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Mapungubwe is an Iron Age archaeological site in the southern part of the African continent. This city, which is located on the northern border of modern day South Africa with Zimbabwe and Botswana, was once the center of the region’s first indigenous kingdom. This kingdom is referred to today as the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, and developed into the largest of its kind in the area of southern Africa before it was abandoned during the 14th century AD.
The Development of the Kingdom
Mapungubwe is commonly said to mean “Hill of the Jackal”, and is an area of open savannah at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. It is unclear as to when this kingdom was founded. One source, for instance, suggests that Mapungubwe was established around 900 AD, whilst another suggests that it was founded around the middle of the 11th century AD.
Due to the lack of written sources (both from within and outside the kingdom), our knowledge of Mapungubwe is dependent on the available archaeological evidence. Fortunately, the rich archaeological information allows us to gain an understanding of the way this kingdom developed.
Taken from South Africa, to the left is Botswana and Zimbabwe is on the right. The river running from left to right is the Limpopo River. The river which disappears on the horizon is the Shashe. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Whilst the establishment of Mapungubwe is unknown, what can be said with more certainty is that it flourished as a center of trade between 1220 AD and 1300 AD. One factor that contributed to this is Mapungubwe’s geographical location. As the city is located at the crossing of the north / south and east / west routes in southern Africa, it was able to control trade. Additionally, the Limpopo River allowed Mapungubwe to transport trade goods to East African ports along the Indian Ocean coast such as Kilwa. Furthermore, gold and ivory, which were luxurious goods, were harvested from the kingdom’s hinterlands.
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Topographical map of South Africa, continent version. (CC BY 2.5 )
The Social Structure in Mapungubwe
Mapungubwe is known to have also traded with the East, most notably India, China, and Persia. This can be seen in the artifacts found in Mapungubwe. In return for their precious gold and ivory, the merchants of Mapungubwe obtained such foreign objects as porcelain from China and glass beads form Persia. In addition, Mapungubwe’s trade relations with foreign states “created a society that was closely linked to ideological adjustments, and changes in architecture and settlement planning”.
An artistic impression of Mapungubwe. ( africanlegends)
This can be seen, for instance, in the way that the wealth brought in by trade influenced the hierarchical structure of the kingdom. It has been established that different social classes existed in Mapungubwe. On the top of the Mapungubwe Hill, remains of elite habitation have been found. The common people, on the other hand, made their homes at the bottom of this hill and in the surrounding areas. In addition, it has been pointed out that a garbage site located where the common people lived reveals that the food that the elite ate was quite different from the rest of society.
The differences between elites and non-elites can also be seen in their burial practices. It has been reported that on the top of Mapungubwe Hill, 23 graves have been excavated so far. Three of these graves contained bodies buried in an upright seated position. This form of burial is associated with royalty, and shows that there was further differentiation amongst the elites of Mapungubwe.
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Additional evidence of the high status of these three individuals can be seen in the grave goods that they were buried with. These include a variety of gold and copper objects, glass beads, and other luxurious goods.
The presence of gold objects in such graves has been cited as evidence for early gold-smithing in southern Africa. One of the most impressive of these gold objects is a small gold rhinoceros, which was made of gold foil molded around a core of sculpted wood. This gold rhinoceros is perhaps the most recognizable artifact of Mapungubwe, and has since become the symbol of the kingdom’s cultural sophistication.
A drawing of the Gold Rhino from a burial site on Mapungubwe hill. ( siyajkak/CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Fall of the Kingdom
The end of Mapungubwe is generally said to have been brought about by a change in the climate. Around 1300 AD, the climate of that region became cooler and drier. This meant that agriculture in the region was affected, and was no longer able to support Mapungubwe’s high population. As a result, the people had to disperse to areas that were better able to sustain them.
Another suggestion is that there were changes in the trade routes. Since the people of Mapungubwe relied heavily on trade, the usage of trade routes that by-passed the kingdom would almost certainly have had a negative impact on their livelihood, thus forcing them to migrate.
