Dias caravel 1988_0001

This caravel is the replica constructed to re-enact Bartolomeu Dias’s 1488 AD voyage from Portugal to find a sea route to the East around the southern tip of Africa. Dias put into a sheltered bay at 26 37’ on the south west African coast. His stonemasons chiselled out a padrão from the limestone pillars carried in the hold for ballast and erected it on a headland in the bay The padrão claimed the coast for the King of Portugal, the first in a line of colonial claimants to a territory home to indigenous people for millennia before.
Dias christened the bay Golfo de São Cristovão – it being St Christopher’s Bay when he entered it – but changed the name to Angra das Voltas with reference to the need for tacking back and forth to sail out of the bay into the prevailing south westerly wind. It also appears on Portuguese maps as Angra dos Ilheos (Bay of the Islets, referring to the three islands within the bay).

Less than 200 years later, the entrepreneurial Dutch dominated trade in the East Indies, only to be challenged by the English at the end of the 18th Century. At this time, the bay was known as Angra Pequena (Little Bay), the Portuguese name used by sailors around the globe and featured on many maps of the time.
From about this time, the people indigenous to the coast were drawn into trading with seamen from many nations, including from America who hunted whales for their oil and seals for their pelts. The whalers traded guns, gun-powder, iron and Virginian tobacco for cattle, small stock and hides for their shoe industry. At times, the coastal people refused to trade. In 1821, the English captain of a Royal Navy ship ordered the local people to show him the route from Angra Pequena to the mission station at Bethanie, about 100 km inland from Angra Pequena. The people refused, claiming they knew little about the interior, that there was no water and that it was too hot at that time of year. Part of the difficulty might have been the conflicts and disruption caused by Oorlam people moving away from the Cape Colony into southern Namibia, and the preceding drought years. However, the historical incident shows that the link between people at Angra Pequena and Bethanie was known; indeed, in 1883 Heinrich Vogelsang, agent for Adolf Lüderitz, opened negotiations with Joseph Fredericks, chief of the !Ama at Bethanie, and tricked him into selling most of his people’s land, from Angra Pequena almost to the Orange River. Lüderitz became known as “Lügenfritz” in the empire for his trickery.

The little bay of islets was re-christened Lüderitzbucht, and the Bethanie people lost their land. A number of British and Cape merchants who had profitable guano and fishing interests in the bay, also gradually lost these privileges, in spite of a Joint Commission of Enquiry to investigate who had priority.

Diamonds were discovered in 1904, and in April 1905, General Lothar von Trotha issued his chilling proclamation to the Nama, warning them that the war of annihilation waged against the Ovaherero awaited them too, should they also defy the might of the German Colonial Empire. Shark Island in Lüderitzbucht was turned into a concentration camp for prisoners who suffered forced labour, malnutrition, sickness and appalling misery in the biting winds and cold of the bay, including witnessing body parts of their people collected for racial studies. Tobias Zick, Africa Correspondent for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung recently interviewed Barbara Frederick whose great granduncle was Chief Cornelius Frederick, one of the thousands of !Ama who died on Shark Island. Only after the end of colonial rule by South Africa were the !Ama able to commemorate the sacrifice of their people in resisting colonial dispossession and destruction of their communities and subsistence. Since 2007, the !Ama have held an annual festival to commemorate Shark Island and their struggle; this tragic time also informs their Traditional Authority coat of arms and colours. Their motto is “Trust in God – Love each other”; their colours blue for the sea and heaven, and pink for tenderness.

Re-naming Lüderitzbucht “!Nami-ǂnus”, is a small courtesy to the long line of Frederick chiefs and their people at Bethanie, whose area of jurisdiction extended to the coast a century before Lügenfritz, the forerunner of fraud, empire and colonial atrocities sailed into the Little Bay.
Hinz, M.O. in press. Customary Law Ascertained. Windhoek: UNAM Press.
Kinahan, Jill. 1988. The Pillar in the Mist: a history of the Dias Padrão at Lüderitz. Windhoek: National Monuments Council.
Kinahan, Jill. 1991. By Command of their Lordships: The Exploration of the Namibian Coast by the Royal Navy, 1795–1895.
Proceedings of the Angra Pequena and West Coast Claims Joint Commission. 1885. Cape Town: Saul Solomon & Co.
Zick, Tobias. Das schwieriger Klang von Namen. Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14 April 2015.

