One of the oddities on the Suikerboschfontein Hiking Trail is a number of stone walled structures, one of which is grandiosely referred to as the Dying Sun Chariot. By implication, the function of that circular settlement is alluding to some religious or astronomical function much like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK. The only explanation that is proffered for their existence is transparently “exotic” with apparently no credible evidence to substantiate the assumptions.
Even the Kaapsehoop Hiking Trail has its own stone circle too small to function as a settlement known as Adam’s Calendar after its supposed function .
Who constructed these little-known structures and when but, more importantly, why?
Will a new publication by Tim Maggs and Alex Schoeman finally settle this enigma and usher in a revised postulation?
Main picture: An aerial photograph of these structures reveals their extent
Only by viewing the whole area stretching from Ohrigstad to Carolina from Google Earth, can one obtain a sense of the extent of their ghostly circles. In total, some 10,000 square kilometres of the Mpumalanga escarpment is covered with a complex web of these stone-walled structures, of which 1 792 stone-walled sites have been identified.
Without any credible evidence except what I regard as pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, I have disregarded existing postulations regarding the origin of these enigmatic structures. Instead of implausible theories of mystics or “weed heads”, the Wits University Press in 2015 published a book with more scientific credentials entitled Forgotten World – The Stone Walled Settlements of the Mpumalanga Escarpment by Peter Delius, Tim Maggs and Alex Schoeman which hopefully will resolve the issue.
Exotic origins narrative
This line of reasoning which has held sway for most of the 20th century ascribes these structures to early second millennium Indian traders or in the case of Adam’s Calendar at Kaapsehoop to aliens who constructed it some 35,000 years ago. Personally, I classify these theories as the von Däniken approach whereby all inexplicable structures are attributed to some supernatural or alien being.
The best known exponent of this viewpoint is Cyril Hromnik who strenuously postulates that most of the significant innovations and social systems were the result of Indian influences. Furthermore, this perspective has led him to argue that Mpumalanga’s stone-walled sites are Hindu temples and that the Indian Forgotten World settlers who worshipped in them lived in nearby shelters or caves. They interacted with local San people and gave rise to the Quena (KhoeKhoe), who continued to live in the area until they were displaced by African farming communities in the last millennium.
Without credible evidence to substantiate this fantastical and clearly absurd view, his response to excavations of the stonewalled sites – which have yielded substantial amounts of clearly African material culture such as ceramics and the remains of dakha (mud and clay) houses – is that they were the work of the BaPedi, a Quena-black mixture, and a degraded version of the earlier noble BaPedi/pirir. He further claims that the first Bantu speakers came to Mpumalanga as slaves of the Indian or Quena gold traders and that the BaPedi were the descendants of mixing between the Indian traders and these slaves, who acquired their technological knowledge of metalworking from their Indian lineage but were not as culturally advanced in it their Indian ancestors. Gold and metalworking form another important part of Hromník’s argument. According to him, Indians introduced metalworking to southern Africa some time before AD 1200 or 1300.
Hromnik’s version of the society that created these stone walled settlements has many adherents, each with their own re-interpretation of certain aspects of the general theory. One such far-fetched theory is entitled Adam’s Calendar about an eponymous structure authored by Johan Heine and Michael Tellinger. In their book they claim that this structure at Kaapsehoop is dated at around 75,000 years old making it the oldest man-made structure on earth.
Furthermore they link ‘Adam’s Calendar’ with Great Zimbabwe Ruins based upon the fact that it is built along the same longitudinal line. In true mystic fashion, they proffer the assumption that the ‘site is an active portal for off-worldly beings to come and go’
Interestingly, initially the white excavators posited that the builders of the Zimbabwe ruins were a local black tribes. Then this theory fell into disfavour to be supplanted with a similar “exotic origins” theory. Finally it has come full circle with the initial theories regaining currency.
Why is nobody surprised when I conflate both Johan Heine and Michael Tellinger with believers in tooth fairies, Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny?
Yet without any other credible scientific investigations together with the temerity of their proponents, such explanations have held sway for the past half century.
The indigenous interpretation
Instead of these fanciful notions there has been dedicated research since the turn of the 20th century to support this viewpoint. The initial spark to excite the scholars was the extensive rock engravings on the farm Boomplaats near Lydenburg as described by Cornelius Pijper in 1918. As usual, it took a number of years before the publication of these results. It was EC van Hoepen in 1939 who published the first comprehensive investigation into the sites.
Van Hoepen concluded that “they were built by black Africans, probably the ancestors of Pedi and Ndzundza groups who lived in the region, and he did not entertain the suggestion that they might have been built by non-Africans. His interpretation followed on his examination of the stone walls and the complete range of material culture found at the sites. He mapped ruined homesteads, recorded engravings and removed several engraved rocks to the National Museum in Bloemfontein.
With the advent of Nationalist Party hegemony after 1948, research into the origins waned. The baton was ultimately grabbed by an archaeologist Revil Mason of the University of the Witwatersrand. A central aspect of his research consisted of plotting the distribution of stone-walled sites based on aerial photographs. In the process he identified 1 792 stone-walled sites in the region. This mapping provided the first glimpse into the regional distribution of the Mpumalanga stone-walled ruins.
Furthermore “Mike Evers, a lecturer in the department, made an intensive aerial photographic survey of the area between Lydenburg and Machadodorp while Dave Collett scrutinised more closely into the site-specific features. He concluded that the complex enclosures found at sites were cattle enclosures at the centres of homesteads, and that the simple stone ruins, which are randomly located in settlements, were used for small stock. The stone ridges, on the other hand, were marked by metal hoe sharpening or wear patterns on some of the rocks, indicating that they were terraces used for agricultural purposes.
These researchers all agreed that the sites could be attributed to Pedi society because, in their view, the settlement layout and ceramics indicated a close cultural affinity with modern Pedi patterns, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the powerful BaPedi kingdom controlled the Lydenburg area. The assumption that the sites were an expression of Pedi settlement and culture was far from surprising as historians had long given the kingdom pride of place in the history of the region. The rich oral traditions about the state, collected from the 1860s onwards, and the voluminous archival records generated by neighbouring Trekker society from the 1840s, had acted as magnets to researchers.”
Perspectives & Conclusions
Where this approach differs from the exotic origins narratives is that it is based upon extensive evidence and not idle conjecture not underpinned by facts.
This emerging consensus accords with the fact concerning the emergence of dominance by the Pedi in the eighteenth century and resistance to attempts of control by both Brit and Boer. Then as now, history is recorded by the victor and not by the vanquished.
Providentially it is the stonework of this civilisation which records its passing. Re-evaluated it will allow the history books to correctly reflect that the Pedis dominated the escarpment before the arrival of the white man to this region.
Finally, to restore this neglect, at least some of these structures should be accorded official recognition as heritage sites.
Forgotten World – The Stone Walled Settlements of the Mpumalanga Escarpment by Peter Delius, Tim Maggs and Alex Schoeman
Adam’s Calendar by Johan Heine and Michael Tellinger
Indo-Africa: Towards a New Understanding of the History of sub-Saharan Africa by Cyril Hromník