Featured image: Mapungubwe Hill viewed from the north , The gold rhino of Mapungubwe www.southafrica.net
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. Image source
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?
Ivory was traded with Arab merchants and contributed greatly to the wealth of the kingdom. Image source
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.
Unit 1- Changes in society in the Limpopo valle
The first settlers of Mapungubwe were early iron age settlers. They lived there from about 1000ad ton1300ad, and around 1500 iron age subsistence farming also settled there. Their existence is confirmed by the discovery by archeologist of a few potsherd identified as early iron age pottery. This means that they manufactured their own pottery and metal tools. Mapungubwe was strucutured along social classes. This may be seen from the location of peopl’s houses sepersting leaders and commoners. The elite lived at the top of mapungbwe 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 at very different food. 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 buried with gold and copper ornaments and glass beads, showing the people of mapungubwe were skilled in working with golf
Unit 2-Mapungubwe: the first state in southern Africa 1220 – 1300
Unit 2 focus on Mapungubwe as the first state in Southern Africa, this is after Mapungubwe had discovered itself as a kingdom. The civilization that was taking place in the area, the opportunities, the rule of law, the bureaucracy was visible in the area. There was royalty with kings and queens ruling over the masses. There was also the working class and the upper class. The upper class will be the individuals that were allowed to live on top of the hills because of their social and economic status. The working class generally occupied the lower parts of the hills. The king and his advisors were the decision making body in the state.
Unit 3- Golden rhinoceroses and other golden objects ‘symbols of royal power and political leadership
This unit deals with the royal power and other objects that symbolized power and political leadership. Now Mapungubwe had discovered itself as a function state that has a population, economy and law. The rise of the area from a small kingdom into a greater power in Southern Africa was visible. There was the visibility of hierarchy with leaders living on top of the hills while ordinary masses occupied the area below the hills. This was the same with burial, leaders and respected men were buried on top of the hills whilst ordinary men were buried bottom of the hills.
Unit 4- Trade across Africa and across the Indian Ocean and beyond
This unit is about the trade that Mapungubwe had not only with other African states but with Asian states such as China. This was done in the early ages. Mapungubwe had not only become a greater state in Southern Africa, but it also contributed to international trade. It was dealing with super power and civilized traders of the Asian continent. The beginning of globalisation, Mapungubwe was part of those states that were in the forefront.
Unit 5- Today: World Heritage Site and Order of Mapungubwe
This unit places its focus on the order of Mapungbwe today and it being a heritage site. From a great state to a heritage site, what went wrong with Mapungbwe? What happened to the trade deals it had? What happen to its leadership? This unit will help the learner have answer for the above questions.
The Order of Mapungubwe
This Order is to be awarded to South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport.
This Order can be awarded in three Categories:
Symbolism / Design Elements
Central Motif / Symbolism
The Ikhamanga (Strelitzia) plant symbolises the unique beauty of achievements by men and women who carry the colourful South African aloft in the fields of creativity, arts, culture, music, journalism and sport.
1. Four corners of the globe - symbolise the achievements of South Africans all over the world.
2. Rising sun - the new dawn emerging from Africa.
3. Mapungubwe hill - forms the background, a sandstone hill on mudstone deposit in an arid subtropical area with erratic summer rains. Excavations showed that excellence grew out of the most difficult natural circumstances.
4. Mapungubwe rhino - the now most well-known artifact found in a grave at the excavation site, a gold-plated figurine formed around a soft core, probably sculpted wood, testimony to the excellence of human resourcefulness present in the Kingdom.
5. Mapungubwesceptre - emerging from the gold melting pot on either side another of the artifacts found in a grave at the excavation site. 6. Decorated gold melting pot - the basic symmetric forms on the overflowing gold melting pot symbolises the abundance of excellence, science and creativity, testimony to the earliest achievements in metallurgy. 7. Furnace - the purifying and life sustaining properties of fire, employed since the Iron Age, to advance development and excellence in societies and communities.