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Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind

Venus of Willendorf, 27 000 BP

Venus of Willendorf, 27 000 BP

The exhibition “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind” opened at the British Museum in London on 7 February this year (2013) and runs till 26 May. It has received outstanding reviews, and has proved to be so popular that you need to book your entrance ticket in advance in order to see it.

For archaeologists, it presents a thrilling opportunity to view, in one place, some of the oldest and most famous prehistoric works of art drawn from across Europe. Artists are awed to recognize that 40 000 years ago, members of the human race were exercising skills of perspective, perception and abstract representation. As a reviewer in The Guardian (Jonathan Jones, 5 February 2013) states: “The Ice Age masterpieces show that the urge to make art, to delight, entrance or inspire reverence or awe is as old as the frontal cortex itself.” Part of the excitement of the exhibition is the presentation, alongside the Upper Palaeolithic art, of modern works by Picasso, Henry Moore, Mondrian and Matisse. The connection is in the artistic ability of seeing and capturing the essence of a subject in abstract representation. While the same reviewer found modern abstract art sexy, and the “bulges and blanknesses” of the prehistoric nudes not, an artist who paints pregnant women expressed her view that the statues possibly had been created by women themselves, as they were not meant to be sexy, but to portray fecundity in their intimate details of flesh (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hv2ssmB_MU). The Venus of Willendorf, for instance, with her drooping breasts, muffin-top stomach and knees clamped together seems to illustrate the beauty of humility, ripeness, fertility and womanhood rather than provocative sensuality. While the human figures are overwhelmingly abstract, the animal subjects are astonishing in their accuracy.

Venus of Lespugue, France, 23 000 BP

Crouching nude, Picasso, 1956









The lion-headed man, 32 000 years old, carved from a mammoth tusk from Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany is of particular interest as there is nothing like it in the natural world. Artists today see this sculpture as evidence for Upper Palaeolithic human imagination and ability to plan and execute a symbolic representation from a fantasy or spirit world. David Lewis-Williams, the doyen of rock art studies in South Africa, in his ground-breaking book The Mind in the Cave (2002) discusses this particular statuette along with some of the others from the point of view of his theory painstakingly built up through the course of this book, but also based on a formidable publication record. He presents Upper Palaeolithic art as the work of a second wave of Homo sapiens with fully evolved consciousness moving from Africa into Europe, where the Neanderthal population with pre-human consciousness would have been incapable of long-term planning, memory, categorization or even speaking of past and future. Homo sapiens used their fully modern consciousness to set up stratifications in society, to make and guard social distinctions and to exploit others. When the last Neanderthal had died out, these social distinctions were used among themselves and continue to be used today. The lion-headed statuette represents an elite group, a transformed shaman who takes on the strength and power of a lion to perform his work, accessing spirit realms to help him resolve conflicts or difficulties in the world. The statuettes and the cave art draw on a limited pool of animal imagery: lion, horses, aurochs, mammoths – all having metaphorical qualities of strength and power.

We have our own famous example of a Lion Man, but more about that in the next post!

Lion-headed Man, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, 32 000 BP at the British Museum



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Vachellia first

In August, after having acquired the necessary permit, John took the first samples of heartwood from selected Vachellia (camelthorn trees) in the Khan River valley. Armed with the tree corer, successfully tested in May this year (see blog “Trees as weathermen”), and with a generator hired in Swakopmund, he set out.

The generator, loaded in Swakopmund with the help of three men, was dauntingly large and heavy. How to load and unload it single-handed, and ten times, at each one of the trees selected? Norman and Avril from Swakop Uranium had arranged to meet him, at some stage, to observe and help but John needed to get on with the job. Newly acquired sand-tracks turned out to make a helpful ramp, up which he could haul the generator using a tension strap.

