Kingdom of Mapungubwe

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Kingdom of Mapungubwe

Mapungubwe Hill

Capital Mapungubwe
Religion Cult of Mwari
Government Monarchy
 -  K2 culture moves to Mapungubwe Hill 1075
 -  Mapungubwe Hill abandoned and travels to different places 1220
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The Kingdom of Mapungubwe (1075–1220) was a pre-colonial state in Southern Africa located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers (22°2′S 29°36′E / 22.033°S 29.600°E / -22.033; 29.600), south of Great Zimbabwe.1 The kingdom was the first stage in a development that would culminate in the creation of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe in the 13th century,2 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.3 The people from K2 culture, probably derived from the ancestral Khoi culture, were attracted to the Shashi-Limpopo area, likely because it provided mixed agricultural possibilities.4 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.5 By 1075, the population of K2 had outgrown the area and relocated to Mapungubwe Hill.6

Stone masonry

Spatial organisation 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.7 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.7

Origins of the name

The capital of the kingdom was called Mapungubwe, which is where the kingdom gets its name.6 The site of the city is now a World Heritage Site, South African National Heritage Site,8 national park, and archaeological site. There is controversy regarding the origin and meaning of the name Mapungubwe. Conventional wisdom has it that Mapungubwe means "place of Jackals," or alternatively, "place where Jackals eat" or, according to Fouche’—one of the earliest excavators of Mapungubwe—“hill of the jackals” (Fouche', 1937 p. 1).

This origin of the word is supposedly derived from the Venda language word for jackal (i.e. Phunguhwe) or alternatively, the Tsonga word for the same animal (i.e. Phukubje). On the other hand, others have proposed that name means “hill or place of stones/boulders/rocks”. This later version appears a lot closer to the meaning of the word, since Mapungubwe actually mean "place of boiling or simmering stones/rocks/boulders". The word is derived from the root morpheme Pungu (Venda language for boiling or simmering), and the suffix morpheme bwe (Venda language for rocks/stones/boulders). Other Venda morphemes denoting rocks/boulders/stones are he and gwe; e.g. Dzingahe ("place of black boulders/rocks/stones"), Mahematshena ("place of white boulders/stones/rocks") and Mavhiligwe. Interestingly, the morphemes denoting rocks are common among Bantu language words, such as we (Kiswahili), bye (Tsonga), tye (Zulu/Xhosa), bwe (Karanga), and at times displaying striking phoneme variations, e.g. Mawe (Swahili for rocks/stones/boulders) versus Mabwe (Karanga for rocks/stones) and Mabje (Tsonga for stones/rocks/boulders). Indeed, the Republic of Zimbabwe derives its name from the famous Great Zimbabwe monuments whose name is derived from the Karanga word Dzimba dzamabwe, which means houses of stones.

Incidentally, Mapungubwe is also referred to as Tshavhadzimu which means "place of the gods" or a "revered place". The Venda area is still dotted with similar Vhangona revered places such as Zwitaka (sacred groves), Zwifho (sacred places), and Zwiawelo (sacred resting places), which are as revered today as they have always been. Some examples of the Zwitaka and Zwifho can be found along the Sibasa – Wyliespoort Road (R525) (e.g. Tshitaka Tsha Mungadi or "the sacred grove of Mungadi" at Ngovhela village, and Tshitaka Tsha Vhutanda – "sacred grove of the Vhutanda") or along the Punda Maria – Louis Trichardt road (R524) (e.g. Tshitaka Tsha Khwevhascared groove of Khwevha), while Lake Fundudzi, Guvhukuvhu la Phiphidi (Phiphidi waterfalls on the Mutshindudi river at Phiphidi), and Tivha la Tshiswavhathu (pool where human remains are cremated), which is also on the Mutshindudi river at Mukula Village, are just but some of the examples of the numerous Zwifho still to be found in Venda. These Zwitaka (sacred groves), respectively, belong to the Nemungadi, Nevhutanda and Nekhwevha Ngona clans, while the Zwifho, respectively, belong to the Netshiavha (Lake Fundudzi) and the Mamphwe (Tivha la Tshiswavhathu) families. Interesting is that the Khoi word for the place was never considered, probably because the language died out and the Khoi were displaced be the Bantus hundreds of years ago.