Unit 6- Great Zimbabwe
This unit focuses on Great Zimbabwe as the predecessor of Mapungubwe. After Mapungubwe demised Great Zimbabwe rose into prominence and became the new leading trade center in Southern Africa.Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a centre for trading, with artifacts suggesting that the city formed part of a trade network linked to Kilwa and extending as far as China. Copper coins found at KilwaKisiwani appear to be of the same pure ore found on the Swahili coast. This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory some estimates indicate that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground
Unit 7- A European explorer: Marco Polo
This unit focuses on Marco Polo, the European explorer who arrived in Africa, when Mapungubwe was on the peak of its civilization. Had just discovered itself as a state that has a lot of potential as an international player in the early beginnings of globalization.
"When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -falling asleep or anything else -he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night travelers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road if they believe that these are some of their own company and head for the noise, they find themselves in deep trouble when daylight comes and they realize their mistake. There were some who, in crossing the desert, have been a host of men coming towards them and, suspecting that they were robbers, returning, they have gone hopelessly astray. Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path."----- Marco Polo Travels
The Egyptian God of the Dead
Yet another theory, somewhat less widely supported but far more interesting, holds that the Great Sphinx’s head was indeed originally that of an animal, but not of a lion. It was originally a dog and represented the Egyptian god of the dead, Anubis. As Robert Temple observes, “the body of the Sphinx is not feline, as lions are known for a back that is curved and possessing a mane that is absent on the Sphinx” rather, the body is in the shape of a crouching dog (Coppens, 2016). There is much circumstantial evidence to support this theory: First, Anubis is the god of the dead and is believed to protect the deceased and to prevent the unworthy from crossing the river Nile to the underworld, like the role played by the guard dog Cerberus in Greek mythology. In addition,
“following the Book of the Dead, a statue of Anubis was used in rituals to do with the deceased, and specifically the washing of the parts of the deceased body that had been placed in the four Canopic jars…[and] this might also explain why the Sphinx enclosure might have been a moat – filled with water – for ritual washing of the pharaoh’s body. Equally, seeing that Anubis was the god of embalming, one could argue whether the embalming of a or several pharaohs therefore occurred in the so-called Sphinx Temple.” (Coppens, 2016).
Was the sphinx initially designed as a statue of Anubis? (public domain)
Finally, “the best-known image of Anubis is the Anubis statue found inside the tomb of King Tutankhamen, which shows him as a crouching dog” (Temple, 2009). If the head of the statue was originally that of a pointy-eared jackal, as Anubis is often portrayed, then it supports the notion that erosion eventually ruined its ears and maybe its snout. The Pharaoh’s then sought to restore the statue and remodeled it to have a head of a man, transforming it into the popular mythical figure, the sphinx.
Representation of Anubis from the tomb of Tutankhamen. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )
Top Image: The Great Sphinx of Giza. Source: BigStockPhoto
Mapungubwe, located in the very north of South Africa just below the Limpopo River, was an Iron Age settlement and kingdom which flourished between the 11th and 13th century CE. It was perhaps southern Africa's first state. Mapungubwe, whose name means either 'stone monuments' in reference to the large stone houses and walls of the site or 'hill of the jackal', prospered due to the savannah's suitability for cattle herding and its access to copper and ivory which permitted long-distance trade and brought gold and other exotic goods to the ruling elite. The site went into decline from the end of the 13th century CE, most likely due to an exhaustion of local resources, including agricultural land, and the movement of interregional trade to such sites as Great Zimbabwe further north. Mapungubwe was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003 CE.
Without any contemporary written records, a somewhat incomplete history of the communities living in this area must be pieced together from archaeological finds only. There is also very little evidence for the existence of any state apparatus beyond the obvious wealth of the capital which would suggest a centralised authority which monopolised trade, wealth, and could command labour to build large stone structures.
The kingdom of Mapungubwe was formed by Bantu-speaking peoples who were pastoralists. The area controlled by the rulers of Mapungubwe has at its heart a large sandstone plateau, easily defended due to its inaccessibility. As with other kingdoms in the region of southern Africa, agriculture, especially cattle herding and the growing of sorghum and cowpeas, brought plenty of food and a surplus that could be traded for needed goods. Archaeology has revealed extensive layers of bones and manure, which indicate that from the 9th century CE there were large cattle herds, the traditional source of wealth and political power in southern African communities. The archaeological record for the 10th century CE shows a marked increase in the number of domesticated cattle in the area as well as cotton cultivation and weaving as indicated by abundant finds of spindle whorls.
Government & Society
The chief or king of Mapungubwe was likely the wealthiest individual in the society, that is he owned more cattle and precious materials acquired via trade than anyone else. There was also some sort of religious association between the king and rainmaking, a vital necessity for agriculture in such a dry landscape. The king and his court dwelt in a stone enclosure composed of stone walls and housing built on the highest level of the community's territory, a natural sandstone hill which is some 30 metres (98 ft) high and 100 metres (328 ft) in length. Occupation on the hill dates from the 11th century CE. That royal wives lived separately from the king is indicated by a number of separate dwellings where grindstones have been discovered. The whole complex was originally surrounded by a wooden palisade as indicated by postholes made in the rock.
The rest of the community lived in mud and thatch housing spread out below the hill, although there is one stone structure here. This area is known as Babandyanalo or K2 and, covering around 5 hectares (12.3 acres), its original settlement pre-dates the hilltop site above. Babandyanalo is abundant in cattle enclosures, burials and figurines, all attesting to the importance of this animal at the site. The total population of Mapungubwe at its peak in the mid-13th century CE was around 5,000 people.
The king was buried along with his predecessors at the top of the hill site in a demarcated area away from the dwellings while commoners were buried at the surrounding valley level. A wooden staircase connected the two levels, the sockets for the steps being clearly visible in the sandstone cliff face. There are some grander residences dotted around the outskirts of the lower level town, and these probably belonged to male relatives of the king. It is known that in Bantu society such males, serious competitors for the king's position, were not permitted to live directly within the community.
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There are many other smaller but still impressive hilltop sites across the Mapungubwe plateau which are located anywhere from 15 to 100 kilometres (9 to 60 miles) from the capital. Containing stone residences and walls, they likely belonged to local chiefs who acted as vassals to the king at Mapungubwe.
The Mapungubwe plateau has a very high number of carnivore animal remains and ivory splinters, suggesting that animal hides and ivory elephant tusks were accumulated, probably for trade with coastal areas reached by the Limpopo River. The presence of glass beads, almost certainly from India, and fragments of Chinese celadon vessels indicate there was certainly trade of some sort with other states on the coast who, in turn, traded with merchants travelling from India and Arabia by sea. Contemporary with the Kingdom of Zimbabwe (12-15th century CE), located to the north on the savannah plateau on the other side of the Limpopo River, Mapungubwe would also have benefitted from locally-sourced copper and the gold trade that passed through from south-west Zimbabwe to the coastal city of Kosala. Indeed, initially, Great Zimbabwe may have been a client state of Mapungubwe. The prosperity that trade links brought would likely have led to a strengthening of political authority in order to control and even monopolise these lucrative interregional connections.
Pottery was produced on a scale large enough to suggest the presence of professional potters, and it is another indicator of a prosperous society, perhaps with different class levels. Forms include spherical vessels with short necks, beakers, and hemispherical bowls while many are decorated with incisions and comb stamps. There are also ceramic disks of unknown purpose, whistles, and one giraffe figurine. In addition, cattle, sheep, and goat figurines, and small figures of highly stylised humans with elongated bodies and short limbs have been found, often in a domestic setting. The figures may have been used as votive offerings to ancestors or gods and relate to prosperity and fertility but their precise function is not known. Other finds include small jewellery items made from copper or ivory.
A particular type of decoration, only found elsewhere at Great Zimbabwe, was to beat gold into small rectangular sheets which were then decorated with geometrical patterns made by incision and used to cover wooden objects (which have not survived) using small tacks, also made of gold. One such covered object may have been a sceptre, while additional evidence of local gold-working is a rhinoceros figurine made from small hammered sheets, fragments of gold bangles, and thousands of small gold beads. These objects were found at the royal burial site, and, dating to c. 1150 CE, these are the first known indicators that gold had an intrinsic value of its own (as opposed to just a commodity currency) in southern Africa.
