Blown away by Mapungubwe

23 September 2004

South Africa’s first kingdom, Mapungubwe in Limpopo province, dating back 800 years and situated in a game reserve, opens to the public from 24 September 2004.

The newly launched Mapungubwe National Park borders on the Limpopo river and offers spectacular views of the river and South Africa’s neighbours, Botswana and Zimbabwe, at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers.

The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2003, bringing to five the number of South African sites that have been awarded World Heritage status (there are now six – see box down right).

Mapungubwe and Makapane’s Valley, also in Limpopo province (see box down right), were declared National Heritage Sites by the SA Heritage Resources Agency in 2001 – the first two sites to be declared under the 1999 National Heritage Resources Act, which replaced the old National Monuments Act.

This was a long-awaited trip for me, to explore Mapungubwe mountain and the culture of a lost kingdom dating back to the 1200s – rediscovered in 1933, but hidden from public attention until only recently.

Mapungubwe National Park
SA’s newest park covers 28 000 hectares at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, boasts incredible natural and cultural riches, and forms part of an ambitious project to develop a transfrontier conservation area spanning three countries.

Mapungubwe was the first society in South Africa in which class distinctions appeared, with the king physically separating himself from his subjects by living with his royal entourage on the mountaintop, to which his subjects brought food and water daily.

I knew the basics: that Mapungubwe (“place of the stone of wisdom”) dated back to pre-colonial times; that they were the first people, after the Bushmen, to settle in South Africa; that they lived around a hilltop; and that a beautiful golden rhinoceros, some 12cm in length and 6cm in height and made of gold foil nailed around a wooden interior, had been excavated from the site.

What I didn’t know was how awe-inspiring the area around Mapungubwe would be.

A giant’s land
It resembles a giant’s land – huge boulders strewn below rocky koppies and cliff faces, with wild fig trees literally growing out of the rocks, their roots clinging to the rock faces.

The surrounding vegetation is mostly grassland, interspersed with huge indigenous trees – among them the wonderful baobab, some of them probably thousands of years old. Closer to the river the vegetation thickens and develops into lush green forest entangled with creepers and shrubs.

Mapungubwe itself is stunning. A small, free-standing, oval-shaped mountain 30 metres high with rugged, impregnable cliff faces all around it. On top it’s largely a flat grassy plain around 300m in length, interspersed with large rocky surfaces and giving spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, with the Limpopo glistening in the northern distance.

The broader area around Mapungubwe had been occupied for several hundred years before people settled on the mountain. An area east of Mapungubwe, called Schroda, was believed to have been settled around 800 AD. When that was abandoned, the community moved to a hill about a kilometre south-west of Mapungubwe, now called K2, where they set up homesteads between 1000 and 1200 AD.

K2 was also abandoned, and Mapungubwe taken over, in about 1220, the king establishing himself on the top of the mountain with up to 5 000 subjects on the plains around him.

They grew sorghum and millet and cotton, as excavations of storage huts reveal, herded cattle, goats and sheep, and kept dogs. A tributary of the Limpopo, now dry, ran through the valley, providing water for the community.

‘If the king was ill, the land was ill’
It was a sophisticated society. They produced beautiful clay pots, decorated around the rim, of different shapes and sizes. Other items have been excavated: wooden spoons, whistles, funnels, and spindle whorls with which to spin the cotton they grew.

They had access to gold, now believed to have been panned from the Shashe River, which runs through gold mining areas further north in Zimbabwe, and perhaps mined from further south in Gauteng. They mined and worked iron obtained in the area.

Arab, Chinese and Indian traders, travelling from Sofala in Mozambique, reached this far, bringing with them glass beads and cowrie and mussel shells to exchange for ivory and gold.

There are two significant elements to Mapungubwe society, according to Alex Schoeman, research officer in archaeology at Wits University: it was not cattle-centred but rather focused around the king, who was never seen by his subjects living on the plains around the mountain.

“If the king was ill, the land was ill”, Schoeman says. The king’s grave has yet to be found, and could be hidden in any one of the surrounding hilltops or small caves.

Secondly, trade was the basis of Mapungubwe’s economy, like any modern economy.

Giving reasons for adding Mapungubwe to its World Heritage List, Unesco said the establishment of Mapungubwe “as a powerful state trading through the East African ports with Arabia and India was a significant stage in the history of the African sub-continent.”

Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe
To this Unesco added: “The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape contains evidence for an important interchange of human values that led to far-reaching cultural and social changes in southern Africa between AD 900 and 1300.

“The remains in the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape are a remarkably complete testimony to the growth and subsequent decline of the Mapungubwe state, which at its height was the largest kingdom in the African sub-continent.”

Theories abound as to why, around 1290 AD, Mapungubwe was abandoned.

Contrary to earlier theories invoking climate change, it is now believed that a change in trade routes led to a shift in trade to Great Zimbabwe – another advanced society, located in the south-west of Zimbabwe and distinguished by great rock walls that still stand after seven centuries, despite no form of cement being used to bind them.

According to Schoeman, the Great Zimbabwe settlement was in existence at the same time as Mapungubwe, begun around 1250, but was not related to the Mapungubwe people, differences in their pottery being taken as evidence of this.

However, Schoeman adds, it’s likely that some royals from Mapungubwe moved to Great Zimbabwe, even though the Zimbabweans were Shona people while the South Africans were not – their ethnic group is still being debated.

But whereas Mapungubwe came to an end at about 1290, Great Zimbabwe continued to thrive until around 1400, with a population of about 20 000. It’s believed this settlement disintegrated when the Portuguese colonised Mozambique and trade routes changed again.

What Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe both prove is that complex societies existed in southern Africa long before the Europeans arrived at the Cape in 1652. And, unlike existing beliefs that Mapungubwe was the predecessor of Great Zimbabwe, that the two settlements existed concurrently.

The golden rhinoceros
Three significant gold items were found at Mapungubwe: the rhino, with exquisitely formed ears, horn and delightful upright tail (found in fragmented form and restored by the British Museum); the top of a sceptre around 15cm in length; and a golden bowl, about 10cm in diameter.

All consisted of neatly tacked gold foil around the core wooden item, and these were found in what is believed to be one of three royal graves on the top of Mapungubwe.

The queen had several strings of gold bead necklaces around her neck, and gold bracelets around her wrist. In fact, the first explorer to reach the top saw her skeletal hand sticking out of the ground, the soil having been washed away, with the bracelets still in place.

In all, 18 000 tiny gold beads were uncovered, and up to 40 000 glass beads. There are several bowls of these beads in the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria.

That’s where you can see the famous rhino. I couldn’t stop staring at it – the thought that this was sculpted by a craftsman 800 years ago, yet still retains its simple form and natural beauty, is thrilling. It’s South Africa’s miniature version of Tutankhamun’s treasure.

Mapungubwe’s mountaintop also gives clues to day-to-day life in the society. There’s a protective rock wall at the top of a stairway up the mountain – now a sturdy wooden ladder; then a series of interlaced branches worked into holes carved into the rock face.

There’s also a series of small paired holes, chiselled out of a rock alongside the wall on top, for morabaraba, a chess-like contest played with maroela pips to represent cattle – a game still played today.

There are other markings in the rock surface: half-circles indicating the base of huts, larger holes for hut poles, and flat-bottomed shapes in which maize was ground. There’s also a large bath-shaped indentation of around four metres across, used to store water – and for the royals’ bath times.

Across the valley at K2 a large midden was found, and pottery, clay objects and beads have been excavated.

Hidden existence?
According to Schoeman, there was not a conscious effort to hide the existence of Mapungubwe, or the fact of its being the first kingdom in South Africa, an accusation that has been laid against the apartheid government.

The University of Pretoria has been excavating the broader site for decades, but before that time, particularly in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, excavation by individual archaeologists was rather messy, with excavators only examining every third or fourth bucket of soil that came up from the diggings, and discarding the others.

“So much was trashed then, we lost so much data”, Schoeman says. The sites had to be stabilised, and it was only in the last decade that some order was established.

In the 1980s the University of Pretoria indicated the nature of the findings, although it did not publicise them widely, says Schoeman.

“There was some self-censorship from Pretoria”, she says, “but this was not state censorship.”



Using SAinfo material Want to use this article in your publication or on your website?
See: Using SAinfo material