10 Most Important Archaeological Sites in Africa


1. Olduvai Gorge

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By Noel Feans – Oldupai, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9511438

The Olduvai Gorge or Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania is one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world; it has proven invaluable in furthering understanding of early human evolution.

The steep sided ravine Located in Tanzania in the Rift Valley, it is about 48 km (30 mi) long, and is located in the eastern Serengeti Plains in the Arusha Region not far, about 45 kilometres (28 miles), from Laetoli, another important archaeological site of early human occupation.

Mary and Louis Leakey established and developed the excavation and research programs at Olduvai Gorge which achieved great advances of human knowledge and world-renowned status.

Deposits exposed in the sides of the gorge cover a time span from about 2.1 million to 15,000 years ago. The deposits have yielded the fossil remains of more than 60 hominins (members of the human lineage), providing the most continuous known record of human evolution during the past 2 million years, as well as the longest known archaeological record of the development of stone-tool industries. Olduvai Gorge was designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

2. Valley of the Kings, Egypt

Valley of the Kings, Southern Egypt October 1988

From the mid to the late 2nd millennium BC, Egyptian pharaohs and some members of nobility were buried in tombs constructed in the Valley of the Kings. The area has been receiving visitors since antiquity which is evident from Greek and Latin inscriptions on the walls. Unfortunately, not all visitors were tourists and over the centuries most of the 63 tombs in the area have been robbed.

For a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, rock cut tombs were excavated for the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt).

The Valley was used for primary burials from approximately 1539 BC to 1075 BC. It contains at least 63 tombs, beginning with Thutmose I (or possibly earlier, during the reign of Amenhotep I) and ending with Ramesses X or XI, although non-Royal burials continued in usurped tombs.

After the defeat of the Hyksos and the reunification of Egypt under Ahmose I, the Theban rulers began to construct elaborate tombs that reflected their newfound power. The tombs of Ahmose and his son Amenhotep I (their exact location remains unknown) were probably in the Seventeenth Dynasty necropolis of Dra’ Abu el-Naga’. The first royal tombs in the valley were those of Amenhotep I (although this identification is also disputed), and Thutmose I, whose advisor, Ineni, notes in his tomb that he advised the king to place his tomb in the desolate valley.

The Temple of Hatshepsut near the Valley of the Kings.

Despite its name, the Valley of the Kings also contains the tombs of favorite nobles as well as the wives and children of both nobles and pharaohs. Therefore, only about 20 of the tombs actually contain the remains of kings. The remains of nobles and of the royal family, together with unmarked pits and embalming caches, make up the rest. Around the time of Ramesses I (ca. 1301 BC) construction commenced in the separate Valley of the Queens.

Royal Necropolis

The official name for the site in ancient times was The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes, or Ta-sekhet-ma’at (the Great Field).

 

3. Gedi Ruins, Kenya

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

The ruins of Gedi are a historical and archaeological site near the Indian Ocean coast of eastern Kenya. The site is adjacent to the town of Gedi (also known as Gede) in the Kilifi District and within the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest.

Gedi is one of many medieval Swahili-Arab coastal settlements that stretch from Mogadishu, Somalia to the Zambezi River in Mozambique. There are 116 known Swahili sites stretching from southern Somalia to Vumba Kuu at the Kenya-Tanzania border. Since the rediscovery of the Gedi ruins by colonialists in the 1920s, Gedi has been one of the most intensely excavated and studied of those sites, along with Shanga, Manda, Ungwana, Kilwa, and the Comoros.

The site of Gedi includes a walled town and its outlying area. All of the standing buildings at Gedi, which include mosques, a palace, and numerous houses, are made from stone, are one-story, and are distributed unevenly in the town. There are also large open areas in the settlement which contained earth and thatch houses. Stone “pillar tombs” are a distinctive type of Swahili Coast architecture found at Gedi as well.

Gedi’s location along the coast and association with similar sites along the Swahili Coast made it an important trade center. Although there are few historical documents specifically associating Gedi with Indian Ocean trade, the site is thought to have been one of the most important sites along the coast. Gedi’s architecture and an abundance of imported material culture including pottery, beads, and coins provide evidence of the city’s rising prosperity over the course of its occupation from as early as the eleventh century to its abandonment in the early seventeenth century.

