Stories in stone: Namibia’s true national archives

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By Ginger Mauney

In rock shelters, along dry riverbeds and out on the gravel plains, the archaeological record of the human experience in Namibia is literally lying around.

These are Namibia’s real ‘national archives’. They contain records of human settlement and human responses to the changing environment over the last two million years, a period known as the Quaternary. Along with knowledge of the distant past, much useful information on the impact of human settlement, particularly in the last few thousand years, is found in stone, yet only a small part of this record has been studied in any detail.

The archaeological record is the only one in existence that shows how this part of the world responded to climatic change in the past. When we think about climatic and environmental changes in the future, including the potentially devastating affects of global warming, it is the archaeological record that is our first and most reliable point of reference. Finding, assessing and interpreting archaeological evidence is a highly specialised task that requires years of training and long experience in laboratory and field.

Although archaeological impact assessment is required in most countries, Namibia has never had such a requirement. All this is set to change with the new National Heritage Act, a law that will require archaeological assessment for every large project if there is reason to believe that the development will have an impact on the archaeological record.

Says archaeologist Dr John Kinahan, “The National Heritage Act is very positive, yet we have found that most large corporations and projects are guided by their own commitment to ‘best practice’, rather than the need to comply with legislation. This means that we usually work on a goodwill basis rather than one of compliance.”

John and his wife Jill, who also has a doctorate in archaeology, are partners in Quaternary Research Services, a Namibian-based company that has completed more than 60 archaeological assessments. “We started by approaching project managers for some of the larger post-independence development plans, such as Epupa, the big powerline projects initiated by NamPower, and some of the mining companies. Gradually things gathered steam.”

With more than twenty-five years of experience, the Kinahans’ work has brought some valuable new insights into Namibia’s past. John modestly lists some of their accomplishments: “In Caprivi our work for the envisaged Liambezi sugar project yielded the earliest evidence of agricultural settlement in Namibia in the form of Zambian Early Iron Age pottery dating to 900 AD. The archaeological survey of the planned inundation of the Epupa hydropower dam helped establish that Himba settlement of the lower Kunene River is as recent as 1800 AD. An archaeological survey of Hottenot Bay north of Lüderitz provided new radiocarbon dates and sea-level measurements for the inter-glacial warm epoch 5 000 years ago. A 700-km running survey from Ariamsvlei to Windhoek for a new powerline provided crucial evidence for the dating of human settlement remains in the central highlands of Namibia.”

Jill adds, “Our impact assessment surveys have added about 800 new archaeological sites to the Namibian record, which helped us identify the areas of the country that are most sensitive to disturbance.” These surveys also provide fifteen years of baseline data that will be important as the new National Heritage Act is implemented.

Namibia has an important and valuable archaeological record. The record is important on many levels: globally as part of palaeo-environmental evidence; regionally as being evidence of pre-colonial and early colonial trading links with the outside world; and nationally by providing material evidence of where and when particular groups of people settled in Namibia. The archaeological record includes a vast number of rock painting and rock engraving sites that provide one of the most important tourist attractions of the country. Last year there were more than 40 000 visitors at Twyfelfontein, compared to 7 000 at the next most-visited rock-art site in Southern Africa.

Namibia’s archaeological wonders need to be protected for future generations, and archaeological assessment is a critical part of this process. Through these investigations the sites can be found and assessed before they are destroyed in the process of developing modern Namibia’s infrastructure.

This article appeared in the 2005/6 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.



Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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