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The Kingdom of Mapungubwe – Africa’s Ancient Civilization
The Kingdom of Mapungubwe – Africa’s Ancient Civilization

By - Victoria Akindele

Posted - 19-07-2019

The ancient city of Mapungubwe is an Iron Age archaeological site in the Limpopo Province on the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. It is an open, expansive savannah landscape at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. .
Mapungubwe was declared a World Heritage Site in July 2003, as a recognition of its value as an archaeological site that provides insight into humanity’s past.

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Mapungubwe, whose name means either ‘stone monuments’ in reference to the large stone houses and walls of the site or ‘hill of the jackals’, prospered due to the savannah’s suitability for cattle herding and its access to copper and ivory which permitted long-distance trade and brought gold and other exotic goods to the ruling elite. The area that has been studied by archaeologists is made up of 3 parts called K2 or Bambandyanalo, Mapungubwe Hill or MK, and the Southern Terrace or MST.

The first settlers of Mapungubwe were early Iron Age settlers. They lived there from about 1000 AD to 1300 AD and around 1500 Iron Age, subsistence farming also settled there. Their existence is confirmed by the discovery by archeologist of a few potsherds identified as early Iron Age pottery since they manufactured their own pottery and metal tools.

The inhabitants of Mapungubwe were Bantu-speaking peoples who were pastoralists like the people of Thulamela and the ancestors of the Shona people of southern Africa.

Like the societies of Thulamela and Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe was structured along social classes. This may be seen from the location of people’s houses separating leaders and commoners. The elite lived at the top of Mapungubwe and their followers stayed at the bottom of the hill and in the surrounding area. A garbage site close to K2, where commoners lived, indicates that rich and poor ate very different foods.

Funeral traditions were also different. The rich had a graveyard at the top of the hill with a beautiful view of the region. Some of the skeletons found in this cemetery showed that the people were buried upright, in a sitting position, indicating they were royalty. They were also buried with gold and copper ornaments and glass beads, showing the people of Mapungubwe were skilled in working with gold.

The people of Mapungubwe were wealthy and farmed with cattle, sheep and goats, and also kept dogs. They produced large harvests that allowed them to trade and store extra food. Archaeologists found traces of millet, sorghum and cotton in the remains of storage huts. The total population of Mapungubwe at its peak in the mid-thirteenth century CE was around 5,000 people.

Riches also came from ivory, gold and the rich farmland caused by the flooding of the area. From about 1220 to 1300, Mapungubwe was an advanced trading centre and its inhabitants traded with Arabia, China and India through the East African harbours. Farm animals supplied meat and hides, but they also hunted, snared and gathered other food.

The city could trade because it was so close to the Limpopo River, which connected it with the coast. They exchanged salt, cattle, fish, gold and iron, ivory, wood, freshwater snail and mussel shells while chert and ostrich eggshell beads were used for glass beads and cloth.

Mapungubwe had not only become a greater state in Southern Africa, but it also contributed to international trade. It was dealing with super power and civilized traders of the Asian continent. At the beginning of globalisation, Mapungubwe was part of those states that were in the forefront. The presence of glass beads, almost certainly from India, and fragments of Chinese celadon vessels indicate there was certainly trade of some sort with other states on the coast who, in turn, traded with merchants travelling from India and Arabia by sea.

Mapungubwe is also the earliest known site in southern Africa where evidence of a class-based society existed. This means that the leaders were separated from the commoners which is an evidence of the existence of an African civilization that flourished before colonization. The discovery of the site in 1932 provided evidence contrary to the ideology of black inferiority supported by Apartheid, and as such it was kept quiet. Since then, the site has been excavated by the University of Pretoria and today they have discovered a large collection of artefacts, as well as human remains, at Mapungubwe.

The most spectacular of all the discoveries found at the site is a small, golden rhinoceros, made of gold foil with a wooden core. Mapungubwe Hill and K2 were declared national monuments in the 1980s by the government and Mapungubwe was added to the South African grade six curriculum in 2003.

The desertion of Mapungubwe has no single explanation but some archaeologists suggests that the kingdom began to decline in the 1100’s because the climate changed. The weather became colder and drier and reduced the grazing land making cattle farming difficult. Others think there was overpopulation putting too much stress on local resources, a situation that may have been brought to a crisis point by a series of droughts and a change in trade routes. Mapungubwe relied on trade and any blow to this activity would have forced people to move away. All of which in turn, led to migrations further north, towards Zimbabwe.

When Europeans ‘discovered’ the ruins of Mapungubwe in the 19th century CE, just as with those at Great Zimbabwe, they could not believe such impressive structures were built by black Africans. Theories abounded to somehow explain their presence and confirm racist European beliefs such as attributing them to the ancient Egyptians or Phoenicians. Archaeology, however, has since proved both sites were indeed built by indigenous peoples in the medieval period.

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Many of the artefacts from Mapungubwe can be seen today at the University of Pretoria Museums, South Africa, while the site itself is protected as part of Mapungubwe National Park, which is a part of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area.


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