From Great Zimbabwe to Nubian pyramids along the Nile River, Africa, as the Cradle of Humankind, holds many of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures. Here are five of the most significant.
The number of unearthed archaeological sites across Africa has given the world insights into the history of the continent and the world.
From pyramids in the north, to cryptic stone cities and ancient civilisations further south, these sites offer many mysteries as they do answers. Lying untouched and hidden for thousands of years, they can sometimes provide us with some understanding of who we are, as Africans, today.
The Stone Circles of Senegal and Gambia
Spread across thousands of miles in Senegal and Gambia, these four large stone constructions also referred to as the Senegambian stone circles date back to 300 BC. Judging by the discovery of graves and evidence of communities, the construction of the site shows evidence of a prosperous and organised society based on the amount of labour required to build such structures.
They consist of over 30,000 laterite stones, 17,000 monuments and 2,000 home sites.
Experts believe that much like obelisks, the stones were arranged purposefully for either religious or communal reasons. Finding, transporting and shaping the laterite, it is understood, would have required some kind of understanding of geology and intricate tool work.
At the largest of the sites, at Sine Ngayene, Senegal, evidence of iron smelting and quarries was unearthed. Layered evidence in the ground indicates a timeline of more than 700 years when communities lived, worked and worshipped in the area.
An ancient city of palaces, iron production and pyramids along the east bank of the Nile, Meroë dates back to 800 BC. Embracing sophisticated Egyptian culture and possessing fertile land and abundant iron deposits, the city became a prominent trading post, renowned as far as Rome, Greece and Persia.
It is mentioned in the book of Genesis (by the name Aethiopia) as a prominent yet vulnerable centre of commerce. The city traded with the Roman Empire and, it has been suggested by archaeologists, even with early Indian and Chinese explorers. Residents even farmed elephants to be exported for foreign armies.
Its vulnerability and prominence made it a regular target for marauding armies over seven centuries. Eventually losing its Egyptian influence and culture, Meroë developed its own language, religions and customs that were all lost to history when the city was finally destroyed in AD 330. It lay untouched and undiscovered until 1821, when archaeologists excavated the first of its 200 distinctive Nubian pyramids. The written language of Meroë remains one of the world’s greatest undeciphered languages.
Great Zimbabwe Stone Houses, Masvingo, Zimbabwe
Dating back almost a millennium, the three-compound stone construction covering 18,000 acres was built using a sophisticated form of stone masonry not found in the surrounding region at the time. The complex was home to 18,000 people and is believed to have taken 300 years to construct. Operating as a proto-city, Great Zimbabwe contains evidence of a monarchy, religion, commerce and mining.
Mystery surrounds its decline, with some experts speculating that the rapid depletion of nearby gold mines may have been the ultimate cause. Great Zimbabwe is recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Lalibela Churches, Ethiopia
Once considered one of the holiest places in Africa, the 11 Lalibela churches were built in the 12th century for the burgeoning popularity of Christendom in the region. Inspired by their connection to King Solomon, early African Christians, unable to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, were able to travel here to pay homage. The design of the complex resembles parts of Jerusalem.
The site consists of monolith churches of varying sizes, each carved out of volcanic basalt and intricately decorated with early Christian iconography. The largest of the churches, the impressive Bete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George), is considered to be the most finely executed and best preserved church in the world.
While Lalibela was partially destroyed by Muslim armies in the 16th century, much of the site survived intact and has grown over the past 400 years to become a medium-sized town.
Bakoni, South Africa
The Bakoni Ruins of Machadodorp, Mpumalanga, is one of the world’s greatest unsolved archaeological puzzles. Dating back more than 200,000 years, this “lost city of Africa” is a large collection of complex stone terraces with evidence of settlements, fields and roads, as well as signs of advanced technological and agricultural innovation that existed long before the arrival of Europeans in the region.
Case in point is the site’s most prominent feature: Adam’s Calendar, a 30m stone circle with positioned monolith rocks within it. The monoliths are aligned to match the movement of the Orion’s Belt star formation, and are presumed to be an early indicator of charted time.
Viewed from the air, the ruins create a vast design of mazes and passages intricately connected over hundreds of kilometres. Needless to say, archaeologists are bewildered by the site. One of its few provable theories is that the age of the ruins indicates that the ancient Bakoni people who built the complex settlement may have been around much earlier than first believed.
The site, its age and designs, are however popular with so-called pseudo-archaeology theories, including the idea that it might have been constructed by an ancient alien civilisation.
Whatever the theories, the Bakoni Ruins supplement the more provable theories surrounding the Cradle of Humankind in the North West province that the southern region of Africa was inhabited by early humans much earlier in prehistory than first thought.
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