Laser technology uncovers a lost city in South Africa

Using the same laser technology that has revealed ancient Mayan cities in Mesoamerica, students from the University of the Witwatersrand have revealed a southern Africa city that prospered between the 15th and 19th centuries.

LiDAR image of the ancient settlement
The ancient homesteads at Suikerbosrand are shown against an aerial photograph from 1961. The two rectangles show the footprint of the LiDAR imagery. Image by: Karim Sadr/University of the Witwatersrand

The LiDAR system enabled the team to do what had not been feasible before – accurately map the landscape and its associated dwellings beneath the extensive overgrowth on the Suikerbosrand hills, which sit approximately 60km south of Johannesburg. The results revealed a city of substantial size, some 20 square km to be more precise. Impressively, this is about five times the size of Ur, a well-known ancient city in Mesopotamia.

Studying the varied architectural styles within the scans, archaeologists were able to estimate the four-century period in which these stone walled structures were occupied. It also enabled them to determine the relative wealth and status of the various homesteads. Discovered within the city’s core were two immense stone-walled enclosures, which had a combined area of almost 10,000 square metres. If these were cattle enclosures, it’s estimated that they could have held almost 1000 animals.

The discovery was made by students at Witwatersrand University
The discovery was made by students from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Photo by Yandisa Monakali/City Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images

All this information led the team to believe that it is one of several similar cities built by a Tswana-speaking population in the region that is now northern South Africa. Previous studies have documented how these Tswana city-states collapsed during a huge upheaval in the 1820s. The Mfecane (aka Difeqane wars) or ‘crushing’ is thought to be the result of a huge migration due to both environmental and societal changes at the time.

From knowledge gained at the other Tswana settlements, the team estimate that each of the 800 or so homesteads found here would have housed an extended family comprised of at least a male, his wife (or wives) and their children.

Incredibly, almost half a century ago a number of small ruins in this area were excavated, but due to the overgrowth, the archaeologists had no idea about the treasure that actually lay below.

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