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Scientists fight to save Canteen Kopje

- Wits University

Urgent High Court interdict obtained to stop unlawful mining at heritage site.

South African scientists, including archaeologists from Wits University, were granted an urgent court interdict in the Northern Cape High Court in Kimberley on Saturday night, 19 March 2016, to stop unlawful mining operations at Canteen Kopje.

This follows the commencement of illegal large scale mining by a mining company that began earlier this month at this key archaeological and historic heritage site near Barkly West in the Northern Cape, South Africa.

Researchers from the Wits University’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies 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.

A website has been set up to help with the scientists call for action against this threat:

Important archaeological 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.

Illegal operations

This month 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 say the mining company has been operating without a permit from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), a direct contravention of the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) (Act 25 of 1999).

“All gazetted heritage sites in this country 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.

Education and tourism suffer

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.