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A lost desert city. Credit: frenta / Adobe Stock

Lost City of the Kalahari: Experts Search for Traces of Ancient Desert Civilization

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Today, the Kalahari Desert is known as a very dry place. The word Kalahari in fact comes from a Tswana word which means ‘great thirst’. As a result, it seems an unlikely location for an ancient city. Nonetheless, there is a legend that the ruins of a lost city lie somewhere within the ancient sand-sea, waiting to be discovered.

Origin of the Legend

In 1885, an American entertainer turned explorer named William Leonard Hunt traveled to the Kalahari under the pseudonym, Guillermo Farini. He traveled with a team that included his son Lulu.
While traveling through the semi-arid wasteland, Farini is said to have come across what appeared to be ancient ruins consisting of large stones held together by cement and stone walls, which formed semi-circular structures. He also looked for any symbols or evidence of a writing system but found none. Farini claimed that this represented the remains of a lost civilization which had once existed in the Kalahari Desert.

Kalahari Desert, Namibia, Africa. Source: Dmitry Pichugin / Adobe.

Kalahari Desert, Namibia, Africa. Source: Dmitry Pichugin / Adobe.

Early Searches for the City

Farini’s alleged discovery sparked immense interest among explorers. Over the past 130 years, at least 30 expeditions have gone into the Kalahari Desert in search of this lost city. So far, nothing has ever been found, not a single brick or broken potsherd.

One problem that complicated these early searches was that Farini left very few notes or details as to the exact location of what he found. Furthermore, he said that it was half-buried and thus would be difficult to recognize in the first place. This made the prospects of actually finding the ruins in the midst of a vast sea of sand and rocks, which describes large sections of the Kalahari Desert, akin to finding a proverbial needle in a haystack.

Red sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see--and beyond--in Africa's Kalahari Desert. (Paolo D'Odorico / Public Domain)

Red sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see--and beyond--in Africa's Kalahari Desert. (Paolo D'Odorico / Public Domain)

City Ruins or Natural Feature?

In 1964, an explorer and academic named A.J. Clement retraced what he believed to be the actual route of Farini. He did not find any remains of human settlements, but he did find unusual rock formations made of dolerite. Dolerite is a mafic, intrusive igneous rock that has a grain size intermediate between basalt and gabbro.

Dolerite often occurs in dikes, which are geologic formations where molten rock cut through older rocks to create potentially wall-like structures. The rock that makes up a dike is often stronger than the surrounding country rock, so the country rock will erode leaving just the dike. The dikes of some rocks, like dolerite, will form blocky, wall-like segments which to the untrained eye may resemble ancient city walls.

Dolerite rock formations in the so called Lost City of Kalahari. (MGA73bot2 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Dolerite rock formations in the so called Lost City of Kalahari. (MGA73bot2 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

A.J. Clement suggested that Farini may have come across an unusual rock formation made of dolerite, possibly an exposed dike, and may have mistaken the formation for a man-made structure. A.J. Clement also believed that most of the Kalahari was much too dry to have been the site of a civilization for at least the last 15,000 years.

The Search Continues…

Expeditions continue to this day. Two of the most recent expeditions were launched in 2013 and 2016. In 2013, a search was done through a research project called the Marcahuasi Project which used Google Maps to assist them in finding any anomalies that could represent artificial structures. This search was probably the most high-tech search so far but turned back nothing that was indisputably from a lost city.

The expedition in 2016 was hosted by the Travel Channel. It was recounted in the series, Destination Unknown. The 2016 expedition also used aerial surveys and radar to search the Kalahari Desert for any signs of an ancient city. They also turned up nothing definitive, though they did find some unusual rock formations that could be mistaken for city ruins.

Kalahari Desert: Best Place to Build a City?

One major objection to the existence of the city is that the Kalahari Desert has an incredibly dry climate, making it unlikely that an ancient city once existed within its sand-blasted bowels. The Kalahari Desert is a semi-humid to semi-arid region within the larger Kalahari basin that covers most of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa. It is technically a savannah.

The northern part gets slightly more rain which allows for the existence of grasses and other types of vegetation that attract many types of grazing animals. The southern part of the savanna is drier and consists of more dune fields.

Because it is so dry, there are not many human communities within the Kalahari Desert. One human population that is known to live in the Kalahari is the San people or the ‘Bushmen’. The Bushmen have lived in the region for thousands of years and may be among the oldest continuous human populations in the world. The archaeological record suggests that the people of the Kalahari have been mostly hunter-gatherers for the majority of human history and there is little evidence that they ever had settlements larger than small villages.

Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Africa. (franco lucato / Adobe)

Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Africa. (franco lucato / Adobe)

Despite its dryness, there are two major sources of water. A vast subterranean water reservoir exists beneath the region. Also, the Okavango River, the only permanent river within the basin, is a major source of water. Marshlands abound along its banks which are home to abundant wildlife. Other than these two sources, water is scarce and even the current sources of water would be difficult for humans to access if they wanted to build a city within the Kalahari Desert.

Counterexample: Known Desert Civilizations

On the other hand, human civilizations have flourished in extremely dry conditions in other parts of the world, in some cases drier than the conditions in the Kalahari Desert. One particularly interesting example of a desert civilization, or proto civilization, is Chaco Canyon.

Chaco Canyon is a canyon in the San Juan Basin of the north-western corner of New Mexico. It is a very dry canyon where the main source of water is from water runoff from the tops of cliffs which feed the Chaco River during the rainy season. Despite its dry conditions, a complex human society was able flourish within it for several centuries.

