No one knows when the first corbelled house appeared in the Karoo. It’s easy to see why they did, though.
The landscape in the part of the Karoo where these edifices are found is so rocky that in places it is impossible to plough fields and plant crops. There are almost no trees or other building materials, except rocks, and many of these are flat, making them easy to work with when building. There was, quite literally, little other choice but to use stone to build dwellings.
About 200 corbelled buildings have been recorded in the Karoo by the Vernacular Architecture Society of South Africa (VASSA). They all occur in a small area between the Northern Cape towns of Carnarvon, Williston, Loxton and Fraserberg. There are a few others near Sutherland. Then they disappear from the landscape.
The Karoo’s corbelled houses are built by placing successive layers of flat stone, each layer extending a little further inward than the layer underneath, until the walls eventually meet and you have a structure in the shape of an old-fashioned beehive.
This construction method is ancient, with one of the most famous examples being the Treasury of Atreus, a large corbelled tomb built in Mycenaean Greece, around 1250BCE.
Archaeologists have shown that corbelled buildings have an even longer history – there are examples on Malta dated at 4850BCE.
This is a place of extremes. In summer the almost-black dolerite rocks absorb the sun’s intense heat and reflect it back into the stifling air. In winter icy winds drop temperatures below 0°C. There is little water to be found, until the summer rains come and the region experiences flash floods. Corbelled houses are beautifully insulated, making them cool in summer and warm in winter.
The Karoo’s corbelled houses are all unique, although many are characterised by some of the stones sticking out from the wall, apparently used to climb up the side of the house when the topmost stone needed to be removed to form a chimney hole.
Five of these corbelled structures were declared National Monuments in the 1960s, so they now have the status of Provincial Heritage Sites.
The debate about the origins of this building technique is fascinating. Was it imported by European settlers? Did it develop from existing indigenous building traditions that used circular dwellings, such as the ancient Leghoya people, who lived in the area and built round stone houses, or the Khoisan, who lived in circular matjieshuise made of a wood frame and reed mats? Also, the Sotho constructed temporary small, circular stone dwellings.
Many of these houses were occupied in the 19th century by trekboers (travelling farmers), and these days tourists can even spend a night in one.