Tanzania, South Africa sharing spoils in SADC region

14Aug 2019
Michael Eneza
Dar es Salaam
The Guardian
Tanzania, South Africa sharing spoils in SADC region

STUDENTS hearing of archaeological sites will not be blamed if they hear more about what is found in their countries rather than in other parts of the world, as admittedly nearly all countries on earth have something to show in relation to great or at least outstanding sites.

 In a list  ‘10 Incredible Archaeological Sites in Africa’ that is favored by a breadth of experts, there is for instance no reference to the Kondoa rock paintings, though Olduvai Gorge tops the list, and Laetoli comes somewhere around fourth place. South Africa has a number of sites to that effect and it is from its ‘southern’ epithet that scientists named an upper version of early man ‘Australopithecus,’ and from eastern Africa, Olduvai specifically, one obtains ‘Zinjanthropus.’

A chronicler explaining the list of sites says ‘Africa's archaeological sites helped explain some of the greatest mysteries on the history of mankind but there are also many that baffle modern scientists, because these early societies weren't supposed to be as advanced.’ It is unlikely that all the sites show ‘incredible’ advancement but that sense of genius is also subjective, the way the painter who led Europe into ‘post-modernity’ took ancient rock paintings and Negro art as an inspiration in his ‘cubist’ art movement. It was a tale of simplification of art to a figure of lines.

It says that ‘Olduvai Gorge is one of the most important archaeological sites on earth, let alone Africa, owing to the fact that it showcases the progress of human evolution. The fossils found here date back to more than 1.9 million years ago and include evidence of man as a scavenger, hunter and social being. Various types of tools have been discovered as well.’ There is still belief that this evolution continued until around 500,000 years before the modern era and then started spreading, but the presence of early man fossils elsewhere, including prominent caves as in South Africa, splits this early man story tenfold.

The Valley of Kings in Egypt, also located on a belt on the eastern part of the continent that appears to have been a particularly fertile zone in prehistoric and early historic times, isn’t a prehistoric ruin.  From the mid to the late 2nd millennium BC, Egyptian pharaohs and some members of nobility were buried in tombs constructed in the Valley of the Kings. The area has been receiving visitors since antiquity which is evident from Greek and Latin inscriptions on the walls. Unfortunately, not all visitors were tourists and over the centuries most of the 63 tombs in the area have been robbed.

Gedi Ruins is another site mentioned in the list, said to have been a ‘city along the Kenyan coast that flourished from the 13th to the beginning of the 17th century. In the 1940s, the archaeologists excavating on the site uncovered some very interesting artifacts. These include items originating from far overseas including Spain, Venice, India and China. The city had an impressive palace, a large mosque and exquisite stone houses.’ It means this site was destroyed in the Arab-Portuguese wars of that era, which had the ferocity of incompatible claimants to a territory, a situation that continued right up to colonialism.

Laetoli is mentioned next though its historical importance is above the preceding sites but they have great value as historical artifacts and locations as well as for tourism, but Laetoli ranks with Olduvai and a few others in historical or hominid science importance. It was discovered in1976 by Dr Mary Leakey, showing footprints in volcanic ash, but it doesn’t appear that people in the surrounding areas were unaware of those footprints, as they have legends on how they came about, speaking of them as if they belonged to the period of repopulating the zone by migrants from elsewhere, including the Maasai. The point however is that the footprints belong to the hominid Australopithecus, ‘proving that early man was walking upright approximately 3.6m years ago,’ which scientists had not expected as until that point this was tied to ‘Zinjanthropus.’

The chronicle all the same says that ‘the Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa are often referred to as the Cradle of Humankind as there is no other place on earth with a larger number of hominid fossils. To date (paleo-anthropologists have been excavating on the site since the mid-1930s), remains of about 500 hominids have been found with ‘Mrs. Ples’ and ‘Little Foot’ being the most prominent. While ‘Mrs. Ples’ is the most complete skull of Australopithecus ever found, ‘Little Foot’ is one of the most complete early hominid skeletons in the world.’ That raises other methodological questions as to whether there was one point of departure of human evolution and the primitive species spread elsewhere, or there were several points, like Olduvai, or these caves.

