The recorded history of Namibia begins only as late as the 17th and 18th centuries, and very little at all is known about the earliest period of human settlement in this vast area of south-western Africa. Most of the written records were compiled by European adventurers, travellers, missionaries and colonial administrators; inevitably the Namibian people are described primarily from an alien perspective with little attention to the historical pattern of events as they were experienced by the indigenous communities.

In the light of Namibia's late entry into the recorded annals of world history, the question arises whether the country contains historical sites similar to those discovered in neighbouring Zimbabwe? The ruins of Great Zimbabwe have become a symbol of the new state and its emancipation from colonial rule. Therefore, the rediscovery of a remarkable ancient ruin in the form of a mountain fortress at ||Khauxa!nas [1] in southern Namibia during the mid 1980s could be of major significance to an evaluation of Namibia's real history. It signifies not only the identification of a precolonial culture and society, but also a symbol of Namibian nationhood. The protracted period of colonial rule, lasting well over a century, resulted in a lost identity and the absence of any images of national dignity. ||Khauxa!nas, I believe, could well be such a symbol for the new nation state of Namibia.

The name " Namibia" derives from the Namib Desert which stretches along virtually the entire length of the Atlantic coastline. "Namib" is a Nama/Dama word denoting "the shield" or "an enclosure" because the coastal desert Namib protected the Namibian people from colonial settlement until well into the 19th century [2].

The name "||Khauxa!nas" has a very similar meaning, namely passively to defend or shield people from an enemy. One of the most striking features of this old mountain fortress is its large enclosure and intended defensive purpose. With the recorded history of Namibia characterised by resistance wars against a variety of interlopers, ||Khauxa!nas directly and indirectly appears to have played a significant role in uprisings against the rule of the Dutch East India Company from the Cape Colony, the influence of European missionaries, and the successive German and South African colonial occupations.

At of the end of the 1970s some 18,000 ruins and other traces of ancient settlements throughout Southern Africa had been identified, but to date not much has been found in Namibia that is known to be older than ||Khauxa!nas [3]. The available evidence shows that this early Namibian settlement was built by different indigenous communities over a considerable period before the arrival of the Europeans. Although these ruins appear never to have been destroyed by human agency, their original function is not immediately apparent to the visitor. The aim of this Study is to try and reveal its original function and place ||Khauxa!nas within the mainstream of Namibia's real history.

Although it is assumed that ||Khauxa!nas was not the product of a strong centralised authority, as in the case of Great Zimbabwe, similarities exist between the two sites, as will be shown. But, in contrast to Great Zimbabwe, the Namibian settlement had the benefit of a meticulous contemporary witness who visited it while it was still thriving and described the inhabitants of the place and the unique mountain fortress itself with great detail. We have Benjamin Ridsdale to thank for this information which provides the Namibian historian with more evidence about the existence of this impressive settlement than historians ever had in the case of Great Zimbabwe. Ridsdale named the Nama village at the foot of the mountain fortress " Schans Vlakte" - ||Khauxa!nas is the Nama word for Ridsdale's appellation and denotes the entire area of settlement, including the fortress, which the evidence indicates to be much older.

These and many other thoughts went through my mind during the rough drive over innumerable rocks and rocky outcrops in that nearly inaccessible area deep in south-eastern Namibia, east of the Great Karas Mountains [4]. I realised that in fact I was following the tracks of an old fortified settlement, more ancient than any other systematically designed and built structure so far located in Namibia, features that had until now only been attributed to European-built settlements in the pre-colonial era [5].

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The Great Karas Mountains from the east
Klaus Dierks

The rediscovery of these remains of an old Namibian civilisation is the more remarkable given that large ruins are normally easily located. One would have thought that during the more than one hundred years of colonial rule to 1990, especially the period of German control from 1884-1915, no such extensive remains would have stayed undiscovered [6].