The kingdom of Mapungubwe was already in decline by the late 13th century CE, probably because of overpopulation putting too much stress on local resources, a situation that may have been brought to a crisis point by a series of droughts. Trade routes may also have shifted northwards and local resources run out. Certainly, the kingdoms that now prospered were to the north, such as Great Zimbabwe and then the Kingdom of Mutapa in northern Zimbabwe and southern Zambia, established c. 1450 CE.
When Europeans 'discovered' the ruins of Mapungubwe in the 19th century CE, just as with those at Great Zimbabwe, they could not believe such impressive structures were built by black Africans. Theories abounded to somehow explain their presence and confirm racist European beliefs such as attributing them to the ancient Egyptians or Phoenicians. Archaeology, however, has since proved both sites were indeed built by indigenous peoples in the medieval period. Many of the artefacts from Mapungubwe can be seen today at the University of Pretoria Museums, South Africa, while the site itself is protected as part of the Mapungubwe National Park.
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Great Zimbabwe, extensive stone ruins of an African Iron Age city. It lies in southeastern Zimbabwe, about 19 miles (30 km) southeast of Masvingo (formerly Fort Victoria). The central area of ruins extends about 200 acres (80 hectares), making Great Zimbabwe the largest of more than 150 major stone ruins scattered across the countries of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
It is estimated that the central ruins and surrounding valley supported a Shona population of 10,000 to 20,000. With an economy based on cattle husbandry, crop cultivation, and the trade of gold on the coast of the Indian Ocean, Great Zimbabwe was the heart of a thriving trading empire from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The word zimbabwe, the country’s namesake, is a Shona (Bantu) word meaning “stone houses.”
The site is generally divided into three main areas: the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Ruins. The first two are characterized by mortarless stone construction, but they also include ruined daga (earthen and mud-brick) structures that may once have rivaled the stone buildings in grandeur. The Valley Ruins, located between the Hill Complex and the Great Enclosure, include a large number of mounds that are remnants of daga buildings.
The Hill Complex, which was formerly called the Acropolis, is believed to have been the spiritual and religious centre of the city. It sits on a steep-sided hill that rises 262 feet (80 metres) above the ground, and its ruins extend some 328 feet (100 metres) by 148 feet (45 metres). It is the oldest part of the site stratigraphic evidence shows that the first stones were laid there about the year 900. The builders incorporated natural granite boulders and rectangular blocks to form walls up to 20 feet (6 metres) thick and 36 feet (11 metres) high. Within the walls are the remains of daga houses.
South of the Hill Complex lies the Great Enclosure, the largest single ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Its outer wall is some 820 feet (250 metres) in circumference, with a maximum height of 36 feet (11 metres). An inner wall runs along part of the outer wall forming a narrow parallel passage, 180 feet (55 metres) long, which leads to the Conical Tower. The purpose of the tower, 33 feet (10 metres) high and 16 feet (5 metres) in diameter, is unknown, but it may have been a symbolic grain bin or a phallus symbol.
Great Zimbabwe was largely abandoned during the 15th century. With the city’s decline, its stoneworking and pottery-making techniques seem to have transferred southward to Khami (now also in ruins). Portuguese explorers probably encountered the ruins in the 16th century, but it was not until the late 19th century that the existence of the ruins was confirmed, generating much archaeological research. European explorers who visited the site in the late 1800s believed it to be the legendary city of Ophir, the site of King Solomon’s mines. Because of its stonework and further evidence of an advanced culture, the site was variously, and erroneously, attributed to ancient civilizations such as the Phoenician, Greek, or Egyptian. In 1905 the English archaeologist David Randall-MacIver concluded that the ruins were medieval and of exclusively African origin his findings were confirmed by the English archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson in 1929.