The dog watched with interest. Norman and Avril got temporarily lost. The drill he had purchased in Windhoek burned out, but fortunately after the last sample had been taken, and the corers stood up to the test. The photograph below shows the magnitude of the task: centuries of camelthorn wood present a formidable medium. Supporting the drill with strapping helped to keep it steady.

The ten AMS samples sent off by courier to the radiocarbon dating laboratory in the USA got stuck in Johannesburg for a week, for bureaucratic reasons that turned out to be quite baseless, but Norman organized the funds from Swakop Uranium with seamless efficiency. Beta Analytic, the lab we use, gave the samples high priority and processed them in time for the results to be available for John to present at the SASQUA conference on Saturday 15th (see our previous blog for information on the conference). We’ll publish general comments on these dates after the conference. Our expectations of trees germinating during the Medieval Warm Period were upheld, but there were some surprises!




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Wet & Dry: Archaeology & Climate change

John is to attend the SASQUA conference from 13th to the 16th September, hosted this year (2012) at Gobabeb as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. His paper is entitled: Climate proxies and occupation trends in the post-Pleistocene archaeological record for the Namib Desert and presents evidence of human occupation in the hyper-arid Namib as a sensitive proxy for global shifts in climate. The human population of the Namib declined significantly during the Late Glacial Maximum (c. 16 000 years ago) and picked up again only with the mid-Holocene Optimum (about 6 500 years ago) when the climate improved, sea-level rose and rainfall increased. Important changes in subsistent strategies included very specialized hunting and gathering techniques and the eventual adoption of domestic livestock. These changes led to an increase in the population during the last 1000 years.

The graph shows radiocarbon dates in the Namib, approximate climatic variation between hot and dry, and warm and wet periods, and variation of human populations during the Holocene estimated from archaeological evidence.

During the conference, 29 papers and 17 posters will be presented by international researchers. Some of the well-known Namibian scientists include Roy Miller who will talk about the implications in OSL dating of the main Kalahari dunes; Eugene Marais & others on the Holocene pollen record from the Naukluft; H. Mocke on the fossil flora and fauna at Ongongo Springs, Damaraland; A. Nguno and others on OSL dating of marine terraces of the Skeleton Coast, S. Ringrose and others, including Mary Seely, on bedform changes following high floods on the Kuiseb River and SE Nicholson on 200 years of rainfall variability in Namibia. The full program, with abstracts of the papers may be downloaded in pdf version.


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Archaeology supports /Khomani land claim

 A stone structure at Aukeigas in the early 1980s; our archaeological survey discovered /Khomani settlements with houses, copper smelting furnaces and engravings.

Last week’s court decision (The Namibian 7th June 2012) dismissing the /Khomani land claim was a sad reflection on the civic and judicial institutions that are supposed to represent and protect vulnerable and dispossessed Namibians. It need not be so.

The /Khomanin people living on the outskirts of Windhoek have a legitimate historical reason to be there.  Continue reading

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Trees as weathermen?

Vachellia and Welwitschia, weathermen of the past:
QRS has begun a project to evaluate the radiocarbon dating potential of Vachellia and Welwitschia plants in the Central Namib Desert for use as recent palaeoclimate proxies.

Norman Green and staff from Swakop Uranium gathered at QRS headquarters on Sunday, May 13th, 2012 to test two different drill designs for extracting heartwood from an old  camelthorn tree (previously Acacia erioloba, now Vachellia erioloba. For an excellent explanation of the taxonomic reasons for the name change, follow this link: safari-ecology.blogspot.com ).

This experiment prepares for a pilot study run to evaluate the potential of  dating Vachellia and Welwitschia plants as climate proxies in the Central Namib Desert. Climate reconstructions based on speleotherm studies provide a sequence of wet and dry periods: if the trees are dated, their germination may be related to rainfall patterns over the past 1 000 years. Human settlement patterns in the Namib are also tied to this climatic sequence. Continue reading

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