Yet, amazingly enough, just this appears to have occurred with ||Khauxa!nas. Apart from the evidence by two contemporary observers of the 1840s, no further records of this settlement have been found so far. Yet the ruins have the power to exercise a powerful fascination over many who have seen them. Emotions such as fear, horror, pity and, of course, curiosity, are among those evoked when contemplating the site. It is even believed by some that the ruins are haunted by evil spirits; perhaps that is one of the reasons why the secret of ||Khauxa!nas was only to be disclosed so comparatively recently? Or was it merely the fact that the inhabitants of this fortified stronghold had good reason to do all in their power to maintain the secret of their refuge? It is perhaps because a civil engineer, who by nature of his profession is interested in structures and problems of their formation, became intrigued in the meaning of the half broken walls of the settlement that the true identity and meaning of ||Khauxa!nas may now laid bare.

To the question "What is an ancient ruin?", it must be answered that the term "ancient" is a relative one. It could be argued that any physical remains of a site whose origin and purpose is not fully explained by the available historical record could be classified as ancient. Most parts of Namibia were unknown to Europeans well into the 19th century, so several hitherto unidentified sites may be no more than 150 to 200 years old. Although there is some written documentation of ||Khauxa!nas, archaeological research will be needed to supplement the available historical data. This would be especially useful in providing a time dimension for periods when radio-carbon determinations cannot be very conclusive [7].

The early epoch (18th and early 19th century) of Namibian history presents unique problems to the researcher. Not only does the Gothic script used by German missionaries and civil servants add to the difficulty, but most accounts - including those by individual traders and travellers - reflect a Eurocentric viewpoint, while colonial officials had a vested interest in suppressing details of their misdeeds. Inevitably, the indigenous Namibians are described rather negatively for the most part and as subject to developments controlled by the colonial administration. Most of the available historical documentation and other literature on " South West Africa" share the common characteristic of describing Namibia and its people from the point of view of the colonial power. These sources are clearly inadequate in providing an informed picture of history as experienced by the Namibian inhabitants of the country and are also among the reasons why a majority of the white settlers and their descendants remained unable to appreciate the motivating forces behind the Namibian struggle for self-determination and national identity [8].

It is for this reason that I am convinced that ||Khauxa!nas will come to be seen as one of the foci of Namibian history and culture, a symbol of historical development and the desire of a people for freedom and independence. If we understand the true meaning of ||Khauxa!nas we may be able to understand a great deal more about the Namibia of today and tomorrow.

Although ||Khauxa!nas was only so recently rediscovered, and initial interpretations of the historical and archaeological findings are only just underway, it has already become clear that its significance will have widespread implications. Prior to independence, any token that could be a symbol of Namibian nationalism and resistance remained inevitably suspect to the colonial dispensation. Hence, very little was done by those in a position to do so to initiate investigations of ||Khauxa!nas's history. Whereas Zimbabwean pre-colonial ruins have been at the centre of controversy and historical dispute since the beginning of this century, similar ruins in South Africa have suffered almost complete neglect [9].

The same held true in Namibia prior to 1990. Public reactions to the discovery of the ruins of a pre-colonial Namibian settlement ranged from sarcasm ("an old German cattle kraal") via prejudice ("their investigation would only be worthwhile if they had no "anti-colonial" character") to official neglect [10].

The situation has changed of course with the Independence of the country. Now it becomes possible, given the allocation of sufficient resources from public or private sources, to begin the recovery of oral traditions related to the history of the Nama community in general and of ||Khauxa!nas in particular. Furthermore, there is now the prospect of initiating comprehensive archaeological investigations to uncover more physical evidence. Modern archaeology is now equipped with the techniques and methodology to resolve problems and conflicting data connected with a historical and cultural classification of the Nama settlement. These include the question of dating, especially for the period prior to 1770 and the arrival of the Orlam Afrikaners (Orlams in Nama: !Gû-!gôun or Nauba-xu gye |ki-khoen) [11], and the type of socio-economic community - whether primarily pastoral, urban or a mixture of the two [12].

Before we take a closer look at ||Khauxa!nas and its significance it is necessary to go back to the basics. The impressive ruin, with its huge protective stone wall bearing a distinct similarity to parts of the Great Wall of China, speaks for itself. It indicates that the whole structure is the product of a sophisticated social order and that the settlement must have had a relatively complex economy based on cattle raising, trading and even some type of mining activity [13].

||Khauxa!nas, surely, cannot be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, and takes its place in the wider context of early Namibian history (18th and early 19th century). Perhaps it constitutes an intermediate stage from the early pastoral settlement patterns found elsewhere in Namibia to a more complex form of society. These are among the factors that have to be included in research leading to a more comprehensive explanation of the settlement. This will need to be extended to another precolonial settlement, identified only in March 1988 during new investigations into ||Khauxa!nas. A mountain village atop a steep hill on Narudas at the eastern edge of the Great Karas Mountains is in all probability the long-forgotten main settlement of the ||Hawoben. This was described as "Robber Henrick's Place" by Alexander in 1837 and as "Klip Fontein" by Ridsdale in 1844.

At the present time many questions still remain to be answered before the true implications of these extraordinary sites of Namibian history and culture can be fully appreciated. A certain mystery, as distinct from historical obscurity, surrounds these sites in the sense of the respect and awe experienced by a visitor to a location giving evidence of a substantial accomplishment. The mystery of ||Khauxa!nas may always remain, but further research will surely help to provide one of the keys to Namibia's so far neglected real history.

At the very least, the site's rediscovery calls into question the hitherto prevalent view of Namibia as existing in some sort of "Dark Age" during the entire pre-colonial epoch. This was the view assiduously propagated in the official annals of the country's history as recorded by the successive colonial orders, deriving from the surely mistaken assumption that old Namibia had no history as such and that cultural and social development began only with the intrusion of European influences.

But the history of ||Khauxa!nas tells us something very different. Ewald Uazuvara Katjivena had the following to say [14]:

"In school I had never heard anything about the history of my own people. Instead I was privileged to learn that we had been "discovered" by the merchant of Bremen, Adolph Lüderitz. I know the history of the great German Empire and the history of the German emperors better than many Germans."

The existence of ||Khauxa!nas and recent research into pre-colonial Namibian history has revealed that different types of pastoral community and a complex building technology had developed and are manifest in the form of stone ruins still visible today. The evolution to more sophisticated pastoral activities during the Iron Age some ten centuries ago created the socio-economic base of the old Namibian communities.

When the first Europeans arrived during the second half of the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries - explorers, traders and missionaries - Namibia already had a long and varied historical experience. However, a considerable degree of selectivity was employed by colonial officials and other European recorders when collecting and collating historical data, with material generally rejected as of little value if it did not fit into the prevailing colonialist attitudes. The is highlighted by the story of ||Khauxa!nas and its rediscovery only recently.

Economic self-interest on the part of the European fortune hunters largely determined the first written accounts of Namibia when they penetrated the Namibian "terra incognita" for the first time some two hundred years ago. A certain nervous anticipation and wariness, together with an attitude of hostility and sense of cultural superiority, run like a single thread through many of their early observations. These initiators of European expansion showed little interest in the doings and personalities of the indigenous Africans they encountered. Later accounts described the abundance of natural resources, especially the rich wildlife, and the terrain's suitability for European settlement in anticipation of the subsequent colonial occupation.

The Namibians were thus effectively robbed of their own history, with those responsible for the first narratives were in no way equipped to retrieve and describe objectively historical data relating to events preceding their arrival. This influenced the first recognised historical studies of Namibia as these and other writings were based on the one-sided accounts of the initial contacts between indigenous Namibians and the European world. Thus to discover the history of ||Khauxa!nas and describe the physical reality of this ruined settlement opens a new chapter on Namibia's past and casts fresh light on the historical antecedents of the indestructible will of the Namibian people for freedom. ||Khauxa!nas helps to transform the stolen history of Namibia into a real past, and beyond, into the new era of independence and national sovereignty.

I am deeply indebted to the Centre for African Studies/Namibia Project of the University of Bremen in Germany whose financial support assisted me to do the field surveys in ||Khauxa!nas. In particular I owe deep gratitude to Helmut Angula, Horst Drechsler, Hendrik Frederik, Ludwig Helbig, Werner Hillebrecht, Nangolo Mbumba, Henning Melber, Helgard Patemann, Randolph Vigne as well as Hendrik Witbooi who all read the text of my publication and made valuable comments. I have benefited from many discussions and arguments with them. Furthermore I would like to thank Brigitte Lau, Christel Stern and John Kinahan as well as Tilman Dedering, John Parkington and Wolfgang Werner for valuable hints and stimulating ideas. Klaus Möller helped me with his comments and his inestimable knowledge about the Namibian south. Carol Claxton and Roger Murray looked closely at the final version for English style and grammar, correcting both and offering suggestions for improvement. Any errors in fact and judgement as well as any omissions must be placed to my account.


