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Publication: NRA Environmental Report, 2003
Theme: Environmental – Protecting the environment

Title: Uncovering Ancient Civilisations

Travellers along South Africa’s national roads are often more concerned with their destination than the myriad of interesting sights and indigenous treasures along the way. But who can blame them for being so purpose driven as they unwittingly pass relics of a bygone era, when these relics are not visible to the naked eye. In fact, it’s often not until a piece of earth-moving equipment has done its work that reminders of the past are brought to the surface. At the site of the Botlokwa Commercial hub being constructed near Louis Trichardt, for example, members of the development team unearthed more history than they could have imagined. But let’s start at the beginning of this interesting tale.
An area approximately 40 kilometres outside Polokwane along the N1 in the Sekgosese District was identified as an ideal spot for a trading hub that could showcase the products of the local community, creating work opportunities for them, and a welcome rest spot for travellers. The prime aim of the commercial hub is to assist members of the local community to generate income for themselves by exploiting the tourism potential along the route. This required the development of a series of business plans to ensure long-term sustainability, seeking of joint venture partnerships, and the establishment of a SMME development and funding structure. Besides being all about business, the hub will reflect the culture, art and handcrafts of the African communities that settled and lived in the region, and serve as an interpretation centre so visitors can understand its cultural significance.
Three tribal authorities were affected by the plans and they came together to request an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to guide the development. A survey was also conducted by the National Cultural History Museum to locate, identify, evaluate and document sites, objects and structures of cultural importance within the boundaries of the proposed hub. It was decided that the hub comprise a series of villages that showcase separate disciplines including fabric, beading, metal work, carving, leatherwork and pottery. It is estimated that nearly 200 jobs will be created as a result.
Besides being responsible for the access road to the Hub, the NRA also committed to financing the infrastructure and equipment for the various villages. But it was the construction of the access road, and the removal of layers of earth, that culminated in an interesting discovery. In one section of the remaining “wall”, a skeleton was found under a layer of ash. Archeologists were immediately called in to assess the extent of the find and to start offering some clues as to the age of and circumstances surrounding the human remains.
On further inspection, a number of cooking utensils and more skeletons and shell and bone tool fragments were found. When the local community got wind of the discovery, they insisted on taking the bones for safe-keeping, insisting that they belonged to their immediate ancestors who lived up until the 1940s. The archeologists believe this is highly unlikely and estimate the remains to be hundreds of years old. At the time this was written, archeologists were still trying to establish the age of the remains by testing coal samples found in the same layer as the bones. They had established that the site itself and the area uncovered during earth moving formed two phases, one ancient and one later, with a more contemporary layer close to the top. Incredibly, their collective expert opinion on one of the cooking utensils dates it back to 600 AD.
The clues found point to an agripasturalist community that grew grains and millet, using carved fragments of animal bones as tools and eating utensils. The community lived within a homestead surrounded by a low wall. The deceased were buried in a fetal position on their sides or upright, below a dense layer of ash.
It is known that the Tlokwa people, originating on the Mooi River near Potchefstroom inhabited this area, and had the thakadu, or ant bear as their totem. It is believed that their northward migration took place before 1700, so who inhabited this area as early as 600 AD?
This is not the first time that an exciting archeological discovery has been made after the Agency has scratched the surface of our phenomenal landscape. The Agency often enlists the services of archeologists to assess an area and make recommendations about how relics can be retrieved or preserved without unduly compromising production schedules for the section of road in question. In the case of the Botlokwa Hub, there probably won’t be any further excavation done, and the “villages” will be mounted above ground, without it being necessary to dig further and risk upsetting the treasures buried beneath. In the meantime, the team waits with bated breath to discover the real age of their interesting discovery. ENDS.