Archaeological Sites


Sites in the vicinity of this small mining town on the edge of the Kalahari may for present purposes be grouped into the following two complexes:

A new site at Kathu - taste of things to comeKathu Pan

At this shallow feature, about 30 ha in extent, the present natural water-table rises above the surface in summer, but lies 1-2 m below it in mid-winter. Superficial unconsolidated sediments are underlain by over 40 m of calcrete, followed by about 30 m of sands, clays and basal gravels, collectively of the Tertiary-aged Kalahari Group. Handaxes and faunal remains found in a newly formed subsidence there in 1974 led to investigation by Humphreys the following year, and extensive excavations in eight filled dolines by Beaumont, from 1978 to 1990. Taken together, archaeological assemblages from the Kathu Pan 1-8 sites represent two phases of the ESA, two phases of the MSA, and more or less the entire LSA (c 32 - 1 kyr BP).

Of particular importance is Kathu Pan 1, where combined lithostratigraphic and sedimentological evidence suggests the following sequence of events, from bedrock upwards:

  • Initial formation of the sinkhole, as a result of water table lowering during a glacial, with the consequent collapse into it of unconsolidated overlying sediments due to reduced hydrostatic pressure.

  • Stratum 5, a basal infill of culturally sterile orange sand, reflecting aeolian sediments swept south beyond present limits from the Kalahari during the same or a subsequent arid period.

  • Strata 4b and 4a, beige-white sands with abundant handaxe assemblages that probably formed in seasonal ponds, subjected to strong annual recharges, leading to 'spring eyes' at times when ground water was lower than at present.

  • Stratum 3, consisting of unsorted exotic pebbles, with unabraded-abraded MSA and superficial LSA, flushed in from the south by a palaeostream, of which upstream and downstream traces can still be seen.

  • Stratum 2, with low density LSA, consists of well-sorted sands with a strong primary or derived aeolian component and increasing upward calcification suggesting a relatively arid setting.

  • Stratum 1 is dominated by three highly organic layers indicative of a marshland setting with standing water and a climate wetter than today, of which the lowest and thickest Peat 3 appears to date to the Holocene Hypsithermal.

Near the surface were portions of a pot of Ceramic LSA or Iron Age derivation.

Subsequent analyses of the faunal and artefact samples from Strata 4a & b have permitted the following inferences:

  • Stratum 4b contains a large sample of tooth plates certainly ascribable to Elephas recki recki, a species of which the latest known occurrence, in East Africa, is at Olorgesailie, in levels predating 800 kyr BP. Dating evidence from elesewhere in the Northern Cape strongly suggests that this is also a probably minimum age for the lower Acheulean assemblage at Kathu Pan 1.

  • The Stratum 4a assemblage differs markedly from this directly underlying material, in raw material and typological terms. These shifts are to be seen not so much in the bifaces, which remain refined throughout, but rather within the core and flake components, in which serial developmental trends are clearly evidenced.

  • Fairly common fragments of unmodified or flaked specularite and soft red haematite, differing from the hard black iron ore which occurs locally, were found in Stratum 4a. Seemingly, those varieties were first deliberately and regularly collected there, as they were at Wonderwerk Cave, during Middle Pleistocene times prior to 200 kyr BP.

  • Large mammal remains were markedly concentrated, along with the lithics, around old spring-eyes in Strata 4a & b. This could be due either largely to natural mortality in a water-hole setting, or as a major result of human scavenging and/or hunting. Evidence supporting the latter alternative is the total lack of carnivores in the substantial faunal sample, and the unnatural faunal composition, which is dominated by large species.

  • The abundance of sites at Kathu Pan is clearly due primarily to the presence there of permanent water, in contrast to its regional setting, where such sources are scarce at present, and would have been even more so at times of reduced rainfall. That this is the case during Stratum 4a & b times is indicated by the consistent dominance of grazers in the faunal assemblages, which imply a dry grassland environment largely bereft of trees.

Kathu Townlands

This site is located away from the pan, on the outskirts of the town. Two excavations, some 300 m apart, were undertaken there in 1982 and 1990. The superficial unconsolidated aeolian sand unit contains few if any artefacts, but the lower banded ironstone (jaspilite) rubble, up to a metre deep, is very largely composed of stone artefacts. These are attributable to an Acheulean phase, slightly later than Kathu Pan 4a in typological terms, that is distinguished by incipient blade production. The site has an estimated area of 250 000 sq m, and on the basis of the counts for Excavation 1a, it is calculated that it contains of the order of some 2 billion artefacts. This remarkable abundance of lithic debris clearly results from the protracted use of the high-grade banded ironstone outcrop as a raw material source, with such a quarry/workshop interpretation being further supported by the high percentage of rough-outs in the total handaxe sample. Lithics from the two widely separated excavations are typologically identical, and further evidence that this site formed during a single relatively brief (one interglacial?) timespan is provided by the observation that artefacts showing weathering and trampling damage are confined to the surface of the rubble accumulation.


  • Beaumont, P.B. 1990. Kathu Pan. In Beaumont, P.B. & Morris, D. 1990. Guide to archaeological sites in the Northern Cape. Kimberley: McGregor Museum.

  • Beaumont, P.B., van Zinderen Bakker, E.M. & Vogel J.C. 1984 Environmental changes since 32 000 BP at Kathu Pan, Northern Cape. In: Vogel, J.C. (ed.) Late Cainozoic palaeoclimates of the Southern Hemisphere 329-338. Rotterdam: Balkema.

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