Mapungubwe, South Africa’s lost city of gold


One thousand years ago, Mapungubwe in Limpopo province of South Africa was the centre of the largest kingdom in the subcontinent, where a highly sophisticated people traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe (1075–1220) was a pre-colonial state in Southern Africa located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, south of Great Zimbabwe.  The kingdom was the first stage in a development that would culminate in the creation of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe in the 13th century, and with gold trading links to Rhapta and Kilwa Kisiwani on the African east coast.


The largest settlement from what has been dubbed the Leopard’s Kopje culture is known as K2 culture and was the immediate predecessor to the settlement of Mapungubwe.  The people from K2 culture were attracted to the Shashi-Limpopo area, likely because it provided mixed agricultural possibilities.  The area was also prime elephant country, providing access to valuable ivory.  The control of the gold and ivory trade greatly increased the political power of the K2 culture.  By 1075, the population of K2 had outgrown the area and relocated to Mapungubwe Hill.


Spatial organization in the kingdom of Mapungubwe involved the use of stone walls to demarcate important areas for the first time.  There was a stone-walled residence likely occupied by the principal councillor.  Stone and wood were used together.  There would have also been a wooden palisade surrounding Mapungubwe Hill.  Most of the capital’s population would have lived inside the western wall.


The capital of the kingdom was called Mapungubwe, which is where the kingdom gets its name.  The site of the city is now a World Heritage Site, national park, and archaeological site.  Mapungubwe means “place where jackals eat”, derived from phunguwe (Venda for jackal), or, more believably, the Tsonga word “phungubye”, for (black-backed) jackal.  The w and y are just a matter of pronunciation.  The hill was littered with human bones which attracted these scavengers.  It is a sandstone hill, with vertical cliffs about 30 metres high and a plateaued top approximately 300 m in length.  There was a natural amphitheatre at the bottom of Mapungubwe Hill where the royal court was likely held.  However, the king actually lived inside a stone enclosure on a hill above the court.  Aside from the king, there was principal councillor who organized cases to be heard by the royal court as well audiences before the king.


Mapungubwean society was “the most complex in southern Africa”.  It is thought by archaeologists to be the first class-based social system in southern Africa; that is, its leaders were separated from and higher in rank than its inhabitants.  Mapungubwe’s architecture and spatial arrangement also provide “the earliest evidence for sacred leadership in southern Africa”.  What is so fascinating about Mapungubwe is that it is testimony to the existence of an African civilization that flourished before colonization.  According to Professor Thomas Huffman of the archaeology department at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mapungubwe represents “the most complex society in southern Africa and is the root of the origins of Zimbabwean culture”.


Life in Mapungubwe was centered around family and farming.  Special sites were created for initiation ceremonies, household activities, and other social functions.  Cattle lived in kraals located close to the residents’ houses, signifying their value.  Most speculation about society continues to be based upon the remains of buildings, since the Mapungubweans left no written or oral record.  According to the University of Pretoria website: “People were prosperous, and kept domesticated cattle, sheep, goats and dogs.  The charred remains of storage huts have also been found, showing that millet, sorghum and cotton were cultivated.  “Findings in the area are typical of the Iron Age.  Smiths created objects of iron, copper and gold for practical and decorative purposes – both for local use and for trade.  Pottery, wood, ivory, bone, ostrich eggshells, and the shells of snails and freshwater mussels, indicate that many other materials were used and traded with cultures as far away as East Africa, Persia, Egypt, India and China.”  Mapungubwe’s fortune only lasted until about 1300, after which time climate changes, resulting in the area becoming colder and drier, led to migrations further north to Great Zimbabwe.


The kingdom was likely divided into a three-tiered hierarchy with the commoners inhabiting low-lying sites, district leaders occupying small hilltops and the capital at Mapungubwe hill as the supreme authority.  Elites within the kingdom were buried in hills.  Royal wives lived in their own area away from the king.  Important men maintained prestigious homes on the outskirts of the capital.  This type of spatial division occurred first at Mapungubwe but would be replicated in later Butua and Rozwistates.  The growth in population at Mapungubwe may have led to full-time specialists in ceramics, specifically pottery.  Gold objects were uncovered in elite burials on the royal hill.  The most spectacular of the gold discoveries is a little gold rhinoceros, made of gold foil and tacked with minute pins around a wooden core.  The rhino, featured in one of South Africa’s new national orders – the Order of Mapungubwe – has come to symbolize the high culture of Mapungubwe.  The rhino is also a symbol of leadership among the Shona people of Zimbabwe.  Other artifacts made in similar fashion include the Golden Scepter and the Golden Bowl, found in the same grave on Mapungubwe Hill.


The Mapungubwe Landscape was declared a World Heritage Site on 3 July 2003.  South Africa is home to seven Unesco World Heritage sites, places of “outstanding value to humanity”.  Internationally, there are 812 World Heritage sites, in 137 countries.  Africa has 65 sites and South Africa a total of seven – three cultural, three natural and one mixed.  South Africa’s other World Heritage sites are Robben Island, the Vredefort Dome, the Cradle of Humankind, the uKhahlamba Drakensburg Park, the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park and the Cape Floral Region.

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