In a vast crater near the South African farming community of Vredefort, a team of scientists are hard at work studying the ruptured landscape. But as they learn more about the impact that forged this otherworldly scene, they notice something strange in the ancient rock. Left behind by ancient humans, it’s a discovery that has shed new light on this fascinating part of the world.
Specialists have known about the ancient secrets hidden within the narrow dykes of the Vredefort Crater for a number of years. However, the wider world has remained unaware until now. Slowly, an international team of experts are revealing the truth about the incredible landscape that stretches almost 200 miles across South Africa. And it has to be seen to be believed.
Billions of years ago, a meteorite struck what is now known as South Africa’s Free State province. Today, researchers are studying its impact crater to learn more about life on planet Earth. But alongside their geological discoveries, they’ve gained some valuable insights into the early humans who inhabited this part of the world.
The story of the Vredefort Crater began in the Paleoproterozoic Era – long before even dinosaurs had appeared on Earth. In fact, it was a time when the first multicellular organisms had only just began to emerge. And as life on our planet continued to develop and change, so too did the face of the continents themselves.
As the landmasses of the Earth shifted, the continents that we know today started to take shape. However, there was another factor that affected how the landscapes of our planet formed. Over the course of billions of years, meteorites would occasionally break through the atmosphere – crashing into the ground at great speed.
Some 300 million years before the Vredefort Crater was formed, for example, a meteorite struck the Earth in what is now the Republic of Karelia in northwest Russia. And even today, almost 2.5 billion years later, a ten-mile impression can still be seen at the spot where it landed. In fact, it is also the oldest known impact crater in the world.
Located thousands of miles away in present-day South Africa, the Vredefort Crater comes a close second. But while it might not be quite as old as its Russian counterpart, it is far bigger. Incredibly, it stretched for over 190 miles when it first appeared in the aftermath of a meteorite strike more than two billion years ago.
Over the years, however, erosion has worn down the edges of the Vredefort Crater. And according to the University of the Witwatersrand’s Roger Gibson, it is now difficult to estimate the formation’s actual size. He told NASA in 2018, “If you consider that the original impact crater was a shallow bowl like you would serve food in, and you were able to slice horizontally through the bowl progressively, you would see that the bowl’s diameter will decrease with each slice you take off.”
According to experts, the crater formed when a meteorite believed to measure more than nine miles across came hurtling through the atmosphere. And when it struck, it created an impact so powerful that it flipped up an entire 15-mile section of the Earth’s crust. Within this exposed section, it seems, there were layers of different rock – resulting in uneven erosion across the formation.
Over time, this process left behind a complex pattern of rings and ripples that can only be seen from above. Meanwhile, on the ground, the last visible part of the crater that remains is a circle of hills known as the Vredefort Dome. Stretching for some 43 miles across, they represent just a small fraction of the total impact site.
Interestingly, despite the erosion that has occurred at the Vredefort Crater, the site is still considered the largest meteorite impact site in the world. And that’s not all; according to UNESCO, it is also the legacy of the single most powerful energy release ever to occur on our planet. Apparently, after the collision, the Earth would never be the same.
As the fires of the Vredefort meteor strike subsided, experts believe, its effects were felt across the globe. The organization added that they ended up being substantial enough to alter the very evolution of life on Earth. As such, the site of the crater is invaluable to scientists wishing to understand more about how our planet has developed over the years.
In 2005 UNESCO officially acknowledged the Vredefort Crater as a World Heritage Site. And now, it’s hoped that the formation can be preserved for future generations to study and enjoy. Meanwhile, the region regularly plays hosts to teams of researchers keen to learn more about the unique location.
According to economic geology lecturer Dr. Matthew Huber from the University of the Free State, the crater has been known to the scientific community for around 100 years. But it was only in the 1960s that experts realized that it was the result of a meteorite strike. Since then, geologists have been busy conducting a number of investigations in the region.
In August 2019 a study appeared in the scientific journal Geology – penned by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from across the globe. Among them were experts from Huber’s institution, as well as academics from Russia’s Zavaritsky Institute of Geology and the University of Vienna. And together, they conducted some fascinating research into the story of the Vredefort Crater.
In the paper, the team focused on a series of strange rock formations within the crater known as the Granophyre Dykes. But while geologists were busy studying the ancient impact site, they made another, far stranger, discovery. Apparently, it wasn’t just modern man who had developed a fascination with the deformed landscape.
In a section of the Vredefort Crater known as the Rain Snake dyke, researchers discovered a series of animal carvings believed to date back thousands of years. According to Huber, the artworks were first spotted by geologists working at the impact site. However, it would be some time before the find would come to the attention of the wider world.
Huber told Fox News in June 2019, “The carvings are relatively well known within the planetary science community, and certainly by all of the geologists who have studied Vredefort in detail…” But despite being familiar to those who have investigated the site, the artworks had never been officially recorded in the local archaeological registry.
“Once we learned that the archaeological and anthropological communities did not know about the site, we immediately began to seek out assistance in studying these features further,” Huber explained. And soon, experts were able to establish that the carvings date back some 8,000 years to the end of the Late Stone Age.
Around this time, the ancestors of South Africa’s indigenous population – known as the Khoisan – inhabited much of the region. Historically, this term has been used to refer generally to the hunter gatherer and forager tribes native to this part of the world – rather than any particular ethnic group. And during the Late Stone Age, these people thrived across the southern and eastern parts of the continent.
