Knowing the history of Africa, the birthplace of human kind, is important in understanding the global society that has and is still growing out of it. One of the most prominent southern African civilizations from antiquity is the kingdom of Mapungubwe, neighboring the K2 village.
Evidence of an Iron Age civilization ...
Iron was extraordinarily important in ancient times. Compared to today, a civilization without iron was ill-prepared to defend themselves against iron welding adversaries, not to mention using iron for tools and hunting. The kingdom of Mapungubwe was a precolonial state and an iron age archaeological site in the Limpopo province, situated at the border of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. It was a rich iron age civilization. The discovery of the site was kept quiet since it provided evidence that contradicted the ideology of Black inferiority supported by apartheid. The kingdom of Mapungubwe was seen as a testimony that there existed African civilization. It was discovered in December 1932. UNESCO named the Kingdom of Mapungubwe as a world heritage site in July 2003.
Origin and meaning of the name…
The kingdom of Mapungubwe preceded the kingdom of Zimbabwe. The name has been interpreted as, ‘the hill of jackals’ or ‘the place where jackals eat’. The name was derived from either Shona or Venda. The Mapungubwe kingdom also meant “the place of wisdom”. In Shona, Mapungubwe meant "rocks of the Bateleur eagle." This eagle was considered as the massive bird, which had once graced the Zimbabwe royal complex entrance. This Bateleur eagle has been incorporated in the flag of Zimbabwe as a sign of appreciating the historical significance of Mapungubwe kingdom. The kingdom existed for about 80 years. It also had three hierarchies: the commoners, district leaders, and the kingdom’s elites. Speculations about the Mapungubwe society are based on remains of buildings. This is because the people of Mapungubwe did not leave any written records.
Culture and Society
Life in Mapungubwe was mainly based on farming and family. The people of this kingdom were of the Khoi/San ancestry. They were attracted to this site not just because of its fertile soils, but also because the site was rich with ivory. Social functions, ceremonies and initiations were conducted in special places that were created. Cattle lives in kraals. These kraals were built close to the residents’ houses, a symbol of their value. The site thrived as a trade center. Inhabitants of Mapungubwe were skilled craftsmen, their artistic skills were very impressive. They created varieties of artifacts, ranging from tools to jewelry, made of stone and gold.
Ancient Class based society existed?
Mapungubwe is considered the earliest known site where evidence of a class-based society in southern Africa existed. Leaders were separated from commoners. The commoners inhabited the low-lying sites, the hilltops were for the district leader’s, and the elites of the kingdom occupied the capital at the Mapungubwe hill. These Mapungubwe’s elites where seen as the supreme authority.
Stone Masonry in Mapungubwe
The kingdom was well known for stone masonry. Stone walls were used to demarcate important areas in the kingdom. The principal councilor of the kingdom occupied a stone-walled residence. Stone masonry involved use of wood together with stone. The king of Mapungubwe was called Thovhele Shiriyadenga Nemapungubwe. Royal wives lived away from the king; they had their own area. Elites within the kingdom were buried in hills. Prestigious homes on the outskirts of the capital belonged to important men in the kingdom.
At the top of Mapungubwe, a lot of golden objects were discovered; a skeleton, miniature buffalo, anklets, and a rhino. Between the year 1933 and 1998 in the Mapungubwe cultural landscape, 147 remains of individuals were excavated. These findings, for a long time, were kept quiet since they underpinned apartheid. Apartheid was a system based on white supremacy that institutionalized racial discrimination and segregation in South Africa.
Burial in Mapungubwe
Several (twenty-four) skeletons were discovered in the Mapungubwe hill, the so called Mapungubwe grave area. An analysis of eleven of the skeletons that were unearthed on the Mapungubwe hill was done. Most adults were buried with glass beads, however, most of the skeletal remains discovered in Mapungubwe were buried with very few or no accessories. A female skeleton was found to be buried with at least one thousand gold beads. A male skeleton, which was probably the kings, was buried with a headrest, and three other objects. These golden objects were: a rhino, scepter, and a bowl. The genetic study of the two skeletons, thought to be of the king and queen of Mapungubwe, were found to be of Khoi/San descent.
Meet the golden rhinoceros...
The golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe, is considered to have possessed a powerful symbolism. The 800 years old golden rhinoceros was discovered in 1934 from a royal grave in the site of Mapungubwe. The rhinoceros was made of gold foils, with a wooden core tacked with minute pins. This golden artifact is described as small enough to be able to stand in the hand’s palm. The first post-apartheid administration, ANC (African National Congress) recognized the power of the golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe in 1999. The rhino, has come to be a great symbol of Mapungubwe’s high culture. It is now a symbol of the leadership of Shona people of Zimbabwe.
Just so you know!
So, when you are thinking of southern Africa as anciently being populated by pastoralists, just think again. The region was made of rich kingdoms such as the Mapungubwe iron age kingdom. What you never knew was that the ancient civilization was class based. The gold findings were not only indicators of early wealth, but also indicators of ancient gold smelting. Mapungubwe collection of the artifacts found at the archaeological sites are housed in the Mapungubwe Museum, found in Pretoria.
Source: South African History Online (2015), Kingdoms of Southern Africa: Mapungubwe, from South African History Online [online] available at:
http://www.sahistory.org.za/kingdoms-southern-africa-mapungubwe [Accessed: 1 April 2018]
Source: South African History Online (2015), Order of Mapungubwe, from South African History Online [online] available at:
http://www.sahistory.org.za/order-mapungubwe [Accessed: 1 April 2018]
Source: Fage, J. (2013). A history of Africa. Routledge.
Source: Brand South Africa. (2017, May 26). Mapungubwe: South Africa’s Lost City of Gold. Retrieved from www.brandsouthafrica.com: https://www.brandsouthafrica.com/south-africa-fast-facts/history-facts/mapungubwe-south-africas-lost-city-of-gold
Source: Y., D. (2015, April 16). Ancient Civilizations of Southern Africa: The Kingdom of Mapungubwe. Retrieved from afrolegends.com: