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Melville Koppies's ancient history

19 March 2012


The ridges around the northwest of Joburg, shadowing the suburbs of Melville and Emmarentia, were once the home of Stone Age and Iron Age peoples.



Reconstructed rock walls, reminiscent of what walls would have looked like 1 000 years ago
Reconstructed rock walls, reminiscent of what walls would have looked like 1 000 years ago

JOBURG'S ancestors would be pleased – their descendants still walk Melville Koppies with wonderment, and enjoy the views stretching north and south over the ridges, much like they did half a million years ago.


The broader Johannesburg area used to house scattered villages of early Nguni-speaking peoples, who originated from the Niger-Congo region. Evidence of their presence can be seen in aerial photographs showing the rings made by the kraals, usually situated on koppies.


Melville Koppies consists of three parts: the central section of 60 hectares is a nature reserve; there is an open section to the west, an area of 100 hectares; and another open section of 10 hectares, the Louw Geldenhuys viewsite, southeast of the main section.


Over 200 species of bird have been recorded at Melville Koppies, and a range of small mammals have made the area their home – mongooses, genets, civets, hares, hedgehogs, shrews can be seen – as well as various lizards, geckos, chameleons and tortoises. And hiding in over 50 varieties of grasses, are snakes, among them the feared rinkhals.


The area is ancient. The oldest rock on earth, greenstone, at 3 000 million years, is on the hill but overlaid by granite. Otherwise, the stony ridge consists of quartzite and shale. It is estimated that the quartzite ridges are 2.9 billion years old.


Trees flourish on the koppie, some, such as the Transvaal milkplum and wild apricot, only grow on quartzite ridges. There are other wild varieties: wild peach, wild olive, common wild currant, common wild pear, wild elder, wild gardenia, wild medlar.


The koppies were proclaimed a nature reserve in 1959, and when an Iron Age furnace was uncovered in 1963, the nature reserve became a national monument.
It is the only remaining area in the city that preserves evidence of these early settlements.


In the early 1960s, an Iron Age furnace was discovered on the koppies, dating from about 1060AD. Three other furnaces have since been found on the ridge.
Revil Mason, then a professor of archaeology at Wits University, was called in to excavate the furnace.


"It wasn't too clear, only a trained eye could see it. We soon discovered iron-smelting debris – fragments of charcoal, slag raw iron and broken blowpipes on the floor of the furnace," he said.


Further afield in Johannesburg's suburbs, 13 furnaces have been found in Honeydew, about eight kilometres north of Melville. Another three furnaces were found at Lonehill in the far northern suburbs, but these were subsequently covered again to protect them. Further east, near Bruma Lake, another furnace was found. A plaster cast was made of it, which is now housed in Wits' archaeology department.


"There was great excitement during excavation. The whole of Johannesburg used to have these settlements, but they have been preserved at Melville Koppies only. Johannesburg is part of a huge prehistoric development, and a small part of that history is captured at the koppies," said Mason.


Every time you go walking at Melville Koppies you'll be stepping back half a million years into Johannesburg's history, when Stone Age man left his tools at the top of the ridge.


After uncovering the furnace, Mason dug downwards another 1,5 metres, to a Stone Age camp, and found hundreds of Stone Age artefacts. These went back 50 000 years.


An example of the Iron Age furnace that was found on the koppies in the 1960s, to be seen where the original was found
An example of the Iron Age furnace that was found on the koppies in the 1960s, to be seen where the original was found

A further two metres of digging revealed more settlements, going back 250 000 to 500 000 years. These are believed to be the first settlements on the ridge.


These people would have roamed in family parties in thick bush along the Westdene and Braamfontein spruits, in the Auckland Park and Melville valleys. Their artefacts consist of sharp stone flakes struck off a stone core with a stone hammer.


In the early Stone Age, about 1,4 million years ago, tool-making had advanced to taking a large stone and sharpening its edges on both sides, making large, heavy-pointed hand axes and chisel-edged cleavers for chopping, cutting and killing trapped animals. These were carried by muscular early men and their remains have been found at Sterkfontein, suggesting they would have wandered around the bush and streams of Melville Koppies.


Middle Stone Age man appeared next, about 250 000 years ago and lasted until about 30 000 years ago. Shaping of tools was fine-tuned, with parallel-sided blades, with some flakes flattened on one side for fastening onto handles or shafts. These people were hunter-gatherers, with widespread camps, often in caves.


The late Stone Age arrived about 20 000 years ago, by which time modern man had emerged. There is a marked jump in evolution: camps have revealed pottery, hearths, fire sticks and digging sticks. Tools consisted of bone, wood and stone, made up as an adze, knife blade, borer, arrow or spearhead. A campsite has been found at the koppies, on the nature trail at the bottom of the last flight of steps up on the ridge.


Evidence of other early peoples has been found. The western ridge has a cave, visible from Beyers Naude Drive, the road that runs between this ridge and the central section. "We have found six pieces of broken bow and arrow points, of the kind used in Botswana until recently, in the cave, and a grooved stone which would have been used for shaping the arrow," said Mason. He estimated the findings to be about a thousand years old. These would have been Bushmen artefacts.


These Bushmen and Khoikhoi predate Africans in South Africa. The Bushmen were hunter-gatherers and Stone Age people, only using metal for their arrow tips after they made contact with Africans. They were nomadic people, carrying their simple shelters along with them. Where available, they made use of caves for shelter, and left behind their most valuable artefact – rock paintings. These give us extensive knowledge of their culture and history. They did not make pottery, instead they used ostrich eggshells for storing water.


It is believed that Africans settled on the Soutpansberg mountains in Limpopo, 400 kilometres north of Johannesburg, around 350AD. They originated from central Africa, eastern Nigeria and Cameroon in particular, and from about 1000BC they started migrating south to Angola and east to the Great Lakes, in a succession of migratory waves.


The koppies consist of the oldest rock on earth, greenstone, at 3 000 million years
The koppies consist of the oldest rock on earth, greenstone, at 3 000 million years

Fragments of pottery have been found in the Soutpansberg, and similar pottery has been found in Tzaneen and Lydenburg, both southeast of the Soutpansberg. These people seem to have disappeared during a dry spell in 600AD but not before groups of them had moved further south, settling in KwaZulu-Natal around 500AD, and the Eastern Cape in 700AD.


In a later wave of migration, Africans crossed the Limpopo again and settled just north of the Soutpansberg about 1 000 years ago.


The Venda are these first black South Africans. They trace their ancestry back to the establishment of the first indigenous capital on two hills, Bambandyanalo and Mapungubwe, near a small town called Pontdrift, almost on the border of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, some 100 kilometres west of Musina in Limpopo.


The early Shona kingdom settled and experienced its peak in Bambandyanalo. Some 200 years later, Mapungubwe was occupied. Sacred rituals developed, particularly related to divine rainmaking powers – precursors to Modjadji, the local rain queen, who traces her ancestry back to a 17th century princess of Zimbabwe.


The Mapungubwe kingdom is directly related to the Shona of Zimbabwe, the Tswana of Botswana and the Venda, Tswana and Sotho of South Africa. These peoples probably moved down from East Africa, and moved further south when that region experienced drier conditions. They would have moved down with cattle and iron.


The people of Mapungubwe became prosperous, trading with Arab-Swahili traders in Sofala in Mozambique. They sold gold and ivory in return for Indian glass beads, cloth and Chinese porcelain.


But around 1300AD both Mapungubwe and Bambandyanalo declined, and the settlements disappeared.


Before this decline set in, however, groups of people started moving south and reached the Soutpansberg again in about 1300AD, and spread further into the Magaliesberg, in about 1400AD. These settlements grew southwards to the Witwatersrand.


These people were pastoralists and as pastures in the Magaliesberg were exploited, they moved into the grassland below the Melville Koppies. It is believed they noticed iron deposits in the rock outcrops on the koppies, and built the iron furnace now excavated. The stone kraal walls just above the furnace were probably built at the same time.


The evidence of dry stone walling at the koppies suggests permanent settlements in the area. The same walling can be seen at the 600ha Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve, just south of the city centre. "We have found dozens of stone walls, millet seeds and cattle's teeth," said Mason.


These Johannesburg settlements, which stretched from Northcliff and Lonehill in the north, through Melville in the west, Bruma in the east, to Klipriviersberg in the south, lived and traded peacefully with one another. That is, until 1823, when one of Zulu king Shaka's warriors, Mzilikazi, settled in the area. Mzilikazi consolidated his army from defeated tribes, and set up his first capital near Heidelberg, about 80 kilometres south of Johannesburg.


His control stretched from Heidelberg westwards and by 1827, he had established a new capital in the Magaliesberg, 80 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg. By 1829, he had an army of between 6 000 and 8 000 men.


But a combination of factors led to the dispersal of his people. It's possible a drought hit the area, wiping out the settlements. Then, in 1836, the Voortrekkers moved into the area, and as a result, in 1837 Mzilikazi was forced to move further north, into Zimbabwe.


In 1858, Gerrit Bezuidenhout was granted title of the farm Braamfontein, which at 3 500 hectares included Melville Koppies. The farm was sub-divided several times and the eastern part bought by Lourens Geldenhuys in 1886, the year the main gold reef was discovered in Johannesburg.


Related stories:
About Joburg's early days
Joburg's early days


Related links:
A walk in the veld
Joburg's earliest settlers
Mason replaces Boer history
Melville Koppies walk extended

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