Mapungubwe – South Africa’s Lost City of Gold

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Mapungubwe photo

Mapungubwe’s famous gold foil rhinoceros

One thousand years ago, Mapungubwe in South Africa’s Limpopo province was the centre of the largest kingdom in the subcontinent, where a highly sophisticated people traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt.

The Iron Age site, discovered in 1932 during the White apartheid era but hidden from public attention until only recently, was declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in July 2003.

Mapungubwe is an area of open savannah at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers and abutting the northern border of South Africa and the borders of Zimbabwe and Botswana. It thrived as a sophisticated trading centre from around 1220 to 1300.

In its statement on the listing, Unesco describes Mapungubwe as the centre of the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century.

“What survives are the almost untouched 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,” Unesco said.

Mapungubwe was home to an advanced culture of people for the time – the ancestors of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. They traded with China and India, had a flourishing agricultural industry, and grew to a population of around 5000.

Mapungubwe is probably the earliest known site in southern Africa where evidence of a class-based society existed (Mapungubwe’s leaders were separated from the rest of the inhabitants).

Gold, copper, exotic jewelery …

The site was discovered in 1932 and has been excavated by the University of Pretoria ever since. The findings were kept quiet at the time since they provided contrary evidence to the racist ideology of Black inferiority underpinning apartheid.

Mapungubwe kingdom photo

The center of the kingdom 

Nevertheless, the university now has a rich collection of artefacts made of gold and other materials, as well as human remains, discovered there. According to the University of Pretoria’s Mapungubwe website, “Subsequent excavations revealed 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 this hilltop site”, the website continues. “The bodies in three of these 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 southern 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.

Evidence of complex social formations

What is so fascinating about Mapungubwe is that it is testimony to the existence of an African civilisation that flourished before colonisation. According to Professor Thomas Huffman of the archaeology department at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mapungubwe represents “the most complex society in southern Africa and is the root of the origins of Zimbabwean culture”.

Between 1200 and 1300 AD, the Mapungubwe region was the centre of trade in southern Africa. Wealth came to the region from ivory and later from gold deposits that were found in Zimbabwe. The area was also agriculturally rich because of large-scale flooding in the area. The wealth in the area led to differences between rich and poor.

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.

According to the University of Pretoria website: “People were prosperous, and kept domesticated cattle, sheep, goats and dogs. The charred remains of storage sheds have also been found, showing that millet, sorghum and cotton were cultivated.

“Findings in the area are typical of the Iron Age. Smiths created objects of iron, copper and gold for practical and decorative purposes – both for local use and for trade. Pottery, wood, ivory, bone, ostrich eggshells, and the shells of snails and freshwater mussels, indicate that many other materials were used and traded with cultures as far away as East Africa, Persia, Egypt, India and China.”

Mapungubwe’s fortune only lasted until about 1300, after which time climate changes, resulting in the area becoming colder and drier, led to migrations further north to Great Zimbabwe.

Mapungubwe National Park

In 2004, South African National Parks (SANParks) opened Mapungubwe National Park, incorporating the Unesco-designated Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape in an area covering well over 28000 hectares.

The park forms part of an ambitious project to develop a major transfrontier conservation area, the Limpopo/Shashe Transfrontier Park, which will cross the borders of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, linking Mapungubwe National Park with Botswana’s Tuli Block and Zimbabwe’s Tuli Safari area.

Besides the rich cultural heritage of Mapungubwe National Park, most of the continent’s big game roam here. There is also a tremendous diversity of plant and animal life.

Sandstone formations, mopane woodlands and unique riverine forest and baobab trees form an astounding scenic backdrop for a rich variety of animal life.

Elephant, giraffe, white rhino, eland, gemsbok and numerous other antelope species occur naturally in the area, while visitors can spot predators like lions, leopards and hyenas, and birders can tick off 400 species, including kori bustard, tropical boubou and pel’s fishing owl.