SAMANTHA ENSLIN-PAYNE: Intriguing view of the past raises questions about the present
Kweneng, a city just 50km south of Johannesburg where thousands of people lived between the 16th century and the early 1800s, shows how technology can shine a light on the past, and what it has revealed has made me wonder about the present. At a recent lecture at the Origins Centre, Karim Sadr, a professor of geography, archaeology and environmental studies at Wits University, explained how the extent of Kweneng emerged through the use initially of Google Earth satellite images and then laser technology, known as light detection and ranging (LiDAR), fitted to a plane that flew over the 10km-long and 2km-wide site.
Although work had been done on the site from the 1960s, and information on ancient stone walls had been in print since the 1830s, the dots had not been connected until Sadr's team took a closer look.
Sadr says Google satellite imagery "showed an unusual density of sites" on the western foothills, so LiDAR coverage was obtained. It showed there were twice as many ruins than what was visible on satellite images. About 6,000 to 12,000 people lived at Kweneng in its heyday, so, while not a city by today's standards, it was likely one of the largest settlements in SA at the time. Sadr adds: "At the peak of Kweneng's power, their territory undoubtedly covered the entire basin of the Klip River and perhaps extended farther west as well."
The houses have long gone, but the stone walls that enclosed homesteads and cattle remain, and it is these structures that are being studied for a deeper understanding of the city and its residents. Among the early avenues of research is how those living at Kweneng signified wealth through ash heaps, stone monuments and cattle drives. And, of course, the homesteads as well, with some having stone-walled enclosures large enough to house almost 1,000 head of cattle, Sadr said in an article published in The Conversation.
The largest ash heaps, in which broken pottery vessels, ash from cow-dung fires and bones of livestock have been found, are near the biggest homesteads and have been interpreted as evidence of the largesse that these households, due to their wealth, could extend. As Sadr says, refuse dumps as "landmarks of wealth and power'' are also known from other countries such as India. Throughout Kweneng, there were many long passages bordered by stone walls. Research by archaeologist Revil Mason identified similar avenues along which cattle were herded home. Their return in the evening was an opportunity for households to display the cattle they owned, and even when the animals were out grazing, the varying width of the passages to homesteads was a sign of relative wealth.
This got me thinking about how we signify wealth today and what researchers, digging through billions of social media posts in 200 years time, would make of us? Facebook and Instagram have become fundamental to how we establish our status: photos of our homes and the fashion we wear, the cars we drive or the places we travel to. But wealth is not just what we own - it's the books we read, our education, the events we attend and who we rub shoulders with. All define our social capital.
Written records suggest Kweneng may, in some respects, have been an egalitarian society. Missionaries' accounts point out that frequently kings of other city-states in SA, "although extremely rich in cattle and land, and politically powerful, dressed like others and lived in houses which did not stand out from the rest", Sadr said.
The same can't be said of our society, with daily reminders of the stark inequality in SA today.
We may consider ourselves sophisticated. But according to the World Bank, almost 19% of South Africans live below the international poverty line of $1.90 a day — yes, an improvement on the 34% in 1996, but worse than the 16.8% in 2011.
• Enslin-Payne is acting editor of Business Times