About 50km exterior South Africa’s largest metropolis, Johannesburg, lies one of the vital vital websites in human prehistory: the Cradle of Humankind. Right here, at websites just like the Sterkfontein Caves, Swartkrans, Drimolen and Kromdraai, researchers have unearthed wonderful fossil proof from the Plio-Pleistocene (the final 5 million years). It’s particularly well-known for the invention of fossilised hominin – historical human – stays.
However there’s a more moderen and largely uncared for layer to the panorama’s historical past. My colleagues and I got down to examine some archaeological traces present in a part of the Cradle of Humankind. We targeted on a stone-walled construction on a hill referred to as Driefontein; the title additionally given to the location we studied.
Our findings recommend that the Driefontein stone-walled construction was a residential space. It seems much like settlements discovered elsewhere in South Africa’s North West province and components of Botswana relationship to between AD 1450 and 1700, although sure options presumably recommend a later date. These findings place the settlement’s occupation broadly throughout the “Tswana” interval. This refers to roughly the final 500 years of historical past when Tswana communities, a southern African ethnic group, arose.
Whereas the prehistoric sequence of the Cradle of Humankind operates at a number of ranges spanning a really lengthy time period, a disproportionate quantity of sources have been allotted to research regarding human evolution and early stone device applied sciences.
Whereas this has international significance, our work is vital, too, as a result of it sheds mild on heritage traces that reveal a lot about folks’s day by day lives. It additionally helps us perceive native, traumatic pasts which concerned colonial oppression, land dispossession and racial insurance policies.
Cultural stays comparable to these discovered at Driefontein enable archaeology to peel again historic discourse to disclose folks’s pasts that aren’t preserved in every other means.
Mapping the settlement
Our work on the settlement concerned an intensive mapping programme carried out over 4 successive visits. Initially we decided the general measurement of the settlement, so as to plan our area programme, after which we examined the structure of the homestead’s dry-packed stone-walled structure.
To report the location, maps had been produced utilizing a mixture of handheld GPSs and a Trimble Station; these use satellites to report geo-specific factors that may be rendered digitally to resemble the settlement’s construction and options.
Mapping the location is informative; as constructing designs at present differ between folks and over time, so did previous stone-walled buildings. By learning the structure of the settlement, we will then try to find out who occupied the location and when. Archaeologists have been doing this from the 1960s and there’s a pretty good report of what the various kinds of websites seem like.
By analyzing the construction of Driefontein, we might then match its structure to typologies developed over the previous 60 years and decide when it was occupied. We will additionally infer using totally different areas of the location.
There are different methods of doing this, comparable to by means of ceramic evaluation or archaeological excavations, however at Driefontein only a few objects stay on the floor and there’s no excavatable deposit.
Nonetheless, two middens had been recognized. These had been used as dump websites and infrequently comprise invaluable archaeological materials comparable to ceramic sherds, meals waste, and private ornaments. Sadly, at Driefontein this was not the case; this meant that learning the partitions’ structure was the one viable means of studying extra in regards to the historical past of the location.
Driefontein contains two distinct areas; what we name west and east. Each have massive round buildings exterior the principle walled space. These could have been kraals (enclosures) for livestock. The primary parts of the 2 areas each have an inside walled space with separate smaller enclosures connected. Round this can be a discontinuous and scalloping boundary wall. Between it and the inside enclosure are as much as 20 particular person huts, together with a number of with exterior terraces. These are indicated by upright rocks erected in a round form with extensions the place terraces exist.
There are additionally grain bin foundations within the neighborhood of a number of huts, that are comparable in development to the huts however are far smaller.
Based mostly on the proof, in addition to the middens and a small assortment of earthenware ceramics, the Driefontein stone-walled construction was a residential space. The construction seems much like settlements relationship to between AD 1450 and 1700. Nonetheless, sure options – notably the upright rocks across the huts and lintels within the exterior round buildings – have been recognized at websites with a later date. This presumably means that Driefontein is youthful than we could count on.
Although the settlement’s occupation falls throughout the “Tswana” interval, naming the occupants as Tswana is difficult. That’s as a result of Tswana historical past isn’t linear or direct. Fairly, there are intervals of migration, political progress and assimilation. Tswana origins are additionally unclear. At instances, oral histories observe a number of lineages and totems with a number of totally different teams showing and mixing with others.
When wanting again at early archaeological sequences, comparable to would be the case at Driefontein, figuring out “Tswana” teams is, for these causes, fairly difficult. Nonetheless, based mostly on the proof, we imagine Driefontein was doubtless occupied by Tswana-like teams after about AD 1450.
This challenge was executed with the involvement of the present landowners of the Nirox Sculpture Park and Venture 58, the place the location is positioned. Their curiosity within the website and openness to researchers is what finally led to us studying extra of the area’s prehistory.
Our work is way from over. Future research at Driefontein will assist to additional acknowledge more moderen advanced histories, identities and pasts that overlay the deep-time sequences preserved within the Cradle of Humankind’s cave methods.