4. Laetoli, Tanzania

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Laetoli is a site in Tanzania, dated to the Plio-Pleistocene and famous for its hominin footprints, preserved in volcanic ash. The site of the Laetoli footprints (Site G) is located 45 km south of Olduvai gorge. The location and tracks were discovered by archaeologist Mary Leakey in 1976, and were excavated by 1978. Based on analysis of the footfall impressions “The Laetoli Footprints” provided convincing evidence for the theory of bipedalism in Pliocene hominins and received significant recognition by scientists and the public. Since 1998, paleontological expeditions have continued under the leadership of Dr. Amandus Kwekason of the National Museum of Tanzania and Dr. Terry Harrison of New York University, leading to the recovery of more than a dozen new hominin finds, as well as a comprehensive reconstruction of the paleoecology.

Dated to 3.7 million years ago, they were the oldest known evidence of hominin bipedalism at that time. Subsequently, older Ardipithecus ramidus fossils were found with features that suggest bipedalism. With the footprints there were other discoveries excavated at Laetoli including hominin and animal skeletal remains. Analysis of the footprints and skeletal structure showed clear evidence that bipedalism preceded enlarged brains in hominins. At a species level, the identity of the hominins who made the trace is difficult to construe precisely; Australopithecus afarensis is the species most commonly proposed.

5. Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa

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The Sterkfontein Caves are often referred to as the Cradle of Humankind as there is no other place on earth with a larger number of hominid fossils. To date (paleo-anthropologists have been excavating on the site since the mid-1930s), remains of about 500 hominids have been found with ‘Mrs. Ples’ and ‘Little Foot’ being the most prominent. While ‘Mrs. Ples’ is the most complete skull of Australopithecus ever found, ‘Little Foot’ is one of the most complete early hominid skeletons in the world.

 

6. Blombos Cave, South Africa

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The Blombos Cave has helped answer many questions about Homo sapiens that occupied the area some 100,000 years ago. The mystery of cultural origin and behavioral patterns of early man is slowly being uncovered here. According to many paleo-anthropologists, modern human behavior can be traced back to this group of Homo sapiens that was shown to be very innovative, well organized and creative. The site was discovered in 1991.

7. Meroe, Sudan

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Meroë (/ˈmɛroʊeɪ/; also spelled Meroe; Meroitic: Medewi or Bedewi; Arabic: مرواه Meruwah and مروى Meruwi; Ancient Greek: Μερόη, Meróē) is an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile about 6 km north-east of the Kabushiya station near Shendi, Sudan, approximately 200 km north-east of Khartoum. Near the site are a group of villages called Bagrawiyah. This city was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for several centuries. The Kushitic Kingdom of Meroë gave its name to the Island of Meroë, which was the modern region of Butana, a region bounded by the Nile (from the Atbarah River to Khartoum), the Atbarah and the Blue Nile.

The city of Meroë was on the edge of Butana and there were two other Meroitic cities in Butana: Musawwarat es-Sufra and Naqa. The first of these sites was given the name Meroë by the Persian king, Cambyses, in honor of his sister who was called by that name. The city had originally borne the ancient appellation Saba, named after the country’s original founder.[5] The eponym Saba, or Seba, is named for one of the sons of Cush (see: Genesis 10:7). The presence of numerous Meroitic sites within the western Butana region and on the border of Butana proper is significant to the settlement of the core of the developed region. The orientation of these settlements exhibit the exercise of state power over subsistence production.[6]

The Kingdom of Kush which housed the city of Meroë represents one of a series of early states located within the middle Nile. It is one of the earliest and most impressive states found south of the Sahara. Looking at the specificity of the surrounding early states within the middle Nile, one’s understanding of Meroë in combination with the historical developments of other historic states may be enhanced through looking at the development of power relation characteristics within other Nile Valley states.

The site of the city of Meroë is marked by more than two hundred pyramids in three groups, of which many are in ruins. They have the distinctive size and proportions of Nubian pyramids.

8. Nok, Nigeria

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Nok is a village and an archaeological site in Nigeria which is famous worldwide for its terracotta figurines. The site has been dated to the mid-4 millennium BC (disputed by some) and gave name to the so-called Nok culture. This ancient civilization emerged in Nigeria in the 11th century BC and collapsed around 300 AD for unknown reasons. Archaeological finds reveal that the Nok culture was highly advanced even though West African societies supposed to be primitive at that time.

The function of Nok terracotta sculptures is still unknown. For the most part, the terracotta is preserved in the form of scattered fragments. That is why Nok art is well known today only for the heads, both male and female, whose hairstyles are particularly detailed and refined. The statues are in fragments because the discoveries are usually made from alluvial mud, in terrain made by the erosion of water. The terracotta statues found there are hidden, rolled, polished, and broken. Rarely are works of great size conserved intact making them highly valued on the international art market.

The terracotta figures are hollow, coil built, nearly life sized human heads and bodies that are depicted with highly stylized features, abundant jewelry, and varied postures.

