Kingdoms of southern Africa: Thulamela

The city of Thulamela from the air. It has walled areas like the ruins at Great Zimbabwe, which separate royalty from commoners. Source: www.chico.mweb.co.za

Where is Thulamela?

Thulamela is in the north-eastern part of South Africa near the South African border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique in the Limpopo Province. This area is also known as the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park and sits next to the Levuvhu River, which flows into the Limpopo River. The city lies at the edge of a plateau that borders on the floodplain of the Levuvhu River (See Mapungubwe map).
What does Thulamela mean?
Thulamela is a Venda word that means "the place of giving birth".
Who lived at Thulamela?
The city of Thulamela has been carbon dated. This confirms that the kingdom existed between about 1240 AD to 1700 AD. This was determined by the researchers from the Thulamela Project, a venture by the Gold Fields Foundation and the Kruger National Park to explore and develop the site for educational purposes.
Scientists believe that the ancestors of the Shona people established Thulamela.

Queen Losha in the position she was found. She is wearing a slim bracelet of woven gold. Source: www.geocities.com

Some of the archaeologists studying the site found two skeletons that had been buried with gold jewellery, pottery, metal hoes and spear blades. They were analysed by scientists at the Department of Anatomy at the University of Pretoria who found that the one skeleton was male and the other female. The man was wearing gold jewellery and may have been the king of Thulamela. The workers and archaeologists decided to call him "King Ingwe", which means "leopard".

The woman's skeleton was also tested and it was discovered that she was not one of the king's family members, but that she was possibly also from a noble family. She was discovered lying on her side with her palms together and her hands under her left temple. In the Venda tradition women greet men in this way, which is why we can say that the people of Thulamela were the ancestors of the Venda people today. This greeting and sign of respect is called "losha" in the Venda culture so the skeleton was named "Queen Losha".

One of the walls at Thulamela that encloses the royal living area. Source: www.pbs.org

The city of Thulamela shows similar social structures to those of Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe. There are signs of different social classes indicated by stone walls built around the royal area to give the royal family privacy and to separate them from the commoners. At Thulamela the royal enclosure was big enough to house 1 000 people. There are collapsed walls and signs of houses on the hills around the enclosure that prove that about 2 000 people lived in the city.

Why did they leave?

It is difficult to say why the residents of Thulamela left their home. Archaeologists and social anthropologists have presented many theories that range form traditions surrounding the death of a ruler, an environmental disaster or war over the control of land and resources. These questions are still unanswered because there is no written history from the inhabitants of the kingdom, and because its oral history seems to have disappeared when the city was abandoned.

Strings of golden beads found at Thulamela. Source: www.geocities.com

The importance of cattle, gold and ivory

The Shona people initially practiced agriculture and bred animals, especially cattle, to make a living. During the 14th century, or the 1300's, they began trading gold and ivory with Arab and, after them, Portuguese traders along the eastern coast of Africa.
Archaeologists discovered gold beads, gold wire, gongs and a potsherd with traces of molten gold at Thulamela. There were also forged tools and weapons which show that they had begun to extract and use metals around 800 years ago, and had converted it to steel without any European influence.
Like all other cities Thulamela's rubbish dump tells a great deal about the people who lived there. Archaeologists found gold jewellery, iron tools, ceramic potsherds, glass beads, spinning whorls, sewing needles and a piece of Chinese porcelain. This shows that metal was smelted, which means they had advanced technology and trade contacts with the Far East.

Last updated : 12-May-2016

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

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