When it comes to Africa and archaeological discoveries, the first thoughts that pop to mind are things like the Pyramids and the Sphinx; it’s only natural, since it is one of the longest running places of excavation in history. But those aren’t the only little treasure troves of ancient historical mysteries that the continent presents. Here are six unbelievable and little known archaeological discoveries in Africa.
1. The Senegambian Stone Circles; Wassu & Kerbatch, Gambia, Sine Ngayene & Wanar, Senegal
Divided into four large sites across Senegal and Gambia, the stones cover an area of approximately thirty thousand square kilometers. They’re thought to have been built between 300 B.C. and 1600 A.D., and consist of approximately 29’000 stones, 17,000 monuments and 2,000 individual sites – containing graves, pottery shards and megalithic circles. The stones themselves consist of Laterite, a fairly common material in the area, averaging two meters in height and weighing an average of seven tons. According to archaeologists, finding the quality of laterite would have required intricate knowledge of geology, especially since the stones weren’t carved in pieces but rather, like obelisks, hewn out of the rock in solid pieces and dragged to their final locations.
It’s believed that the monuments indicate that a prosperous and organized society existed there, considering the amount of labour it would have taken to construct the circles.
The site in Sine Ngayene is the largest of the four, and several iron smelting sites and quarries were discovered close by. What’s even more interesting was the evidence of hundreds of homes found nearby, and layers of materials that indicate four nearly distinct cycles that create a timeline of events – starting with the most frequent use of the site as a place of gathering and burial, to its decline almost 700 years later.
2. Meroë of Kush; Shendi, Sudan
Meroë was the capital city of the Kush Kingdom from around 800 BCE to 350 CE. It started out being heavily influenced by Egyptian culture – many Meroitic gods were either linked to the Egyptian gods themselves, or combinations of them, with different names. The city itself was close to the Nile and was surrounded by fertile lands and rivers, but it still required a hefty march through harsh, desert terrain to get there. Even so, Meroë was the trading hotspot, known as far as Greece and Persia, and it was even referenced in Genesis as Aethiopia.
When Ergamenes, or Arkamani I, was made king he initiated changes in law that would see Meroë become a culture distinct from Egypt, and by 285 BCE Egyptian language, writing and art began to disappear – at least according to archaeological evidence. One of the biggest changes was the power given to queens, or Kentake (also called Candaces). They are often depicted as powerful, towering figures conquering their enemies – this is thought to illustrate the power women held in Meroitic culture, and alludes to them being strong rulers and, according to some records, warriors and strategists. Augustus warred against them in 22 BCE, but finally agreed to a peace treaty that favoured the Kushite kingdom.
What made Meroë so valuable was that it was, in its day, thought to be the center of iron smelting, agriculture, and trade. They exported many of the elephants that foreign armies would use in war, and their iron workers were thought to be the best. This, in combination with its wealth and placement next to the Nile, made it a prominent – if hard to assault – target.
Although many have speculated that the Meroitic people just disappeared, evidence suggests that they were finally conquered by King Ezana of the Aksumites around 330 CE. Unfortunately, its destruction marked the end of Meroitic written and spoken language, which remains undeciphered to this day, and only the astonishing ruins of the once great city remains.
3. Great Zimbabwe; Masvingo, Zimbabwe
Although the general assumption is that Great Zimbabwe was named for the country, it is actually the reverse, with Zimbabwe being an anglicized form of an African word that means “Stone Houses”. It’s thought to have been built around 900 years ago, spanning roughly 1800 acres, and using a method called ‘dry stonewalling’; the stones were hewn from granite in the exposed rocks in the hills, and then stacked to create the walls and structures without any adhesive; a feat that would have required great masonry expertise. According to archaeological estimates, the construction of the complex spanned over 300 years and was home to over 18,000 people.
Much of the complex is falling into ruin, unfortunately, but many structures are still standing. The most impressive of these are the massive stone walls. The Entire site has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The complex is divided into three groups – the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. Although the purposes of the complexes are still debated, it is generally assumed that the Hill Complex served as a place of worship, while the Valley Complex was home to the general populace, and the Great Enclosure was home to the monarch. Another theory, however, proposes that each Monarch that came into power added on to the structures to create their own residences while in power.
The mystery of the complexes and their purposes are just one of many still surrounding the ancient site. The reason for the decline of Great Zimbabwe is still unknown. Some theorize that it is because of a decline in resources, others say it was due to decline in trade, or the gold running out in the nearby mines – and these are just some of the theories. As a whole, Great Zimbabwe offers a mere glimpse into the civilization that once lived there. How it rose and why it fell, no one knows – but that makes it no less breath-taking to behold.