Little is known of the original function of the pieces, but theories include ancestor portrayal, grave markers, and charms to prevent crop failure, infertility, and illness. Also, based on the dome-shaped bases found on several figures, they could have been used as finials for the roofs of ancient structures.

Margaret Young-Sanchez, Associate Curator of Art of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania in The Cleveland Museum of Art, explains that most Nok ceramics were shaped by hand from coarse-grained clay and subtractively sculpted in a manner that suggests an influence from wood carving. After some drying, the sculptures were covered with slip and burnished to produce a smooth, glossy surface. The figures are hollow, with several openings to facilitate thorough drying and firing. The firing process most likely resembled that used today in Nigeria, in which the pieces are covered with grass, twigs, and leaves and burned for several hours.

As a result of natural erosion and deposition, Nok terracottas were scattered at various depths throughout the Sahel grasslands, causing difficulty in the dating and classification of the mysterious artifacts. Luckily, two archaeological sites, Samun Dukiya and Taruga, were found containing Nok art that had remained unmoved. Radiocarbon and thermo-luminescence tests narrowed the sculptures’ age down to between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago, making them some of the oldest in Western Africa. Many further dates were retrieved in the course of new archaeological excavations, extending the beginnings of the Nok tradition even further back in time.

Because of the similarities between the two sites, archaeologist Graham Connah believes that “Nok artwork represents a style that was adopted by a range of iron-using farming societies of varying cultures, rather than being the diagnostic feature of a particular human group as has often been claimed.”

9. Koobi Fora, Kenya

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The area around Koobi Fora is renowned for sandstones and siltstones containing well preserved remains of hominins and terrestrial mammals dating back as far as 4.2 million years ago. Hominin fossils that have been discovered in Koobi Fora include: Australopithecus anamensis, Australopithecus boisei, Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis and Homo ergaster. Also found were many stone tools most of which, however, aren’t associated with hominins.

Koobi Fora /ˈkuːbi ˈfɔːrə/ refers primarily to a region around Koobi Fora Ridge, located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people. According to the National Museums of Kenya, the name comes from the Gabbra language:

In the language of the Gabbra people who live near the site, the term Koobi Fora means a place of the commiphora and the source of myrrh…

The ridge itself is an outcrop of mainly Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments. It is composed of claystones, siltstones, and sandstones that preserve numerous fossils of terrestrial mammals, including early hominin species. Presently, the ridge is being eroded into a badlands terrain by a series of ephemeral rivers that drain into the northeast portion of modern Lake Turkana. In 1968 Richard Leakey established the Koobi Fora Base Camp on a large sandspit projecting into the lake near the ridge, which he called the Koobi Fora Spit.

A subsequent survey and numerous excavations at multiple sites established the region as a source of hominin fossils shedding light on the evolution of man over the previous 4.2 million years. Far exceeding the number of hominin fossils are the non-hominin fossils which give a detailed view of the fauna and flora as far back as the Miocene.

Consequently, the government of Kenya in 1973 reserved the region as Sibiloi National Park, establishing a headquarters for the National Museums of Kenya on Koobi Fora Spit. The reserve is well-maintained and is well-guarded by friendly but armed park police. Protection of sites and especially of wildlife are of prime concern. Exploration and excavation continue under the auspices of the Koobi Fora Research Project (KFRP), which collaborates with a number of interested universities and individuals across the world.

Formerly the term Koobi Fora has been used to mean one or two initial sites, or the sand spit. Today it can mean any or all points in Sibiloi National Park. The term East Turkana also has come into use with the larger meaning.

10. Laas Gaal, Somalia

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Laas Gaal is a complex of rockhouses and caves containing rock art dating back to 9,000 BC. The rock paintings shows people worshiping cows with large horns and ceremonial robes. Locals knew about the rockhouses and caves for hundreds of years before a team of French researches discovered the site in 2002. Like many other archaeological sites in Somalia, Laas Gaal hasn’t been fully explored yet.

The Laas Geel cave paintings are thought to be some of the most vivid rock art in Africa. Among other things, they depict cattle in ceremonial robes accompanied by humans, who are believed to have been inhabitants of the region. The necks of the cattle are embellished with a kind of plastron. Some of the cattle are also portrayed wearing decorative robes. Besides long-horned cattle, the rock art also shows an image of a domesticated dog, several paintings of Canidae as well as a giraffe. The site is excellently preserved due to the location of the paintings which are covered by the granite overhangs.

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Written by AfricaExplorerMagazine

African Explorer Magazine is a publication being run by African Media Professionals, Explorers, Scientists, Researchers and Writers. Our Media Platforms tells African Stories from an Africans Perspective.

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