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A digitally-developed 3D satellite image of Kweneng

Was the Lost African City of Kweneng Linked to Gold Trading?


A lost city, Kweneng, dating to between 1400 and 1875 lies south from Johannesburg, South Africa at the Suikerbosrand archaeological site and nature reserve. The site has attracted archaeological interest since the 1960’s, but it is only recently with the latest technology LiDAR, - light detection and ranging - that the size of the actual city has been revealed to have housed an estimate of 5,000 to 10,000 people.  Speculation exists that this city could have been trading in gold, as it is situated about 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Johannesburg, home of the gold reef.

Gold bead strings of Mapungubwe (CC Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria)

Gold bead strings of Mapungubwe (CC Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria)

Professor Karim Sadr, of the School of Geography, Archaeology, and Environmental Studies of the University of the Witwatersrand, leading the excavation, states that the city was populated by Setswana speaking people, focused on agriculture and trade.  According to professor Sadr there were probably scattered settlements as early as the 15th century, which developed into a large metropolis within a century. 

Life and Wealth at Kweneng  

African tradition of burying the dead beneath the cattle enclosures or kraals, can indicate an egalitarian system, of different levels of governance, but where the king would not necessarily stand out from his people.  Towers of several meters high were strategically placed around the city but it is unclear what their purpose was. Further investigation would indicate whether they were for storage, burial, defensive or status purposes.

About 800 separate homesteads are dotted in the area, each homestead would have housed an extended family consisting of the male head of the homestead, one or more wives and their children.  There are interesting indications of differences in wealth and suburbs among these homesteads.  Passageways between the homesteads were used to funnel cattle – the benchmark of wealth.  The bigger the passageway, the more cattle it accommodated, indicating the bigger wealth of the owner. Refuse dumps at the entrances of the homesteads containing animal bones and shards of pottery also give an indication of the wealth and status of the owner.

Queen Losha of Thulamela as she was found in her grave. She is wearing a slim bracelet of woven gold.  (Image:

There is speculation that the citizens of Kweneng could have traded with the citizens of Thulamela, a Shona settlement in a stone citadel, situated at the northern tip of the Kruger National Park. Thulamela was occupied from 1250 to 1700, which overlaps with Kweneng’s dates of 1400 to 1825. Evidence of gold smelters have also been uncovered in the Melville Koppies in Johannesburg, not too far from Kweneng, which opens the possibility that these people may have been trading in the precious metal. Thulamela is known to have traded in both gold and iron, even with China.  Graves of a man and woman buried with hundreds of gold beads as well as gold necklaces and bangles, were found at this site, indicating great wealth. The woman has been dubbed Queen Losha. Sadly, widely reported in the media, this archaeological gold collection was stolen from the public exhibition from the Stevenson-Hamilton Knowledge Resource Centre & Museum in Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, a museum under the jurisdiction of South African National Parks.

A paper published in the journal Gold Bulletin (1998) found that the Thulamela gold had the same chemical fingerprint as gold artifacts found at Mapungubwe, which flourished between roughly 1075 to 1220. "The conclusion could therefore be drawn that both the Mapungubwe (gold artifacts) and Thulamela (gold) artifacts originated from the same gold source." .

Archaeological excavations at Mapungubwe also show that the settlement was much bigger than previously thought and the discovery of beads and gold point to intricate and complex trade networks in central and southern Africa.

Golden Hill of Mapungubwe (Copyright University of Pretoria)

Golden Hill of Mapungubwe (Copyright University of Pretoria)

Difeqane Tribal Genocide

The 1820s saw a great upheaval of the people of Southern Africa.  Difeqane, is known as a period of tribal genocide and scatterings due to the military expansion of the Zulu kingdom further south. Drought and societal changes also contributed to the redistribution of the population. Difeqane is a Sotho word meaning forced migration or hammering. The Nguni word Mfecane means crushing. Professor Sadr postulates that the city could have been destroyed by the 1820s, due to civil wars that swept through the region, however, there are structures dating to 1875. Evidence of three homes excavated indicate a deliberate destroying by fire and abandoned weapons and valuable items such as beads may be indicative that the citizens fled in haste. “My guess is that the whole city was hit hard. The question is whether it was totally destroyed,” said Sadr.

South Africa and the Transvaal War (1900) A Matabele Raid in Mashonaland by W. Small. (Public Domain)

South Africa and the Transvaal War (1900) A Matabele Raid in Mashonaland by W. Small. (Public Domain)

Cultural Heritage of Kweneng

PhD student, Fern Imbala Sixwanha, says since Africa has no written record of pre-colonial history, it is important to record this lost history. “One of the most enlightening things is, as I’ve been able to understand what we were doing in our past,  it gives us a more broader idea of the people of southern Africa, who they were and the types of activities that they did, because you can now rediscover that activity line and just general interaction within the society,” says Sixwanha.

Jacob Rankedi Ngakane, cultural spokesperson for the Bakwena people stated in a BBC interview that the preservation of such historical sites contributes to reinstate the dignity of their clan and protects the information for future generations.

A laser image of Kweneng overlaid on a map of the area. (Source WITS University)

A laser image of Kweneng overlaid on a map of the area. (Source WITS University)

LiDAR Technology

LiDAR technology involves directing lasers at the ground. The time the laser takes to which bounce back when it hits an object is calculated and will be translated into a 3D topographical map. According to professor Sadr who has been excavating at the site for about 30 years, the vegetation was so dense it obscured most of the site – a problem that has now been solved by the LiDAR technology.  It is estimated that the size of the site spans 20 square kilometers (8 square miles). The LiDar enables scientists to create digital images of the structures, providing visual art material to imagine what life was like in the settlement and adding another dimension to cultural heritage.

Top Image: A digitally-developed 3D satellite image of Kweneng (CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Dr Micki Pistorius


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micki pistorius's picture

Dr Micki

Micki Pistorius is a South African psychologist, author and journalist. As a child, Micki’s natural curiosity was cultivated by both her parents and developed into an insatiable interest in history, art and literature. Her passion for history, archaeology and human... Read More

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