By the time that European colonists arrived in the 17th century, however, the indigenous Khoisan population had declined. Over the years, Bantu-speaking tribes migrating from the Congo basin had pushed them further and further into the Kalahari desert. And ultimately, the newcomers became the dominant people of the region.
But displacement wasn’t the only problem that South Africa’s Khoisan faced. After the arrival of Dutch settlers, the region was struck by deadly smallpox and their population plummeted even further. To add insult to injury, the Europeans seized the indigenous people’s land – causing their ancient society to ultimately break down.
Today, the Khoisan population is estimated to be around 100,000, according to a study by professor Stephan C. Schuster from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. However, most of these people have long since left the region of the Vredefort Crater, where just a handful of towns house a community dependent on tourism and agriculture. But according to experts, these carvings prove that the region was once an important site.
According to Huber, the area surrounding the Granophyre dykes is brimming with artifacts associated with the Khoisan people. He told Fox News, “Obviously, they also recognized the significance of the site.” Interestingly, it appears that the region’s indigenous inhabitants zeroed in on the same parts of the crater as modern geologists.
“What is amazing is that the same dykes that we recognize to have the most geological significance also had the most spiritual significance for these early inhabitants,” Huber explained. In fact, experts believe that the Rain Snake dyke, true to its name, was once used in rituals to encourage showers from above.
According to researchers, the carvings at the site span a period of some 7,500 years. And while the oldest designs were carved into the rock as many as eight millennia ago, others may have been made as recently as the 16th century. Moreover, some of the designs have apparently been added to over the years.
The carvings appear to be of animals native to South Africa – such as a hippopotamus, an antelope and a rhinoceros. Though they also seem to depict a horse – a creature that did not arrive in South Africa until the 17th century. Nevertheless, the artwork at the Vredefort Crater likely represents a diverse cross-section of Khoisan life over the years.
“The art styles changed through time, and some carvings have been altered (i.e. changing the head of an animal to a different animal),” Huber told Fox News. “However, what remains constant at the site is the connection to rain making.” Soon, the researchers had embarked on an anthropological study in order to learn more about the people who once lived in the Vredefort Crater.
“The dyke was almost certainly used as a rain-making site, and we know this because of the petroglyphs that are there,” Huber continued. The Khoisan people may have apparently been drawn to the narrow rock formation due to its physical similarity to a serpent. That’s because according to their customs, the figure of the so-called Rain Snake was a powerful deity.
Simply put, the world is split into three tiers in the Khoisan religion. While gods and spirits occupy the uppermost tier, they believe, the middle region is where we experience the material world. Meanwhile, the realm of shamans and the dead can be found on the lower level of the pile.
The Khoisan religion also holds that snakes are able to manifest on each tier of the universe. Moreover, according to some stories, deities sometimes took on the appearance of serpentine creatures. And in a report from the Vredefort Crater site, two archaeologists summarized one native myth.
“Kaggen, upmost deity of the IXam, could transform himself into a snake,” Jens Kriek and Shiona Moodley wrote in their report. “In this form he had the power to flood the countryside.” Interestingly, the pair also highlighted the links between serpents and the shamanic rituals prevalent within Khoisan culture.
“If a man wished to become a shaman, he had to plunge into a deep pool and come out with a large snake,” Kriek and Moodley reported. “If the snake did not struggle as he came out, he was destined to become a shaman. He then had to kill it and perform a public dance with the skin tied around his forehead – the rest of the snake’s body streaming behind him.”
Most significant in relation to the carvings found at the Vredefort Crater, however, is the fact that the Khoisan associated the snake with rain. Huber believes that all of the creatures etched into the walls of the dyke were connected with the rain-making beliefs of the indigenous inhabitants. And interestingly, that isn’t the only link.
According to Huber, the part of the crater where the carvings were found is located at the summit of a hill. Moreover, a significant body of water, the Vaal river, passes close by. And if that wasn’t enough, the lecturer also suspects that the surrounding landscape may have attracted lightning strikes back when the Khoisan inhabited the land.
“The location of the dyke on top of a hill, near a body of water, and in the shape of an important deity probably brought [the Khoisan] there so that they could perform rainmaking rituals, and possibly other important cultural activities,” Huber told the Archaeology News Network in 2019. Moving forwards, the team hopes that they can learn even more about the role that the impact crater had on Khoisan society.
Sometimes stretching for as many as six miles but measuring no more than 16 feet wide, the Granophyre dykes certainly seem to have a snake-like appearance. However, exactly how they formed remains a mystery even today. And while scientists know that they were created by the meteorite strike, they are unsure exactly how the molten material made its way to the surface.
Now, Huber and a team of experts are preparing to return to the Vredefort Crater. The lecturer told Newsweek in 2019, “We will be generating lots of data on the dykes as well as the carvings. This will include making a 3D model of the dykes, and we will be making reference points for all of the locations of the carvings that we locate.”
As well as continuing their research, the team plans to explore unchartered areas of the Vredefort Crater in the hope that more incredible discoveries might be lying in wait. Huber told Fox News, “In addition to this, we will also be visiting some new sites that we have never been to before, and we don’t know what we will discover.”
However, the work is not just about uncovering relics of the ancient Khoisan culture. And as Huber explained to the Archaeology News Network, it’s an important endeavor that could have significant implications. He said, “As impact events can potentially represent a threat to life with the ability to alter the development of entire planets, it is critical that we develop a better understanding of their theory, mechanisms and consequences.” The lecturer concluded, “By studying the traces of impact events on Earth, we can reconstruct the mechanisms of such processes, and gain greater understanding of our own ecosystem and origin.”