Other articles in this issue

What happened to music?

Sanlam and NBC rock Katutura

Challenges for the Peer Review Mechanism

Agra's excellent financial results

The Pope versus the Holy Prophet of Islam

Earliest evidence of human habitation in Windhoek

Weaknesses of African States

Samora Machel: Who was behind his demise?

R.I.P - John "Culture" Hill

Janjaweed Attacks

The Destiny of an African Wife


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Namibian prehistory: Earliest evidence of human habitation in the heart of the capital city Windhoek revisited

The Zoo Park is a focal point of social life in Windhoek. Residents and visitors alike enjoy relaxing times in the park usually unaware of its prehistoric legacy and historical development. There is very little material culture that tells the story of the park and yet archives abound with references to its interesting history. How much do the people who use the park for various activities such as music festivals or simply relaxing, know about its past? When did humans begin to live in the area that we now know as Windhoek? Is it correct for instance that Windhoek was founded by Curt von Francois?

This article visits the Zoo Park in prehistoric period and brings into the public sphere information that otherwise is locked up in scientific papers, archives and relics. Being such a focal point the Zoo Park is well positioned as a space where public memory revolves. In such a case history, memory, tradition and the public come together to create a collective reminder of the past. The measure of good history is in its contemporary usefulness. In other words people should construct the usefulness of history in their present. There must be a sense in which history comes alive in the minds of people when they encounter large and silent artefacts such as parks.

Visitors to the Zoo Park, for instance, should be able to access the public memory that the park represents. This is possible if the city fathers/ mothers take into account the rich history that the Zoo Park represents and offer that to the residents and visitors alike. The area that we now know as Windhoek today was inhabited from time immemorial. Archaeological remains of an elephant kill that took place close to 5000 years ago in the Zoo Park attest to a long legacy of occupation by indigenous people.

It is known that as recent as 1842 close to 2000 Oorlams lived in Windhoek under their leader Jonker Afrikaner. They interacted in many ways with the indigenous Damara, Herero and Nama people found in and around Windhoek. Jonker Afrikaner gave the settlement its name which was then spelt as Winterhoek. Some people argue that the present name, Windhoek, which came into use in 1940 means ‘windy corner’ while others claim that Jonker Afrikaner named it Winterhoek after the place where his forefathers originated from in South Africa.

When Curt von François arrived and decided to set up the modern town of Windhoek he found the Oorlams already there. The assertion that he is the founder of Windhoek is yet another myth in the history of the city. Today von François is celebrated with a prominent statue in front of the Windhoek City Council building while Jonker Afrikaner is remembered through a road in Ausspanplatz. One of the problems of African history is that it “never” existed.

Scholars argue that the distinction between history and prehistory is that the historical period is the era in which the written record exists. Such a definition relegates a better chunk of African history (including the case of the history of Windhoek) to non-history, therefore not worthy of preservation or even presentation to the public.

In the case of the Zoo Park the archaeological relics indicate a longer history of the place and unfortunately such an interesting part of pre-colonial history of Windhoek escaped the public memory because it is not well exposed. Remains of three elephants were found in the Zoo Park gardens during some landscaping work in September 1961.

In addition to the elephant bones some quartz stone tools such as monumento the discovery of the elephant bones at the zoo park in windhoekhammer stones and choppers were also discovered. The close association of the bones and the stone tolls indicate that this was a kill site. We learn from the discovery that the Zoo Park was once well watered. Possibly the elephants that were hunted by the pre-colonial people had come to drink from some of the several natural fountains that characterised pre-colonial Windhoek.

The archaeologist who excavated the site, Dr. Sydow, observed at the time that the dark-grey humus soil in which the elephant remains were found could have been a swampy waterhole where it got stuck and was killed. The peaty soil in which the remains were found is also an indication that the area used to be marshy or even thickly overgrown. Today one cannot see the spring water flowing freely in the Zoo Park because like other springs (hot and cold) for which Windhoek was popular, the water is now pumped for the town supply. The stone tools suggest that the elephants were cut up on the site and the meat carried away. Radio carbon dates published by H.R. MacCalman indicate that the butchery of the elephants happened approximately 5000 years ago. This makes the Zoo Park elephant kill one the oldest activities that were carried out in our modern day city centre.

It shows that the habitation of the area is historically long. Most importantly it makes one wonder if not having written history mean the absence of history? How much more happened that was not recorded because the society was not yet literate? The city of Windhoek is characterised by monuments of the colonial period. Such monuments are imposing and prominent such that one cannot miss them. However many people pass by the Zoo Park and do not even recognise the area where this prehistoric happening took place. It is marked, yes, but the Schultztruppe Memorial and the Chinese Pavilion are more prominent and beckoning.

Maybe the City council can bring back the legacy of prehistoric existence by displaying information about the elephant kill? Maybe it is time to create a public memory of pre-colonial existence? The long and often neglected memory of the Zoo Park can be retrieved and made public. This can lead to an edifying cultural experience. In any case it certainly is time for African History to claim its place in an African capital.

Fast facts about Zoo Park (Sources: Stein and Lau 1989, The Namibian, August 2006)

1897:The first monument (Schultztruppe Memorial) is erected in Windhoek. It honours the German soldiers who died in the war against Hendrick Witbooi.

1904: The Park was known as the Truppengarten or the Denkmalsgarten from about

May 1911: The Park was transferred by then government to the Windhoek Town Council

August 1916: The Town Council applied to the South African Occupation forces for permission to establish a zoo in the park

October 1916: Café Zoo opened

By 1930: The zoo flourished with among other animals leopard, duiker, porcupine, jackal, guinea fowl, Kudu, ostrich present.

1956: The park was reduced in size to accommodate the widening of the then Kaiser Street (Independence Ave) and the straightening Peter Müller street (Fidel Castro STR). Peter Müller Street is reported to have run through the park.

1960-1963: New lay out of the park is carried out

prehistoric remains1961: Remains of an elephant kill are discovered during the construction of a new play area for kids. They date to between 5000 and 20 000 years old.

24 April 1963: the new garden is opened 1966: The Café Zoo was demolished

May 1967: Zoo garden is renamed Dr. Verwoerd Park 22 February 1989: Council renamed the park Zoo Park

Ca.2000: Chinese Pavilion is constructed

2 May 2000: Construction of the New Café Zoo commences

August 2006: in a new debate on the name of the park Marcus Garvey Park is suggested by a civil group called Africawise Namibia

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