Mapungubwe – “place of the stone wisdom” – was South Africa’s first kingdom, and developed into the subcontinent’s largest realm, lasting for 400 years before it was abandoned in the 14th century. Its highly sophisticated people traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt.
What survives are the remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivalled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years.
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. Evidence is contained here 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 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. The remains in the Mapungubwe cultural landscape graphically illustrate the impact of climate change and record the growth and then decline of the kingdom of Mapungubwe as a clear record of a culture that became vulnerable to irreversible change.
A free-standing structure rising 30 metres above the surrounding grasslands, Mapungubwe is topped by impregnable cliffs all around. Since its discovery in 1932, this Iron Age site has been excavated by the University of Pretoria.
However, the findings were kept fro public attention until 1993, just prior to South Africa’s first democratic elections, because evidence of a highly advanced indigenous society existing centuries before European colonialism across Africa ran contrary to the racist ideology of apartheid.
Nevertheless, the university now has a rich collection of artefacts made of gold and other materials, as well as human remains, discovered there. Also revealed was a court sheltered in a natural amphitheatre at the bottom of the hill, and an elite graveyard at the top – with a spectacular view of the region. Twenty-three graves have been excavated from the site.
The bodies in three of the graves were buried in the upright seated position associated with royalty, with a variety of gold and copper items, exotic glass beads, and other prestigious objects. These finds provide evidence not only of the early smithing of gold in South Africa, but of the extensive wealth and social differentiation of the people of Mapungubwe.
The most spectacular of the gold discoveries is a little gold rhinoceros, made of gold foil and tacked with minute pins around a wooden core. The rhino, featured in one of South Africa’s new national orders – the Order of Mapungubwe – has come to symbolise the high culture of Mapungubwe. The rhino is also a symbol of leadership among the Shona people of Zimbabwe.
Other artefacts made in similar fashion include the Golden Sceptre and the Golden Bowl, found in the same grave on Mapungubwe Hill.
In the village neighbouring Mapungubwe, called K2, an ancient refuse site has provided archaeologists with plenty of information about the lifestyles of the people of Mapungubwe.
Mapungubwe National Park:
Most of Africa’s big game still occurs in the area and the bird, reptile, invertebrate and plant diversity is still rich. While the park currently has limited facilities, visitors to the area can make use of privately run facilities. The highlight of the park is the Mapungubwe Archaeological Site. This location was a precursor to Great Zimbabwe and Thulamela. It was also the location where the Gold Rhino and many other artefacts were uncovered.