottery, basketwork and woven fabrics with particular was elaborately ornamented with embroidery, dyes, appliques and openwork decoration.

The Zulus and Ndebele in particular are famed for their imaginative and decorative beadwork. The beads were originally made from a mixture of clay and goat's milk, pierced with holes and dried. Later they were made from grass, animal hairs or string. From the 17th century Portuguese traders brought in coloured glass beads. Over the centuries the women developed patterns formed, depending on the method of threading, of horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines.

The richly coloured art of the Ndebele, which finds expression in wall painting, beadwork and garments, has become widely known outside South Africa through various exhibitions and publications. The geometric patterns and symbols painted on the walls of the forecourt of a house can be seen in the Ndebele settlement area north-east of Pretoria. The mineral pigments originally used gave place from 1945 onwards to synthetic paints. The forms and colours of the Ndebele painters were taken over by the contemporary artist Esther Mahlangu, whose work has been exhibited in Washington and Paris. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the BMW automobile firm she painted a BMW in Ndebele style.

Bushman Paintings and Cave Museum

The Berg has long been famous for the wealth of rock paintings that are a legacy of the San people (Bushmen) who inhabited Southern Africa for thousands of years before the arrival of the first settlers.

At the beginning of the 19th Century fierce competition for land resulted in the Difiquane Wars. As the great chiefs Shaka, Dingaan and Matiwane fought over land and cattle, tribes were fragmented and forced to migrate in an attempt to escape the bloody havoc spiraling across the territories of Zululand and Natal. By the time the Voortrekker wagons emerged over the Drakensberg escarpment in 1838, most of the local tribes had dispersed northwards and the remaining San people had fled high up into the mountain passes.

Hunter-gatherers, the nomadic San men hunted with bone or stonetipped poisoned arrows, while the women collected wild fruits and roots. They lived in caves and rock overhangs, and with earth colours and primitive tools adorned the walls of their dwellings with scenes of dances and ceremonies, hunts, animals and supernatural creatures.

Their art was pervaded by a profound appreciation of the harmony of nature and all its wonders. Acclaimed artist Professor Walter Batiss, who studied their work, wrote: 'No artist has said more, saying less'.Visiting one of these Stone Age galleries is an unforgettable experience. The best and most accessible is in the Giants Castle area, where the open air Bushmen Museum at the Main Caves uses life-like models to depict a typical situation in the daily life of a typical gather family unit.

There are guides to take visitors on a tour of the caves and museum, which includes a display of recently discovered artefacts. The history and culture of the San people is also captured on a tape recorded presentation.The Injasuti Battle Cave in the Injasuti valley has 750 paintings illustrating a pitched battle between two warring clans.

Cathedral Peak - Ndedema gorge rock art

The blue-grey peaks of the Cathedral Range rise up above the Little Berg, silent, majestic, strangely forbidding, presenting an irresistible challenge to mountaineers. The Cathedral Range is a massive barrier of basalt that thrusts out eastwards from the main wall of the Drakensberg escarpment. Over the aeons the basalt has been eroded to form an impressive bastion of freestanding peaks. The original Zulu name for this ridge is Mponjwane, which means 'the place of the little horns'. Among the most imposing pinnacles are Cathedral Peak, the Bell, the Outer Horn, the Inner Horn, the Mitre, and Chessmen. Equally impressive are the peaks of the escarpment wall, such as Cleft Peak and the Mlamboja Buttress. From the summit of any of these peaks hikers are rewarded with inspiring views of the length of the escarpment as it sweeps away to the north and south, fading to the palest blue-grey until it merges with the sky.

The dramatic terrain of Cathedral Peak range has made it one of the country's prime mountaineering areas. But you don't have to be a seasoned climber to enjoy the many delights of this lovely corner of South Africa. Lying in the shadows of the range are the folds of the Little Berg, the transitional zone between the low country of KwaZulu-Natal and the craggy heights of the escarpment. Several deep valleys are carved through the foothills of the Cathedral Peak area. Here walkers are rewarded with magnificent mountain scenery, beautiful indigenous trees, waterfalls, cascades and fern-fringed pools, where trout flick through the shadows.

The Cathedral Peak area is noteworthy for its dense forests, which are the largest surviving indigenous forests in the whole of the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg. This region includes the Mdedelelo Wilderness Area, and is administered by the Natal Parks Board as part of the Natal Drakensberg Park, which stretches from Cathedral Peak southwards as far as Bushman's Neck.
Experienced climbers will find it difficult to resist the energetic 10km slog from the hotel to Cathedral Peak, or several other epic climbs, while the casual visitor will enjoy the many lovely walks that wind up the Mlambonja and adjoining valleys, leading to natural beauty spots such as Neptune's Pool and Marble Baths.

Those in search of a short hike with alluring scenery should not miss Rainbow Gorge. This undemanding two hour ramble leads walkers splashing up a steep-sided and shadowy gorge, with an atmosphere of Tolkienesque enchantment: here pools are fringed with ferns and mosses, rainbows shimmer in the gauzy veils of spray and, further along, a giant chockstone is wedged between the gorge walls.

If you intend staying a little longer in the area, it's well worth venturing into the lonely Ndedema Gorge for a few days. This steep-sided valley supports an abundance of plant and animal life, and has many fine pools and cascades, as well as some beautiful pockets of thick yellowwood forest. The valley is famous for being one of the world's most important storehouses of San (Bushman) rock art-there are 17 sandstone rock shelters and caves containing some 4000 individual paintings, the precious legacy of the ancient Stone-Age people who once lived and hunted in these remote foothills. These national treasures are strictly protected. Visitors may not camp or make fires in caves where painting are found (some of the finest paintings are not even marked on the maps).

A worthwhile drive for those who lack the inclination to hike is up Mike's Pass, a winding road that takes motorists to picnic sites at the of the Little Berg.

Rock Paintings

There are several San rock painting sites, although Royal Natal's are fewer and not as well preserved as Giant's Castle. The notable sites are Sigubudu Shelter, north of the road just past the main gate; and Cannibal Caves, on Surprise Ridge, outside the park's northern boundary. The reserve is rich in San rock paintings, with at least 50 sites.

The San hunter-gatherers lived on mountain slopes from about 8,000 years ago until the mid 1,000s, and left behind a treasure trove of rock paintings in the caves and overhangs. The caves tell story of the stone age culture of the San, rituals and spiritual beliefs.

The two main sites are Main Cave and Battle Cave, both of which have an entry fee of R6. Main Cave is two km south of Main camp. The cave is open on weekends and holidays from 9 am to 3 pm; on weekdays you have to go with a tour which departs from the camp office at 9 am and 3 pm. Battle Cave is near Injasuti and must be visited on a tour, which leaves the camp daily at 9 am. It's an eight-km walk each way.

Kimberley Archaeological Route

The Kimberley Archaeological Route was launched to enhance the attractiveness of Kimberley and its surroundings and consequently better satisfy present needs of travelers.

The Ancestor's Display' at the McGregor Museum on Atlas. Street serves as the departure point to the Kimberley Archaeological Route. Thereafter, visitors are afforded the opportunity to go 'backstage' at the Archaeological Department of the museum. There, visitors view the largest hand axe found in the world, an axe that was found at Canteen Kopje, the last site visited on the route. Other important archaeological artifacts are also on display.

Tourists also visit the IKhu and Kwe San Cultural Centre at Platfontein where they can view San artists working on their paintings, creating bows and arrows and engraving ostrich eggs.


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