Mapungubwe: The Lost City

Mapungubwe Hill
Mapungubwe Hill

Last week saw our Minister of Arts & Culture, Mr Paul Mashatile, officially launching Heritage Month which takes place in September each year. South Africa is home to eight of the world’s official heritage sites, as determined by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. Mapungubwe, in Limpopo, is one such site, and richly deserving of its title.

Considered one of the most important archaeological finds in present day South Africa, Mapungubwe was declared a World Heritage Site in July 2003, but it’s history goes all the way back to approximately 1000 AD.

On New Year’s Eve 1932, a local farmer and and his son set out to follow up on a legend they had heard about the discovery of a large earthenware pot, unlike anything the natives had at that time. After convincing a local Mungona native to show them the way to the top of Mapungubwe Hill, the search party uncovered the remains of iron tools, crafted ivory and bone and some bits of copper wire and glass beads, along with gold bangles, broken bits of thin gold plating and human remains adorned with large quantities of gold and beads. The artifacts they found dated from approximately 1000 AD to 1300 AD.

At least twenty-four skeletons were unearthed, but only eleven were available for analysis, with the rest disintegrating upon touch. Most of the skeletal remains were buried with few or no accessories, but two adult burials were associated with gold artefacts, with the male skeleton grasping a golden scepter, and the female skeleton buried with 100 gold wire bangles around her ankles and around a thousand gold beads in her grave. Recent genetic studies have found these two skeletons to be of Khoi/San decent and the pair are thought to be a king and queen of Mapungubwe.

Mapungubwean society is considered by archaeologists to be the first class-based social system in southern Africa, with its leaders separated from the rest of its inhabitants. 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 reserved for the supreme authority, with royal wives living in their own area away from the king. It seems that life in Mapungubwe was centred around family and farming, with special sites built for initiation ceremonies, household activities, and other social functions. Cattle lived in kraals located close to the residents’ houses, signifying their value.

Most speculation is based on the remains of buildings, as the Mapungubweans left no written record of their history, although an oral history among the Vhangona, Vhatwanamba and Vhaleya clans (part of the present day Venda people) makes references to the wealthy African kingdom of Mapungubwe.

In 2007, the South African Government gave the green light for the skeletal remains that were excavated back in 1933 to be reburied on Mapungubwe hill in a ceremony that took place on the 20th November 2007. The remains were claimed by various groups, namely the Vhangona (the aboriginal Vhavenda), the Vhatwanamba, Vhaleya, the San as well as Vhalemba, who all claimed to be the rightful descendents of the Mapungubwe people.

Photo courtesy of  Peter Thomas.

Read more about the Kingdom of Mapungubwe here.

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