Scientists Reveal ‘Lost’ African City Using New Laser Detection Technology

February 27, 2019 Updated: March 19, 2019

Deep in the wilderness of South Africa, an ancient city has sat abandoned in the vegetation of the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve.

Despite the nature reserve’s location just 30 minutes south of the thriving Johannesburg, the vegetation and growth over the city—referred to as Kweneng in the historic scientific community—has made it too difficult to explore properly since its discovery in the 1960s.

©Wits University

Thanks to a new laser technology, though, scientists have been able to explore the city in incredible depth. And they hope, with these new discoveries, that light can be shed on the true history of South Africa in a way that can help students and communities learn more about the nation’s true heritage.

The laser technology used to see the city is commonly referred to as LiDAR, which uses light and radar signals to create images by bouncing the signals off of objects.

©Wits University

LiDAR has been around since the 1960s, around the time that Kweneng was first discovered, but recent advancements made it possible to explore the city in greater detail. Now, with improved efficacy and ability to discover details using the laser-scanning technology, scientists like Professor Karim Sadr of the University of the Witwatersrand have been able to determine the size of the city, the types of architecture used, and what type of city it may have been.

“Judging by contemporary Tswana capitals of kingdoms farther west, which were visited by European travelers in the first quarter of the 1800s, Kweneng would have been the capital of a city state, with a territory that may have stretched a few dozen or more kilometers around it,” explained Sadr, via IFL Science. “The ruler was a king and the royal family would have constituted the noble class and the core of the Kingdom. The king had absolute power, but the population could always vote with their feet and leave to join other kingdoms if they were unhappy with the royalty.”

The commonly accepted myth in many history books, Sadr continued, is that much of South Africa was uninhabited before Europeans came and settled the area.

Based on the architecture, size, and scope of Kweneng, though, the city existed as a 7.8-square-mile metropolis from what is believed to have been the 15th to the 19th century. With an estimated 800 home dwellings and 10,000 residents during its peak, the city almost certainly met its destruction due to a likely civil war.

As for what the new discoveries can do? Sadr believes that they’re the key to enriching true South African history and culture.

“Perhaps one day the South African public, and others beyond its borders, will begin to appreciate the wealth of African history that is all around us here, and that everyone can be very proud of.”

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