Term 1: Kingdoms of southern Africa: Mapungubwe, Thulamela and Great Zimbabwe


Mapungubwe sits in the Limpopo Province of South Africa close to the Zimbabwe and Botswana borders. Source: www.metmuseum.orgMapungubwe sits in the Limpopo Province of South Africa close to the Zimbabwe anMapungubwe sits in the Limpopo Province of South A

Kingdoms of southern Africa: Mapungubwe

This topic provides a brief introductory overview of the settlements in the Limpopo Valley before Mapungubwe, and a brief concluding overview of Great Zimbabwe, which succeeded Mapungubwe as the centre of southern African trade. Mapungubwe is a complex society of a much larger political scale than had been seen before in southern Africa. There were changes in political power, leadership and authority and in organising, managing and maintaining that political power.

This lesson also focuses on Mapungubwe as the first state in Southern Africa in 1220- 1300, as well as the underlying symbolism of various artefacts found at the ancient ruins. Trade practices across Africa and the Indian Ocean is also covered in this lesson.

The topic also includes Marco Polo’s travels, as he was a European explorer in Asia at the same time as Mapungubwe was at the height of its power. This provides a useful comparison of societies across some parts of the world in the same time period.

Focus: The main focus is on Mapungubwe, its internal structure and its trade within Africa and across the Indian Ocean. 

Where is Mapungubwe?
The city of Mapungubwe lies near where the Shase River flows into the Limpopo River, on a farm called Greefswald, in the Central Limpopo River Valley. The area around the city is Savannah bushveld. Malaria and sleeping sickness, caused by mosquitoes and tsetse flies, made it very difficult for the inhabitants of Mapungubwe to farm cattle.
Mapungubwe was declared a World Heritage Site in recognition of its value as an archaeological site that provides insight into humanity's past.
What does Mapungubwe mean?
Mapungubwe means "Hill of the Jackals and has been named MK by archaeologists studying the region. Some parts of the excavation have also been named more than once, like K2, an area close to the hill itself, which is also called Bambandyanalo.
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.
Who lived at Mapungubwe?

The Palace living area at the top of Mapungubwe hill. Photograph by Tom Huffman. Source: www.metmuseum.org

The residents of Mapungubwe were, like the people of Thulamela, the ancestors of the Shona people of southern Africa. The first people in Mapungubwe were early Iron Age settlers. They lived there from about 1000 AD to 1300 AD, and around 1500 Iron Age subsistence farmers also settled there. Their existence is confirmed by the discovery by archaeologists of a few potsherds identified as Early Iron Age pottery. This means that they manufactured their own pottery and metal tools.
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. 3 of the people found in this cemetery 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.
Why did they leave?

Image: Ivory was traded with Arab merchants and contributed greatly to the wealth of the kingdom. Source: news.bbc.co.uk

It is difficult to find a single explanation for the desertion of Mapungubwe. Some archaeologists feel 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 a change in trade routes. Mapungubwe relied on trade and any blow to this activity would have forced people to move away.
The Importance of gold, cattle and ivory
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.
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, chert and ostrich eggshell beads were used for glass beads and cloth.

