Kingdom of Mapungubwe, the first state in Southern Africa [12th Century CE]
The ancient city of Mapungubwe (meaning ‘hill of the jackal’) is an Iron Age archaeological site in the Limpopo Province on the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, 75 km from Messina. It sits close to the point where the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers meet.
One thousand years ago, Mapungubwe appears to have been the centre of the largest known kingdom in the African sub-continent.
The civilization thrived as a sophisticated trading center from around 1200 to 1300 AD, trading gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt.
The site was ‘discovered’ on 31 December 1932, when a local informant, Mowena, led E.S.J. van Graan (farmer and prospector), his son and three others, to Greefswald farm on Mapungubwe Hill.
On the hill they noticed stone walls and on closer inspection, they recovered gold and iron artifacts, pottery and glass beads. Van Graan’s son recognized the academic value of the site and contacted the head history department at the University of Pretoria, Professor Leo Fouché. As a result of his intervention, the University negotiated with the owner of the property, E.E. Collins.
In a legal agreement the University took ownership of the gold and other artifacts and secured an option and contract for excavation rights. The University also successfully requested a postponement of prospecting, mining and related activities on Greefswald.
In June 1933, Greefswald was bought by the Government and excavation rights were granted to the University of Pretoria. The University established an Archaeological Committee, which from 1933 to 1947 oversaw research and excavations (read more about the excavations).
The find initially received wide publicity in the media, but soon the archaeological digs and discoveries made by the University were kept fairly secret and were only made public after 1994. Possibly because the discovery provided evidence of a civilization that existed and flourished years before European occupation.
Mapungubwe hill is 300m long, broad at one end, tapering at the other. It is only accessible by means of two very steep and narrow paths that twist their way to the summit, and yet 2 000 tons of soil were been artificially transported to the very top by a prehistoric people of unknown identity.
Archaeological enquiry uncovered the remnants of numerous dwellings, which had been built on the ruins of predecessors over many generations, resulting in a series of habitation phases.
Radiocarbon dates show that the first buildings were erected below the hill at the beginning of the 11th century AD.
But adjacent to Mapungubwe is the sister site of Bambadyanalo, which was settled even earlier. It seems that the centre of the state shifted from Bambandyanalo to Mapungubwe hill in about 1045 AD, when the town most probably became overcrowded.
It was also at about this time that hills and mountains became associated with royalty and the noble classes began to build their structure on high ground.
This is an important observation as it provided evidence of the extensive wealth and social differentiation of the people of Mapungubwe, in other words this ancient civilization was class-based.
The gold findings are also evidence of early gold smelting. A large amount of artifacts from the royal family were discovered at Mapungubwe.
The best known of these objects is the golden rhinoceros. All in all, the amount of gold from this burial amounted to 7 503 ounces.
In the 1400’s it appears that all the citizens of the kingdom left leaving palaces and the settlements behind. We don’t know exactly why the people of Mapungubwe moved away, but the ruins give us a good idea of how these people lived and how their society and political structures grew over the years.
Scholars believe that the climate in the area changed, which made it much harder to grow crops and feed animals, this might have caused the civilization to move.
Greefswald farm remained the property of the State from the 1930s. Management of the farm was taken over by the provincial Department of Nature Conservation in 1992 and control was transferred to SANParks in 1999.
Mapungubwe was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in July 2003.