The Tankwa Karoo

The Tankwa Karoo is one of the most arid parts of South Africa but hosts some of the highest biodiversity in the world. The origins and meaning of the word ‘Tankwa’ are uncertain but it might derive from a Khoi term meaning ‘turbid water’, ‘place of the Sonqua’ (the indigenous people who lived in southern Africa before European colonisation) or ‘thirstland’. The word ‘Karoo’ may similarly come from a Khoi word ‘garo’ meaning desert.

The magic of the desert is hard to define. Why does the sight of a landscape of empty sand, rocks, slab and rubble stir the spirits more than a view of lush green fields and woods? Why does the lifeless play of light, colour and distance have such an invigorating, fascinating and elating effect? Perhaps because no limitations are imposed by other forms of life; perhaps because the mind of the beholder is presented with a fata morgana of unlimited freedom. And on such far horizons the outline of a mountain draws the eye like an island in the endless ocean.

― Henno Martin, 1956, The Sheltering Desert

The Karoo can refer to a geological region, defined by Karoo Supergroup geology, or an ecological zone, the Succulent Karoo Biome. It encompasses the interior plateau of South Africa, the Great Escarpment, and is surrounded by central lowlands. The Karoo is renowned for its desert climate, unique plant life, and its distinctive landscape of flat-topped hills rising out of empty plains. The Karoo is divided into a number of sub-regions each with its own geography and environment – the Great Karoo, the Small (Klein) Karoo, and the lesser-known Tankwa Karoo.

The Tankwa Karoo basin (32.392 S, 19.791 E). Source: Google Earth, Landsat/Copernicus

The Tankwa Karoo is a small basin marking the south-western extent of the Karoo. It is bounded by mountains: the Cederberg to the west, Roggeveld to the east, Koubokkeveld to the north and Koedoesberge and Klein Roggeveld to the south. The effect of these mountains on incoming air masses gives it a particular climate with desert temperature extremes of hot days and cold nights and very low rainfall – less than 75 mm a year, falling mostly in the winter.

Follow the links below to find out more about the geological and ecological conditions which create the unique Tankwa Karoo environment.

The next section explores the site of Tweefontein in more detail. The artefacts made using Nubian technology at Tweefontein are a central research focus for the TANKwA project.

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