In the late 19th century numerous soapstone figurines in the form of a bird were found in the ruins this Zimbabwe Bird later became a national symbol, incorporated into the Zimbabwe flag and shown in other places of high honour. Great Zimbabwe became a national monument and was designated a World Heritage site in 1986. Despite its historical importance and its nationalistic role, however, the site has received inadequate government funding for its preservation and scientific study.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy McKenna, Senior Editor.
If you’re looking for safari action on the open water, then there’s no better place than the famous and fearsome Shark Alley – a hunting ground for sharks off the coast of the Western Cape. However, it’s not only sharks you’ll find stalking these waters – it’s also a hotbed of Cape Fur Seals and sea birds.
Shark Alley is famous for being one of the top commercial cage-diving destinations in the world. This is not surprising, given that it is home to one of the largest populations of Great White Sharks.
Lying just a few kilometres south of the small fishing village of Gansbaai, Shark Alley is actually a narrow channel of water that runs between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock. It's thanks to the 50 000-odd Cape Fur Seals on Dyer Island that the channel is so named, for these furry mammals are favourite food for great white sharks. As a result, the sharks trawl the alley in numbers looking for their next meal.
Cage-diving is a thrilling activity where you are lowered into the water, in a secure cage, for a face-to-face encounter. Divers don't have to be scuba qualified to cage-dive, as the cage actually floats, with part of it remaining out of the water.
Visitors preferring to watch from the safety of the boat certainly won't miss out on any of the action, as the sharks remain just under the surface of the water and come right up to the boat.
During peak season, between June and September, onboard spectators may also see Great Whites breaching – a fascinating and awe-inspiring display of these sharks' unique hunting habits.
Whale-watching along the Gansbaai coast is also excellent, particularly between May and December, when Southern Right Whales come to mate, calve and nurse their young in this area.
There are also a number of hikes and walking trails around the cliffs of De Kelders at Gansbaai, which feature caves to explore, abundant fynbos, spectacular ocean views and a fascinating history of ancient people settling in this area.
Mapungubwe National Park reveals its royal secrets
Following is the media release by Limpopo Tourism and Parks on the opening of Mapungubwe National Park:
In 1933 the University of Pretoria (UP) received a report of the discovery of a grave on top of a flat-topped hill, situated close to the flood plains of the Limpopo River. Soon after, the Illustrated London News reported the discovery as follows: “a grave of unknown origin, containing much gold work, found on the summit of a natural rock stronghold in a wild region.”
The subsequent archaeological project initiated by the UP revealed a further two graves. All three royal burial places contained gold and iron artifacts, as well as pottery and glass beads. The gold objects, including a sceptre, bowl and the now famous Mapungubwe rhino, were the relics of a once powerful African kingdom.
Credited as being the first indigenous monarchy of southern Africa, the Kingdom of Mapungubwe ruled the northernmost expanses of present-day South Africa between 1 000 and 1 300 AD. At the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, where today the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, the Iron Age kingdom thrived amid the lush bushveld and peculiar sandstone koppies. The narrowing juncture of the rivers resulted in an annual Nile-type deposit of fertile soil, ideal for the grand-scale farming that was needed to feed the thriving nation
Over the past decades, large-scale excavations revealed that the Mapungubwe Hill stood at the centre of a terraced settlement. The wealthy community kept domesticated cattle, sheep, goats and dogs. The charred remains of storage huts further reveal that they cultivated millet, sorghum and cotton. Human remains discovered in various graves confirm that they enjoyed a healthy and diverse diet.
In addition to the kingdom’s agricultural activities, foreign trade was equally important. Gold, ivory and animal skins were exchanged for glass beads imported via the African East Coast from traders as far away as Egypt, India and China. Skilled craftsmen turned the imported glass beads into garden roller beads, many of which were found at the neighbouring village known as K2. They also produced characteristic pottery, tools and body ornaments of iron, copper, bangles and figurines of humans and domesticated animals.
