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The nature of man: a history of Melville Koppies in Veld & Flora 98 (2)

The nature of man : a history of Melville Koppies by Wendy Carstens in Veld & Flora 98 (2), p. 76, 2012
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  R ecently I was  asked to give a talk on the human impact on nature at Melville Koppies. I spent several hours sitting on the koppies thinking about this and came to the conclusion that our impact at Melville Koppies is minimal – in fact the reverse is happening. Nature has had an impact on humans at Melville Koppies. Those ‘far men’s fears’have not materialized here. Stone Age humans – a few tools  The ‘far men’who walked the Earth millions of years ago left no footprint at Melville Koppies except for a few tools. There were no dolomite caves at Melville Koppies for them to fall into and become fossilised in brecchia, like the caves at Sterkfontein, a mere 35 km away as the crow flies. Archaeologists have occasionally found early Stone Age tools such as Olduwan cores dating from 2.7 million years ago (mya) to 1.5 mya and Acheulian hand axes and cleavers (1.5 mya to 250 000 mya) left by late australopithecines and habilines. However, Middle Stone Age tools (250 000 to 22 000 years ago) of anatomically modern humans have been found on Melville Koppies. These are prepared cores with flakes of various sizes and shapes napped off them. The cores may have been made from the quartzite and quartz rocks at Melville Koppies. Some of the flakes were attached to shafts of wood, for use as spears. ‘Man the hunter’was emerging. Their impact on the game at Melville Koppies was infinitesimal. Their diet consisted mostly of edible plants which was entirely sustainable as they were nomadic and their numbers were few.Late Stone Age human impact on the environment at Melville Koppies was also minimal. Microlithic flakes dating from 22 000 to 2 000 years ago have been found. These tiny arrow-shaped flakes of quartz were attached to arrows. The San or Bushmen, late Stone Age people, were proficient hunters but they did not decimate the game. As Bosman* wrote of the stone implements, ‘And these things were made in the morning of the Stone Age, in the evening of the Stone Age, too, some of them… In these stone implements there is a diuturnity, a slow perpetuity. A timeless permanence which the rust cannot eat into.’ The Iron Age By 1300, late Iron Age humans began moving into Melville Koppies from the Magaliesberg area. There was water, limited grazing for cattle, valleys with deeper soils for crops, materials for building and of course, iron ore in the rocks. Humans now started to make an impact on Melville Koppies. Trees were cut down to build huts. Trees were also used for fuel and to make charcoal for the hungry furnaces and forges of the iron makers. It is estimated that one smelting needed charcoal from two  Acacia caffra  trees. Rocks were gathered for low stone walls around each hut and to enclose the cattle kraals in the centre of homesteads.What evidence remains of this period? Two furnaces were excavated in the mid 1960s. Pottery sherds were found near the furn-ace sites. Fires sweeping through Melville Koppies have exposed traces of stone walling on the northern slopes. Bush and silt have hidden everything else of this age on the koppies, save what has been exca-vated, preserved or reconstructed around the Lecture Hut area. Turning point – wagon wheels  The ‘mated snakes’of turning wheels app-eared in the 1830s. They heralded a change in technology that would increasingly exact more from the frightened earth. Voortrekkers or ‘landverhuisers’moved into the area with wagons, guns and later ploughs. Demographics and politics changed. And then, north-west of Melville ‘The nature of man ’   A history of Melville Koppies by Wendy Carstens , Melville Koppies guide and Chairman of the volunteer Melville Koppies Management Committee ABOVE:  Theresa and Gabriel Gibbon de-stressing on Melville Koppies. RIGHT:  Final year University of the Witwatersrand BSc students collecting data for their course on ‘Ecological Communities and Biodiversity Conservation’with Prof. Ed Witkowski at Melville Koppies. Photos: Wendy Carstens. Wheels within Wheels  When the first wheels flattened the grass and in the sandDrew two straight lines, the men who saw the spoorBeing hunters gazed and could not understand:Round feet whose prints were without curvature.“We see the mammoth in his footmarks andRecall the tiger from the slots he makesOn slime and soil. But whereby is it planned That round hooves leave straight trails like mated snakesFrightening the earth?” And, lo, a million yearsOf turning wheels enlarge those far men’s fears.   