Similarly important in the archaeological record is the Blombos Cave which the chronicle says it ‘has helped answer many questions about Homo sapiens that occupied the area some 100,000 years ago. The mystery of cultural origin and behavioral patterns of early man is slowly being uncovered here.

According to many paleo-anthropologists, modern human behavior can be traced back to this group of Homo sapiens that was shown to be very innovative, well organized and creative. The site was discovered in 1991.’

By 100,000 years ago, a certain branch of interpretation places this period as having already entered some sort of modernity, where men weren’t just another species in the wild but domesticating animals, not just having some rudimentary tools as was noticed even with ‘Zinjanthropus’ fossil site at the Olduvai Gorge.

A similarly important archeological site also in the eastern part of the continent is the Meroe in the Sudan, said to have been ‘one of the wealthiest cities of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. Established in 800 BC, the city was influenced greatly by the neighboring Egyptian civilization. But in the 3rd century BC, the Egyptian art, language and writing began to disappear.

In the 3rd and 4th century AD, Meroe started to decline, mainly due to the collapse of external trade. Nevertheless, the remains of this ancient city which include over 200 pyramids still stand as evidence of its former splendor.’

These are Biblical times, with Egypt destroyed over a long period of time in stages like Israel, starting from Assyrian king Senaccherib who destroyed the Israeli northern kingdom in720 BC with unheard of cruelty, and Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar finished off the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah (the southern kingdom) in586 BC but the Persians restored Israel after conquering Babylon.

Egypt started to decline the Persian and Greek invasions, as its culture was now overtaken by Greece, merging with Persians.

Another famous site is Nok, ‘a village and an archaeological site in Nigeria which is famous worldwide for its terracotta figurines. The site has been dated to the mid-4 millennium BC (disputed by some) and gave name to the so-called Nok culture. This ancient civilization emerged in Nigeria in the 11th century BC and collapsed around 300 AD for unknown reasons.

Archaeological finds reveal that the Nok culture was highly advanced even though West African societies supposed to be primitive at that time.’

Those who are familiar with the rise and fall of West African empires, and especially the famous Ghana, Mali and Songhai classical empires, will realize that conditions of external trading were vital in maintaining those cultures, levels of learning and administrative systems. As this was the period before religious conquest set foot in Africa, this civilization appear to have declined gradually as Egypt lost splendor, Cush or others.

The area around Koobi Fora in Kenya is also listed, towards the bottom of the list, said to be ‘renowned for sandstones and siltstones containing well preserved remains of hominins and terrestrial mammals dating back as far as 4.2 million years ago. Hominin fossils that have been discovered in Koobi Fora include:

Australopithecus anamensis, Australopithecus boisei, Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis and Homo ergaster. Also found were many stone tools most of which, however, aren’t associated with hominins.’ This site is by its diversity of hominid species a treasure of its own, and yet few students hear of this site on this side of the border, and it is unclear if there is a better presentation of the matter in other countries in the region, or wider.

The final site mentioned on the list is Laas Gaal in Somalia, explained as ‘a complex of rockhouses and caves containing rock art dating back to 9,000 BC. The rock paintings show people worshiping cows with large horns and ceremonial robes. Locals knew about the rockhouses and caves for hundreds of years before a team of French researchers discovered the site in 2002.

Like many other archaeological sites in Somalia, Laas Gaal hasn’t been fully explored yet.’ One reason might be the hostility with which any attempt to build a sort of archaeological shrine could arouse, as it will be seen as a worship of idols.

Somalia has a similar culture as many other countries around the Arabian and Persian Gulf region, from Egypt to Pakistan, where extremists have often demolished monuments and other revered sites so long as they depict any humans.

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