One of the most important legacies of the ancient kingdom is found in the new type of organisational structure it introduced to the area. The ruling elite separated themselves from the rest of the community, residing on Mapungubwe Hill with their followers living in two villages in the valleys below. This powerful social hierarchy left a permanent mark on the landscape as the hill was modified for the comfort of the few elite who lived there. Large quantities of soil were carried up to create an artificial platform for domestic dwellings and graves. Low walls were built to demarcate the entrance to the hill and to strengthen and define terraces and pathways. Holes were drilled into the rock to anchor house poles.
The changing rainmaking practices of the nation also played a role in the new class structure: the sacred leader no longer made the rain himself. Instead, he called on his ancestors to intercede with God on his behalf to bless the kingdom with rain. The king thus built his palaces on top of the old rainmaking site – the sacred Hill of Mapungubwe – to symbolise and strenghten his new role.
It comes as little surprise that Mapungubwe and K2 were proclaimed National Monuments in the early 1980s. In July last year, Mapungubwe was accorded World Heritage Site status. The Mapungubwe cultural landscape forever changed the settlement pattern and the cultural traditions of southern Africa’s Iron Age farmers. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe -“the place of many jackals” – was the most important settlement in the subcontinent. At the apex of its power, it extended over an area of about 30 000 square kilometers and it is believed that up to 5 000 people once lived around Mapungubwe.
When the onset of the Little Ice Age caused drought and crop failure, the powerful kingdom was forced into a Diaspora in 1 300 AD. With time, new social and political alliances formed and the centre of regional power shifted to Great Zimbabwe north of the Limpopo River
Today, the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site is contained within the 30 000 hectare Mapungubwe National Park situated just outside Musina in the Limpopo Province. The park was officially opened by the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, on national Heritage Day (24 September 2004). It was previously known as the Vhembe Dongola National Park. Mapungubwe National Park will ultimately form the centrepiece of the proposed Transfrontier Conservation Area, to be shared by South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Mapungubwe Hill – also referred to as the Sacred Hill of the Jackal – is by far not the park’s only attraction, although it certainly is it’s most famous draw card. The beautiful, gold-infused landscape is already more than enough reason to visit the park. The variety of exquisite trees, game and bird life attest to the biodiversity of the area. In addition to lion, leopard and elephant, rhino were reintroduced to the area earlier this year. Magnificent baobabs still enthral visitors as much as they did the inhabitants of the ancient kingdom. Apart from Mapungubwe Hill, there are also countless more archaeological sites, San rock art, fossilised termite mounds and even fossilised dinosaur footprints waiting to be explored.
Over the past year and a half, South African National Parks (SANParks) structured tourism infrastructure inside the park in such a way that it stimulates tourism growth in the surrounding areas. Accommodation has deliberately been kept to a minimum, thereby ensuring that tourists utilise the lodges situated around Mapungubwe National Park. As a result of this successful strategy, a number of lodges have been established to cater especially for the park’s visitors. This in turn creates various opportunities for further economic empowerment in terms of the provision of local crafts, stock and hospitality-related services.
Accommodation inside Mapungubwe consists of the Leokwe Camp, the Venda-style main rest camp comprising self-catering cottages, a communal kitchen and a swimming pool. The Limpopo Forest Tented Camp offers self-catering units, but also boasts luxury and semi-luxury tent options. Up to 14 people can be accommodated in the luxurious Tshugulu Lodge set in a sandstone cliff, or guests can choose to rough it by staying at the Vhembe Wilderness Trail Camp.
A lot of the park’s tourism infrastructure is activity-based, given guests the liberty of engaging in self-drive and self-guide excursions. So for instance, the magnificent Treetop Walk and Hide allow visitors to stroll along an elevated boardwalk leading through the riverine forest. A Poverty Relieve Project ensures that the local community benefits economically and through the transfer of skills. Over the past two years, SANParks has created more than 1 000 job opportunities inside Mapungubwe National Park. The services of another 31 small, micro or medium enterprises were also utilised.
