South Africa: University of Witwatersrand Has Discovered a Tswana Lost City

Archaeologists from the University of Witwatersrand have used specialised laser technology to recreate a lost 15th century city to the south of Johannesburg that was likely inhabited by Tswana people.

There are many lost cities scattered around the world that laser technology has helped discover, including a lost Mayan city hidden in the rainforest of Mesoamerica, a historical region and cultural area made up of the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Using this technology, called LiDAR, Wits archaeologists have "unearthed" a 500-year-old lost city in the Suikerbosrand hills near Johannesburg.

LiDAR uses laser light to create images of the landscape and virtually strip away the vegetation, thus permitting unimpeded aerial views of ancient buildings and monuments. Researchers have estimated that the builders of the revealed stone-walled structures occupied this area from the fifteenth century AD until the second half of the 1800s. Although they have had difficulty in estimating the size of its population, between 750 and 850 homesteads have been counted.

The city, which has been named SKBR in the interim, may eventually be given a Tswana name for the Tswana-speakers that most likely inhabited it. In the 1820s all the Tswana city states dotted along the northern parts of South Africa collapsed in what became known as the Difaqane civil wars, a time of widespread chaos and war among indigenous ethnic communities in southern Africa from 1815 to about 1840.

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In an article published on The Conversation, Professor Karim Sadr wrote, "The evidence we gathered suggests that SKBR was certainly large enough to be called a city. The ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur was less than 2km in diameter, while SKBR is nearly 10km long and about 2km wide."

The size and cattle infrastructure of SKBR led the team to guess that the area housed families of great wealth and social standing. However, it will take another decade or two of field work to fully understand the birth, development and ultimate demise of this African city.

"This will be done through additional coverage with LiDAR, intensive ground surveys and excavations in selected localities," Professor Sadr elaborated.

In the article, Professor Sadr explained that some of his postgraduate students were in the process of contacting descendants through representatives of the Bakwena branch of the Tswana in the hope that they may become involved in the research project.

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