Wits University scientists have recently learned that a famous heritage site in South Africa is in jeopardy following the commencement of illegal diamond mining

Canteen Kopje – the key archaeological and historic heritage site is located near Barkly West in the Northern Cape, South Africa.

Researchers from the university’s archaeological department are mounting efforts with the key stakeholders at the McGregor Museum, Sol Plaatje University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Pennsylvania to save this important research and tourism site.

“Various locations excavated over the years at this site preserve a lengthy archaeological sequence, including the earliest stone tools in southern Africa suggested to be 2.3 million years old, at least three phases of the Acheulean hand axe culture, the Middle and Later Stone Ages, and historic deposits that document the first contact between local inhabitants and the earliest miners in South Africa,” says Kathleen Kuman, Professor Emeritus from the Archaeological Department at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

On March 16, a private diamond mining company began work in a very sensitive area of the site and has been erecting fencing that not only includes the current excavations by the team of Wits scientists and by the University of Toronto but also part of the site developed for tourism, thus blocking access to the public as well as to the archaeologists.

The scientists believe that the mining company has been operating under permit from the Department of Mineral Resources but without a permit from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), which is a direct contravention of the National Heritage Resources Act.

“All gazetted heritage sites in South Africa require a permit from SAHRA if they are to be disturbed in any way; hence this mining company is in contravention of an Act of the Republic of South Africa,” says Kuman.

Professor David Morris of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley has been dealing with the situation on the ground. He is the co-permit holder with Dr George Leader for the excavations in which Wits University staff and students have participated since 2007.

Kuman, who has supervised a number of students on the Canteen Kopje project, says: “This continued threat of mining and the activities of illegal miners over the years threaten to destroy both the ancient and more recent heritage of our country, along with the opportunity for our local students to further develop our knowledge of this important heritage.”

Morris has begun a funding application that will protect the site in future and further develop its tourism potential.

“For the sake of short-term financial gain in diamond mining, the long-term, more sustainable benefits to heritage tourism and to the archaeological research of much international importance are being jeopardised”, says Kuman.