It is envisioned that the interpretive centre and museum earmarked for construction between 2005 and 2007, will create another 300 job opportunities. R47 million has already been set aside for this project. In the mean time, the park’s role as an educational facility is already evident from the almost daily requests from schools eager to teach their pupils the rich history of Africa’s greatest ancient kingdom.
The Bantu Expansion: How Bantu People Changed Sub-Saharan Africa
About 3500 years ago, an event began that changed the demographic, linguistic, and cultural makeup of the African continent forever. It is described as one of the most momentous events in African history. It has sparked speculation, debate, and curiosity among scholars within the continent and beyond. Unfortunately, it is also greatly understudied and often unknown to history enthusiasts.
The Bantu Expansion – the migration of Bantu-speaking people across the African continent – is one of Ancient history’s largest migrations. Beginning around 1500BCE, members of the proto-Bantu language group migrated eastward and southward from West Africa, crossing vast swathes of the continent over hundreds of years. These migrants changed population demographics, spread farming across sub-equatorial Africa, introduced iron technology, and built powerful states that continue to influence the African continent today.Movement of Bantu People, Languages and Technologies.
Listen to Podcasts about the Bantu Expansion below.
The Migration: 1500BCE to 500CE
The date is contested, but most historians agree the Bantu Expansion began around 1500BCE. Proto-Bantu speakers, a linguistic branch of the Niger-Congo language family, were concentrated in the region between modern-day Cameroon and Nigeria in West Africa. Possibly caused by population growth, or by conflict, a migration set off in two streams – one East across central Africa, and the other South following the Congo river system.Congo Rainforest.
The early stages of migration were slow. The first 500 years were spent moving a few hundred kilometers through the dense West Central African rainforest. However, the climate-induced destruction of this rainforest in 1000BCE propelled the next stage of migration forward at a rapid pace. History Guild Members can read more about this in Paleoclimatic Change and the Early Bantu Expansion in the Rain Forests of Western Central Africa in the Library. Over the next 500 years, Bantu-speakers moved eight times the previous distance (an average of 4000km). Historians believe the migration was splintered in small groups – not large conquering hordes – that separated and settled in new regions.
The migrants settled in three primary areas. In the East, Bantu-speakers settled around the Great Lakes region and created a new population centre supported by a resource-rich environment. Another stream settled in the central areas of modern Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Zambia, initiating a complete population replacement of the native African Pygmies who previously inhabited the area. Others reached South Africa by 500CE and mixed with the native Khoisan-speaking people, contributing to the country’s vast diversity today.
This monumental event has attracted significant debate and speculation that recent research has endeavored to resolve. The primary evidence for the Bantu Expansion is linguistic: the diffusion of Bantu languages throughout the continent. Early critics argued this phenomenon was a result of ‘language spread’ rather than the migration of Bantu-speaking people, but genetic evidence has proved otherwise. History Guild Members can read more about this in Genetic variation during the expansion of Bantu-speaking peoples in the Library. Archaeologists have found physical evidence of the migration in pottery, iron-smelting technology, and subsistence farming techniques that originated in the Bantu West African region, creating a timeline of movement across the continent.
Settlement and the Building of Empires: 1000CE – 1900CE
The dominance of Bantu-speaking people is evident in their movement and control over the areas they encountered. Their settlement and development of the first powerful states in Africa is further proof of that dominance.Great Zimbabwe. Simon Chihange
A prime example is the Southern African Kingdom of Mapungubwe. Formed in 1075, Mapungubwe was a renowned trading city linking Africa, Asia, and Europe. It was one of the first states in Africa and paved the way for the historic Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe. Another legendary state derivative of the Bantu Expansion is the Zulu Empire. This empire was one of the most powerful in African History and left an indelible mark on modern-day South Africa.
The Bantu people wielded significant influence and undoubtedly dominated every area they settled in. Some historians have referred to the expansion not as migration, but a process of colonization. The majority of sub-Saharan Africans speak one or more Bantu languages and modern African states are heavily affected by their Bantu-migrant predecessors. The impact of the Bantu Expansion has stood the test of time – it continues to influence the demographics, language, and culture of the continent today.
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