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

Kingdoms of southern Africa: Mapungubwe

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

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.