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Archaeologists uncover new perspective on early colonialism in South Africa

Photo of: two students sifting the earth at the dig at Canteen Canteen Kopje.There could not be a less significant looking place than the wind-swept hill known as Canteen Kopje, located on the outskirts of the town of Barkly West in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. But this is where a team of University of Toronto archeologists, together with colleagues from the McGregor Museum in South Africa, have found surprising evidence of complex social interactions between Europeans and Africans that took place at a diamond mine about 150 years ago.

The archeologists had travelled to Canteen Kopje to follow up on reports that an Iron Age settlement has been disturbed by mining for sand. But rather than the expected 500-year-old village of the Tswana people, the U of T archeologists found African pottery and European glass, located only centimetres apart and likely dating from the 1860s. “We landed on a little bit of a window on a period of interaction and co-existence during the time of colonization,” said U of T anthropologist Michael Chazan.

“About 150 years ago this hill was teaming with people, a real mixture of European and African. The separation of races that came to characterize South Africa was maybe not quite so prevalent in the 1860s, and the division of labour we came to think of under apartheid did not develop as early on as people had believed,” Chazan said.

The excavations at Canteen Kopje took place in the framework of an archeological training course for heritage students from the newly established Sol Plaatje University in South Africa. University of Toronto students worked with their peers from Sol Plaatje sharing the techniques and equipment used in archeological research.

“It’s really cool to talk to local people our own age who are also doing postsecondary education but in a totally different situation,” said Meghan Macleod, a student participating in the excavation as part of the Faculty of Arts & Science 399 Research Excursions program.

“It was nice to see them make the connection with their own past.”

Ironically, mining now threatens to destroy all traces of the inter-racial community it helped create 150 years ago. The government’s Department of Mines has issued developers a permit but the Heritage Resources Agency is contesting it with the support of the researchers.

It’s a hard fight to win in an area with a “tremendous amount of poverty and unemployment,” said Chazan.

No matter the outcome, one legacy is already secure: the deep connections he and his students made with Sol Plaatje and the community.

“We’re very proud that we played a role in launching one of the first South African universities to be founded since the end of apartheid.”