Chaco Canyon has a similar climate to that of the Kalahari Desert. (Jsweida / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Chaco Canyon has a similar climate to that of the Kalahari Desert. (Jsweida / CC BY-SA 3.0)

By 800 AD, the ancestral Puebloan people had settled the canyon and, within a few centuries, created a complex system of irrigation using water runoff from cliffs. They eventually established a network of large and small villages. Larger villages, or centers, were connected to Great Houses which were great multi-room structures that may have had ritual significance.

One of the most important of these Great Houses is Pueblo Bonito where trade goods would be gathered from distant lands and collected by the elites as prestige items. The site likely had great ritual as well as social significance in the society of the ancestral Pueblo.

The Chacoans did not build true cities, but they did have a socially complex society and large population centers that were at least the size of large villages. They also had enough labor and resources for monumental architecture. This was all despite the difficulty in farming in Chaco Canyon. This situation did not last forever.

Beginning around 1130, a drought struck the canyon and, by 1200, the major population centers of Chaco Canyon were all abandoned. The period between 800 and 1200 is now just remembered as a glorious past by modern Puebloan descendants of the ancient Chacoan people.

The example of Chaco Canyon is presented as a known example of a society which was able to produce relatively densely populated settlements with monumental architecture in a very arid region where such a civilization is unlikely. If this could happen in Chaco Canyon in the ancient American southwest, could it have also happened in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa?

Reality Check: Is the Existence of a Lost City Likely?

In light of the existence of cultures such as Chaco Canyon, dry conditions, by themselves, do not rule out the existence of a relatively densely populated ancient settlement somewhere within the Kalahari Desert, but it is also true that these cases are rare and tend to be exceptions that prove the rule. Most people living in the driest parts of the world, such as the people of the Atacama Desert in Chile and central Australia, did not generally build large settlements.

Atacama Desert in Chile. (MaxPixel / Public Domain)

Atacama Desert in Chile. (MaxPixel / Public Domain)

Chaco Canyon is an interesting case since it does appear to be in a very dry region without accessibility to many sources of water, but the ancestral Pueblo were able to build at least a proto-civilization within it. The Chacoan Great Houses could hardly be considered cities. At most they were just large villages or small towns, which probably explains why the ancestral Pueblo were able to build them and maintain them.

It should be noted that while civilizations such as ancient Sumer and Egypt were surrounded by deserts, they both existed in areas with abundant water because both civilizations were mainly confined to riverbanks as opposed to being primarily centered in desert areas. The Chaco Canyon culture is different in that its most populous centers were in the driest parts of Chaco Canyon.

Chaco Canyon is arguably one example that demonstrates that large complex human societies could exist in extremely dry conditions in the ancient world. Thus, although it is unlikely that a full-sized city ever existed in the Kalahari Desert, it is possible that something akin to what is found at Chaco Canyon may have existed, a complex society which built structures in the desert for ceremonial purposes. This society probably would not have had settlements much larger than the village level however, based on the example from Chaco Canyon.

Could the Lost City Have Existed When the Kalahari Desert was Wetter?

Although the Kalahari Desert is dry today, it was not always this dry. About 10,000 years ago, the Kalahari Basin was the location of several great lakes and was probably much greener and capable of supporting much more vegetation.

Tswana natives called the Kalahari Desert ‘the great thirst’. But it greens up in the rainy season. (Paolo D'Odorico / Public Domain)

Tswana natives called the Kalahari Desert ‘the great thirst’. But it greens up in the rainy season. (Paolo D'Odorico / Public Domain)

Because the Kalahari Basin was wetter 10,000 years ago, some might consider it tempting to suppose that this lost city of the Kalahari existed during that epoch, instead of more recent times when the region is quite dry. These wetter conditions 10,000 years ago would make the existence of a true city more likely.

Although this is a possibility, there is no evidence of large settlements in southern Africa dating to that time. If the lost city of the Kalahari Desert did exist 10,000 years ago, it would be the first large human settlement of that age discovered in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This is, however, an unlikely scenario. It is more likely that, if there ever was a large settlement in the Kalahari Desert, it existed closer to the time that we know large complex settlements existed in nearby regions, essentially within the last millennium or two. This would be the simpler explanation since we at least know that large settlements, like Great Zimbabwe, existed in the last thousand years, whereas we don’t have evidence at all that any such settlements existed 10,000 years ago in southern Africa.

Discussion and Conclusion

Through this thought experiment, we can say that a complex society could have existed in the Kalahari Desert in the same way that it existed in Chaco Canyon which could have built the structure that Farini allegedly discovered. This structure, if it existed, probably was not a true city but a complex, more akin to Pueblo Bonito.

The problem with experimental archaeology, including an experimental archaeology only involving thought experiments, is that just because it is possible, doesn’t mean it actually happened. Just because a complex society could have existed in the Kalahari Desert and have built structures to be discovered by Western entertainers turned explorers, doesn’t mean that it actually did. So far, no evidence has been found for any large settlements built by ancient complex societies in the Kalahari Desert, let alone a lost city.

As a result, if such a society did exist, it has not been found yet. Since not a single artifact from this alleged civilization has been found since the legend originated, it is becoming more likely that what Farini thought was a city, if he saw anything at all, was really just an odd rock formation like A.J. Clement said. Does that mean we should stop looking? Not necessarily, just because it hasn’t been found yet doesn’t mean that it does not exist.

It would still be a remarkable discovery if it was discovered. The reality of the situation must still be assessed, however. Currently, there is no reason to be optimistic about the discovery of any ancient lost city in the Kalahari.

The Kalahari Desert, shown in maroon and the Kalahari Basin, shown in orange. (Jc86035 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Kalahari Desert, shown in maroon and the Kalahari Basin, shown in orange. (Jc86035 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Top image: A lost desert city. Credit: frenta / Adobe Stock

By Caleb Strom


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Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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