4. The Lalibela Churches; Lalibela, Ethiopia
About 13 hours’ drive from Addis Ababa you will find Lalibela – known as the holiest city in all of Ethiopia. In the 12th century, Jerusalem had become inaccessible to many Christians who wanted to make pilgrimage, due to the Muslim conquest of the holy land. This was a large problem for the local people, as they were then – as now – mainly Christian (Ethiopian Orthodox). To overcome this, King Lalibela decided to build a ‘New Jerusalem’, a decision that resulted in the construction of 11 monolithic churches. According to the King’s hagiography, it took twenty-four years to complete the churches, and required the ‘assistance of angels’.
The churches are a marvel of construction – they were hewn from the top down out of solid rock consisting mainly of two types of volcanic basalt, and then chiselled out in the finest detail to create doors, windows, columns, etc., and are all connected through a system of trenches. Technically being underground, flooding could have been a problem, but special drainage ditches and canals were constructed, some specifically designed to channel the water to baths, cisterns and baptismal pools.
The king wanted to build a symbol of Jerusalem for his people, and he didn’t just stop at churches. They also hold replicas of the tomb of Christ and of Adam, as well as the crib of Nativity. The biggest of the churches, Biete Medhane Alem, is also believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. And, although never confirmed, the long held claim that Ehtiopia is of Solomonic royal descent (through the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, builder of the first temple in Jerusalem) somehow brings home the historical and religious value that the Lalibela churches have to the people.
5. The White Lady; Brandberg Mountain, Namibia
In Nambia you’ll find a place called Brandberg Mountain – one of several sites in Namibia that houses a collection of cave paintings. Brandberg itself hosts over 1,000 of these caves, with paintings numbering well over 45,000, showcasing some of the earliest styles of cave painting and its evolution over centuries. The paintings depict various hunts, rituals, dances and animals, more than likely made by bushmen, and the general consensus is that most of the paintings are at least 2,000 years old.
Deep within Brandberg, after a 45-60 minute hike, you’ll find a sight that’s a little odd; a sight that has sparked debates since its discovery in 1917 – a painting that seems to showcase a ritual dance or hunt, with a figure that seems slightly out of place. The painting has come to be known as ‘The White Lady’. Depicted in great detail over many of the other figures, she carries a bow and what looks like a goblet, wearing many decorative attachments.
Various theories have formed over the years as to who or what the lady really is, with the most widely accepted theory stating that the picture shows a shaman painted white during a ritual dance. But it is far from the only explanation. One theory holds that the figure resembles that of female athletes from Knossos, while another says it resembles Phoenician figures. The one common link these various theories have is that they believe the picture shows a Mediterranean visitor – nearly fifteen centuries before the Portuguese came around. Interestingly, instead of using white paint to depict the lady, as if she were a painted shaman, the colour used was a very natural skin-tone pink.
All these theories have their merits and supporters, but the fact remains that there is simply no way to conclusively solve the mystery of The White Lady.
6. 200,000 Year Old Ruins of Bakoni; Machadodorp, South Africa
A lot of people from around the world are familiar with The Cradle of Humankind; a UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Africa where the largest collection of early hominid fossils had ever been found, including Mrs. Ples, a 2.3 million-year-old fossilized skull. What most people aren’t familiar with is a site only 300 kilometers away; the Bakoni ruins of Machadodorp. The ruins are still a great mystery as archaeological work on it has only really begun in recent years. However, here’s what we do know:
Referred to by the locals as ‘Africa’s Lost City’, the Bakoni ruins have been dated to be an unbelievable 200,000 years old – that’s roughly as old as mitochondrial Eve is thought to be. Local experts believe that the ruins prove that African civilization, prior to the arrival of European colonialists, was far from being as rudimentary as once believed. The large complex consists of settlements, fields and roads, and shows signs of advanced technological and agricultural innovation.
The complex is also home to what is called Adam’s Calendar, near Kaapschehoop – possibly the oldest megalithic site and astronomical stone calendar in the world. The stone circle stands about 30 metres in diameter, with monoliths specifically aligned to Orion’s Belt – 3 well known stars aligned in the night sky. Interestingly enough, the calendar still works today.
Theories about the origin of the ruins abound, from the credible to the ridiculous. One of the more credible theories holds that the ruins were built by the Bakoni people, although the age of the ruins would indicate that the Bakoni were around much earlier than first believed if this were to prove true. There are those who believe that the sprawling complex was built by descendants of the Dravidians, while others believe that society evolved there specifically to mine gold, with several mines in the area. One theory even goes as far as to say that the ancient civilization was – if you can believe it – an alien race who settled there to harvest the gold, and served as inspiration for Sumerian creation myth!
Whatever you choose to believe, there is no doubt that the ruins are still a great mystery, and one that could, perhaps, change history as we know it.