• Resource links Mapungubwe Kingdom, (2014), ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of Mapungubwe!’, from Mapungubwe Kingdom, [online], Available at http://www.mapungubwekingdom.co.za/ [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  New History, (2014), ‘The Mapungubwe period’, from New History, [online],  Available at http://newhistory.co.za/part-1-chapter-1-the-slashe-limpopo-basin-and-the-origin-of-the-zimbabwe-culture-the-mapunguhwe-period/  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
• < South Africa.info, (2015), ‘Mapungubwe: SA's lost city of gold’, from South Africa.info, [online], Available: http://www.southafrica.info/about/history/mapungubwe.htm#.VL6jI0eUd7H  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Rebirth Africa Life on the Continent, (2000), ‘Mapungubwe History of Africa Denied’ from Rebirth Africa Life on the Continent, [online] Available:  http://www.rebirth.co.za/mapungubwe.htm  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Tiley S, (2011), Mapungubwe Remembered: Contributions to Mapungubwe by the University of Pretoria, (Pretoria). Harrison P, (2004), South Africa's Top Science Sites, (Kenilworth).
•  Huffman N.M, (2005), Mapungubwe: Ancient African Civilisation on the Limpopo, (Michigan).
•  Tiley S, (2004), Mapungubwe: South Africa's Crown Jewels, (Cape Town).   Videos   CRV Media, (2007), ‘The History of the Voortrekker Monument Part 1’, (video file) 23 August, [online], Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjWHDumFTcg    [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Places of Interest, (2013), ‘Pretoria, Union buildings: South Africa’, (video file) 20 January, [online], Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3pjUHUasbY [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  BBC (2010), ‘Mapungubwe - Lost Kingdoms of Africa - Great Zimbabwe’, (video file) 20 January, [online], Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2JR2FVrDHM [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  WWF South Africa, (2013), ‘Mapungubwe Revisited’, (video file) 7 February, [online], Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paOdFHmU844[Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Marna Cilliers, (2009), ‘Treasures of Mapungubwe’, (video file) 11 November, [online], Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZMdcXkvTZ8  [Accessed: 21 January 2015] Unit 1- Changes in society in the Limpopo valley South African History Online, (2014), “Kingdoms of Africa: Mapungubwe” from South African History Online [online] Available at http://www.sahistory.org.za/kingdoms-southern-africa-mapungubwe [Accessed: 12 January 2015].
•  Chesterhouse, (2014), “The Earliest Kingdoms in Southern Africa” from Chesterhouse [online] Available at http://www.chesterhouse.co.za/wp-content/uploads/GRADE-6-History-Term-2-Booklet-2014.pdf [Accessed: 13 January 2015].
•  Ranby, P. & Moeng, P., (2012), Clever Social Sciences, (Macmillan Press)
•  Resilience Alliance, (2004), ‘Social shift: Mapungubwe society, Limpopo Valley, South Africa (ca. 1290 AD)’, from Resilience Alliance, [online], Available at http://www.resalliance.org/index.php?id=266[Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Koutonin, M.R., (2014), ‘The Rise and Fall of African Civilisations’, from Mwelase clan, [online], Available at http://www.mwelase-clan.com/[Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Moeng, P. & Ranby, P., (2012), Clever Social Sciences: Grade 6 learner’s book, (Northlands).
•  UNESCO, (2014), ‘Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape’, from UNESCO, [online], Available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1099  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]   Unit 2- Mapungubwe: the first state in southern Africa 1220 ”“ 1300   South African History Online, (2014), “South Africa’s World Heritage Sites: Mapungubwe” from South African History Online [online] Available at http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/mapungubwe [Accessed: 13 January 2015].
•  South African National Parks, (2015), ‘Mapungubwe: Becoming a National Park’, from SouthAfrican National Parks, [online], Available at http://www.sanparks.co.za/parks/mapungubwe/tourism/history.php[Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Metropolitan Museum of Art, (2014), ‘Mapungubwe (ca. 1050”“1270)’, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, [online], Available at http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mapu/hd_mapu.htm  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Cape.info, (2014), ‘Mapungubwe - South Africa's first kingdom’ from Cape.info, [online], Available at http://capeinfo.com/more/myths-legends-a-old-folks-stories/mapungubwe-south-africas-first-kingdom[Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  New History, (2010), ‘The Mapungubwe period’, from New History, [online], Available at http://newhistory.co.za/part-1-chapter-1-the-slashe-limpopo-basin-and-the-origin-of-the-zimbabwe-culture-the-mapunguhwe-period/  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  The Presidency, (2014), ‘The Order of Mapungubwe’, from The Presidency, [online], Available at http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/pebble.asp?relid=7645[Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  >Carruthers, J, (2006) ‘Mapungubwe: an historical and contemporary analysis of a World Heritage Cultural landscape’, in Koedoe, pp.1-13.