Herman Charles Bosman Koppies at present-day Kloofendal Nature Reserve, the Struben brothers discovered the gold of the Confidence Reef in the quartzite ridges. Gold diggings – the Geldenhuys period  The Geldenhuys family bought the farm Braamfontein to prospect for gold in the 1880s. They were convinced that its quartzite ridges (now Melville Koppies) would make them rich. Fortunately for us, they did not find payable gold and Melville Koppies was not turned into a mine dump.  The two bothers, Louw and Frans, did not make much of an impact on Melville Koppies in their search for gold. They dug an adit and made some blast holes, two of which have been found in a fairly inaccessible spot close to the adit.  VELD&FLORA | JUNE 2012 76 JUNE 2012 |  VELD&FLORA 77   Their farming activities were further north where the soil is deep and rich. The soils on the quartzite ridges of Melville Koppies are thin and acidic; the soils in the shale valleys are slightly deeper, but not good enough to plough for crops and so destroy the wealth of indigenous geophytic plants. The grasses are mostly unpalatable so cattle did not venture too high up the slopes. This was all good news for minimizing human impact on the natural vegetation of the koppies. A close shave – the 1930s and 1940s Louw Geldenhuys’s death in 1925 reduced the area that could have been part of Melville Koppies, as the family sold off his share of the farm except for a small 10 ha piece once known as the Louw Geldenhuys View Site. This may have been for sentimental reasons as Louw and his wife Emmarentia used to sit here and watch the sunrise and sunset. The View Site was incorporated into Melville Koppies in 1992 as Melville Koppies East. When Frans Geldenhuys died, the Johannesburg   Council for Natural History bought his land from the family in the 1940s for the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens and West Park Cemetery. Frans, his wife Judith, and various family members are buried at West Park Cemetery. By chance, Herman Charles Bosman’s grave is close by.Frans’s land included what is now Melville Koppies Central. The human impact on this section could have wiped out the natural heritage as there were plans to build UNISA here. A site for an old-age home was debated, and while heated discussions raged about its use, the koppies became further degraded by dumping, quarrying, invasive alien vegetation growth, the removal of plants and rocks and the effects of vagrancy. Turn around – Nature Reserve and Heritage Site Melville Koppies was declared a Nature Reserve in 1959. This was an early victory for environmentalists who recognised the value of our indigenous vegetation and wished to preserve it for the future. Ironically, Iron Age human’s modifications of the environment led to its preservation from further impact by modern humans. After archaeologist Revil Mason’s discovery of the 500 year-old Iron Age furnace, Melville Koppies Central was made a National Monument in 1968. The status of National Monument was changed to Heritage Site in 2000 as this is a more inclusive term for aspects of past cultures. Revil Mason’s archaeological dig at The Cave, formed by an overhang of quartzite rocks on Melville Koppies West, revealed traces of some of the game that once roamed the Koppies, Iron Age pottery sherds and the link-shaft of a Bushman arrow. The excavations at The Cave led to it becoming a Heritage Site as well. The Cave is framed by a magnificent Rock-breaking Fig ( Ficus ingens ) that has withstood the impact of the many people, past and present, who have used the shelter of The Cave. The past 53 years – nature’s impact In 1959, the proclaimed Nature Reserve was fenced and a tentative start was made on reversing the degradation of human impact.  This has been a gradual process, fuelled by the optimism, dreams, resources and commitment of many volunteers. Volunteers have been closely associated with Melville Koppies since 1959. Their passionate dedication has ensured that Melville Koppies has remained an unspoilt indigenous haven in the middle of Johannesburg. The aim of management has always been to conserve and preserve the environment for present and future generations and to promote environmental education, research and sustainable recreation.  