Dr. Klaus Dierks, Windhoek / Namibia

December, 2000

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Photograph: Klaus Dierks


[1] ||Khauxa!nas was also named Schans Vlakte (Plain of the Bulwark) by the Wesleyan missionary Benjamin Ridsdale in the 1840s. The name ||Khauxa!nas is here used to denote the whole settlement, including the mountain fortress, while the ||Hawoben village existing in Ridsdale's time is referred to as Schans Vlakte.

[2] Mbumba, Nangolo and Noisser Norbert H.: Namibia in History, Zed Books Ltd., London and New Jersey, 1988, p.20. Until 1968 the colonial name "South West Africa" remained the official title of the country. "Namibia" was the name adopted by the liberation movement and the United Nations and it became the internationally recognised name with the Namibian Independence in March 1990. Hence, the name "Namibia", which symbolises the new sovereign state, territorial integrity, national unity and majority rule, is used throughout this work and South West Africa in quotations and in the "Chronology of Namibian History" only.

[3] Summers, Roger: Ancient Ruins and Vanished Civilisations of Southern Africa, T.V. Bulpin, Cape Town, 1971, p.104-107

[4] Dierks, Klaus: ||Khauxa!nas - Schans Vlakte: Oldest Urban Settlement in Namibia ? A Symbol for Independence, In Formation No.1, Windhoek, 1987, p.1

[5] The so-called "Schmelen House" in Bethany which was built in 1814 is still officially regarded as the oldest systematically erected building structure in Namibia, although the original edifice was destroyed after Schmelen left Bethany in the 1820's as reported by James Edward Alexander in 1837. The present building was re-erected by a subsequent missionary, probably Hans-Christian Knudsen who began work at Bethany in 1842. It was renovated from the ground during 1986/87 and is, therefore, incorrectly described as the oldest building in the country.

[6] Summers, op cit, p.187

[7] Summers, op cit, p.xxi

[8] Drechsler, Horst: Südwestafrika unter deutscher Kolonialherrschaft, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 1984, p.20

[9] Further proof for this statement is that prior to independence the South-African-controlled administration and Windhoek municipality were busy with plans for the "Windhoek-100-Years" festival to celebrate the centenary of colonial Windhoek established by the Germans. Yet in fact Windhoek is much older, founded under this name by Jonker Afrikaner in the 1830s or at the beginning of the 1840s. Jonker mentioned the name Windhoek in a letter to Rev. J. Tindall, dated 12th August 1844, a copy of which is in the Windhoek State Archives.

[10] Remarks made to the author by various members of the Namibian public before Independence.

[11] Budack, K.F.R.: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Gai-||khaun (Rote Nation), Windhoek, Afrikanischer Heimatkalender, 1970, p. 49

[12] Many explanations have been given for the name "Orlam" in the literature on Namibia. One version is that it is derived from the Malay expression "orange lama", a man of long life, meaning an old, experienced servant. In this usage Orlam is accentuated on the second syllable. An alternative derivation is that it is a Cape-Malay word meaning "foreigners" or "intelligent" (Green, Lawrence: Lords of the Last Frontier, Howard B. Timmins, Cape Town, 1952, p.218). Another popular version is derived from the Afrikaans language where "oorlam", a word of unknown origin, means "cunning" or "sly". The Orlams were also known by the collective name "Afrikaners" by the Europeans of the Cape Colony during the 18th century, probably reflecting the fact that they had learnt to speak Cape Dutch. Thus both names are not original African concepts.

[13] A farmer in the area showed me samples of iron powder found at one of the ruined sites, which he ascribed to mining activities by one of the early Nama communities residing here.

[14] Katjivena, Ewald Uazuvara: Ein Namibianer begegnet der deutschen Kultur, Bonn, 1981, p.74-75

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