•  Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2015), ‘Mapungubwe’, from Encyclopaedia Britannica, [online], Available at http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/363616/Mapungubwe  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]   Unit 3- Golden rhinoceroses and other golden objects ‘symbols of royal power and political leadership’   The South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, (2014), ‘African Origins Explorer: Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria’, from The South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, [online], Available at http://www.saasta.ac.za/africanorigins/explore03.shtml  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Road Travel Africa, (2011), ‘Mapungubwe, South Africa’s lost city of gold’, from Road Travel Africa, [online], Available at http://roadtravelafrica.com/2011/08/15/mapungubwe-south-africas-lost-city-of-gold/[Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  South Africa.net, (2015), ‘Ancient African kingdom in the Limpopo Valley: Mapungubwe World Heritage Site’, from South Africa.net, [online], Available at http://www.southafrica.net/za/en/articles/entry/article-southafrica.net-mapungubwe-world-heritage-site  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Pule, K., (2013), ‘Mapungubwe the ancient city of gold’, from UNISA, [online], Available at http://www.unisa.ac.za/chs/news/index.php/2013/05/mapungubwe-the-ancient-city-of-gold/  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, (2009), ‘Science unlocks the legacy of the Mapungubwe gold artefacts’, from The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), [online], Available at http://www.csir.co.za/enews/2009_jul/gen_02.html  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Africa 24 Media, (2011), ‘Treasures of Mapungubwe’, from Africa 24 Media, [online], Available at http://photography.a24media.com/index.php/photogallery/features/109-tresures-of-mapungubwe[Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•    Unit 4- Trade across Africa and across the Indian Ocean and beyond   http://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/chapter-2-beginnings-globalisation
•  Rose, C., (2014), ‘Episode 47: Indian Ocean Trade from its Origins to the Eve of Imperialism’, from 15 Minute History, [online], Available at http://15minutehistory.org/2014/03/26/episode-47-indian-ocean-trade-from-its-origins-to-the-eve-of-imperialism/ [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Discovering Bristol, (2014), ‘The East African slave trade’, from Discovering Bristol, [online], Available at http://discoveringbristol.org.uk/slavery/routes/places-involved/east-indies/east-african-slave-trade/ [Accessed: 21 January 2015] Unit 5- Today: World Heritage Site and Order of Mapungubwe South African History Online, (2014), “National Heritage Day” from South African History Online [online] Available athttp://www.sahistory.org.za/order-mapungubwe [Accessed: 13 January 2015].
•  Crawford, G., (2012), ‘Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape - South Africa’, from Find trip info, [online], Available at http://www.findtripinfo.com/south-africa/articles/mapungubwe-world-heritage-site-ac012.html [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Randall, M., (2010), ‘Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site’, from about South Africa, [online], Available at http://about-south-africa.com/what-to-do/world-heritages-sites/59-mapungubwe-national-park-and-world-heritage-site  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Department of Arts and Culture: Republic of South Africa, (2013), ‘The Order of Mapungubwe’, from Department of Arts and Culture: Republic of South Africa, [online], Available at https://www.dac.gov.za/order-mapungubwe# [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  South African National Parks, (2008), ‘Mapungubwe National Park’, from South African National Parks, [online], Available at  http://www.sanparks.org/parks/mapungubwe/news.php?page=2&PHPSESSID=7corst3k7k06o44m8amp5fhko5 [Accessed: 21 January 2015]   Unit 6- Great Zimbabwe   BBC, (2010), “Lost Kingdoms of Africa” from Youtube [online] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2JR2FVrDHM [Accessed: 12 January 2015].
•  van Vandbergen, A., (2010), ‘Great Zimbabwe’ from Siyabona Africa, [online], Available at http://www.siyabona.com/explore-victoria-falls-great-zimbabwe.html [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Westwood, A., (2012), ‘Africa’s Golden Triangle’, from Alison Westwood, [online], Available at http://alisonwestwood.com/tag/great-zimbabwe/ [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Marks, S. E., (2014), ‘Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe’, from Encyclopaedia Britannica, [online], Available at http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/556618/Southern-Africa/234037/Mapungubwe-and-Great-Zimbabwe [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (2014), ‘Great Zimbabwe (11th”“15th century)’, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, [online], Available at http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zimb/hd_zimb.htm [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  UNESCO, (2013), ‘Great Zimbabwe National Monument’, from UNESCO, [online], Available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/364  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]   Unit 7- A European explorer: Marco Polo   History, (2012), ‘Marco Polo’, from History, [online], Available at http://www.history.com/topics/exploration/marco-polo[Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  The Biography, (2015), ‘Marco Polo’, from The Biography, [online], Available at http://www.biography.com/people/marco-polo-9443861 [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Silk road foundation, (2000), ‘Marco Polo and His Travels’, from Silkroad foundation, [online], Available at http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml  [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Enchanted Learning, (2000), ‘Marco Polo: Explorer’, from Enchanted Learning, [online], Available at http://www.enchantedlearning.com/explorers/page/p/polo.shtml [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Soft Schools, (2006), ‘Marco Polo’, from Soft Schools, [online], Available at http://www.softschools.com/timelines/marco_polo_timeline/23/ [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  The Famous People, (2015), ‘Marco Polo Biography’, from The Famous People, [online], Available at http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/marco-polo-2234.php [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Famous Explorers, (2013), ‘Marco Polo: Family in History’, from Famous Explorers, [online], Available at http://famous-explorers.org/marco-polo/ [Accessed: 21 January 2015]
•  Mr Nussbaum, (2014), ‘Marco Polo and the Silk Road: Biography for kids’, from Mr Nussbaum, [online], Available at   http://mrnussbaum.com/explorers/marcopolo/ [Accessed: 21 January 2015]

Last updated : 12-May-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011