The Environmental Management Con- servation Plan promotes working with nature and avoiding unnecessary deve-lopment. Most paths are natural. Facilities are rudimentary but adequate. There are three septic tank toilets, municipal piped water, but no electricity. Funding is used for maintenance, most of which is spent on eradicating alien vegetation. Signage is confined to the archaeological site and a few other strategic points. Development of facilities has been avoided as this would impact on nature and jar the senses. An ideal natural environment should have a positive impact on people, but basic rules of behaviour in a reserve need to be upheld. These are given at the start of a tour: Don’t run – older folk wish they still could; Stay on the paths because there are snakes – shrieks from the girls in pink and ‘Really Wow!’from the boys; Walk in single file behind the guide. The focus is on nature, so this is not a venue for picnics, braais, events and noisy functions.  The impact of nature on people depends on their age and interests – and the section of Melville Koppies they walk on. Melville Koppies West  is 100 ha of public open space. Hundreds of people from the African Independent Churches worship here because they ‘feel close to God’. The environment has a very positive effect on the worshippers. On Sundays the hills are alive with the sound of singing and drumbeats. The number of worshippers could impact severely on the environment but for the Rules of Conduct, drawn up by the Melville Koppies Management Committee and the Association of African Independent Churches. Melville Koppies East  is on the doorstep of Melville. Walkers and their socialized dogs are privileged to use this small 10 ha reserve of public open space. One regular walker remarked, ‘I just have to come up here every day to preserve my peace and sanity’. There is no evidence of human impact on this section except for the meandering paths, but the impact of the environment on us is very calming. It is a good place to de-stress. The fit, or hoping-to-get-fit brigade, also enjoy the challenge of a hike in a beautiful environment. Melville Koppies Central  is a 50 ha section with controlled access. This is the ultimate outdoor classroom, where a wide range of guided tours, field work and research takes place. These tours help to educate people about our natural environment so that they understand it and appreciate it more. After a general guided tour on a Sunday, visitors never look at a ‘piece of veld’in the same way again. The views and the wide open space of rolling soft grasses are always a wow factor, even for unfazed teenage mall-rats who appear to be impervious to anything in their environment, except the opposite sex. People with a particular interest such as flowers, trees, fungi, geology or birds are enthralled at the richness that the koppies offer on such specialist tours. On school tours, there are challenges that many city kids have never faced such as scrambling up rocks, tramping through grass ‘as high as an elephant’s eye’, observing sweeping vistas from giddying vantage points, balancing on rocks in the clean burbling spruit, winding through a deep forest and then ‘vasbyt’on the long uphill trek back to the starting point.  These comments by visiting children speak volumes. ‘I can see the whole world from here!’‘No man, it’s just South Africa.’‘I wish I could come here every day.’‘This place brings back the fondest memories!’ (From a six year-old on a repeat visit.)‘Dis hoekom hulle sit so mooi!’(On hearing that the rocks are 3 billion years old.)‘The riva was the best for me. I likked it’( sic  . A written comment from a grade 1 pupil.)‘I made the walk!’Bosman summed up our need for a beautiful natural environment in these words, ‘The nature of man is that his feet should stand one on the veld and one on the street.’( The earth is waiting .) *In an article on the Africana Museum, Johannesburg. ABOVE:  Second-year University of Johannesburg Visual Arts student, Chantel Marais, with her interpretation of a project on the impact/integration of landscapes and land-usage set by senior lecturer, David Paton. Three levels are illustrated: the detritus of humanity in the foreground; ethereal Melville Koppies in the centre and the iconic Hillbrow Tower of the Johannesburg CBD on the horizon. The students spent a morning at Melville Koppies sketching landscapes in preparation for the project. Photo: Wendy Carstens. OPPOSITE PAGE: ‘I wish I could come here every day.’   A group of children winding their way through the forest at Melville Koppies. Photo: Wendy Carstens. GET CONNECTED Wendy Carstens can be contacted at or on the website or on Facebook at READING Bosman, Herman Charles. 1974. The earth is waiting . Human & Rousseau, Pretoria. Carstens, Wendy. 2011. Before the spring rains: A walk in the grassland flora of Melville Koppies. Veld & Flora  97(2), 64-67.  VELD&FLORA | JUNE 2012 78 JUNE 2012 |  VELD&FLORA 79
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