This reverence probably explains (as will be seen later) why the natives residing around the Mapungubwe hill area were reluctant to disclose or share with strangers (or anyone else for that matter), anything related to its whereabouts. Indeed, such reverence largely explains why Mapungubwe hill remained untouched, especially by the natives throughout all those centuries after its abandonment.

Culture and society

Mapungubwean society was "the most complex in southern Africa".9 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".10

Life in Mapungubwe was centred 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 record.

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.7 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.6 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.7


UNESCO World Heritage Site
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iii, iv, v
Reference 1099
UNESCO region Africa
Inscription history
Inscription 2003 (27th Session)

After Mapungubwe's fall, it was forgotten until 1932 . On New Year's Eve 1932, ESJ van Graan, a local farmer and prospector and his son, a former student of the University of Pretoria, set out to follow up on a legend he had heard from a very old native about a strange story of a white man gone mad. The mad white man was a character well known at the time called Lottering who in the last decades of the nineteenth century had established himself about half a mile from Mapungubwe. This Lottering had apparently climbed the sacred Mapungubwe hill and found items because he presented to Van Graan's informant, a big earthenware pot, beautifully made and unlike anything the natives had at that time. It is unclear what else he found. Following the story, Van Graan made inquiries until at last he located the general area where the Mapungubwe hill was supposed to be located. On 31 December 1932, he set out with his son to investigate. Father and son were joined on the way by three other adventurers and had to be very secretive about their search since the land on which the hill is situated was private property, whose owner was unknown, nor had he given permission for exploration on his property.

An old Mungona native called Tshiwana had promised to point out the hill to Van Graan but when a party of five whites arrived, he developed cold feet and refused point blank to point out the way and told them that they would never find the place, nor the secret way up and if they do, they would never come back alive! Eventually, the five men persuaded Tshiwana's son to show them the hill which turned out to be a great mass of sandstone, about 31 meters high and 320 meters long with sheer cliff sides, and apparently un-scalable except with the help of ladders and ropes. At this point, Tshiwana's son, who was literally shivering with fright and had to be forcibly detained, at last pointed the secret stairway to the top. Such was his fright that he had to point it out facing the other way to avoid directly looking at the hill. Such was the reverence of the Mapungubwe hill that it was believed that untold misery would be visited upon anyone who not only ascends the hill, but so much as look at it directly! On reaching the top, the five men found breastworks of stone and great boulders balanced on smaller stones, ready to be pushed on intruders. Scattered all over the top were great quantities of potsherds.

A search on the surface which proved to be loose sandy soil brought to light, rusted remains of iron tools and some bits of copper wire and glass beads. Soon, an exposed yellow metal plate was discovered which the senior Van Graan pronounced to be gold. An excited search followed and the five men were soon finding gold beads, bangles, broken bits of thin gold plating and human remains adorned with quantities of gold and beads. The next day (1 January 1933), yielded even larger pieces of gold including the remains of the now famous Mapungubwe Rhinoceros. The five men had realised a schoolboy's dream! They had found hidden treasure! In the end, the spoils were divided equally between the five men who went their separate ways. Fortunately, the Van Graans were men of education and the junior Van Graan, who as fate would have it, was an archaeology student, sent some specimens from his share to his old professor, Leo Fouche’.

To cut a long story short, the five men were finally persuaded (upon compensation and subtle threat from the law) to turn over their loot to the government and the absentee owner of the farm (Greefswald), a Mr. E.E. Collins, was located and persuaded to sell his farm to the then Union (of South Africa) government. The site was turned over to the University of Pretoria for further exploration which continues to this day and it yielded more findings than what the five adventurers found. The find, when it made its way into the public domain stirred a lot of excitement with hundreds of treasure hunters streaming to the area. However, by the time news of the find made its way into public domain, adequate protection from National Party government and the police had been secured ensuring the preservation of what has come to be one of the most important archaeological finds in present day South Africa. Although the University of Pretoria excavated the site ever since 1932 it was kept top secret .citation needed Obviously, the find challenged and made nonsense of the conventional wisdom prevailing in South Africa at the time regarding race relations. Indeed, immediately after the find (and just like with other sites such as Great Zimbabwe), concerted attempts were made to dissociate Mapungubwe from the native people (e.g. the Vhangona, Vhatwanamba and Vhaleya clans within the Venda nation who are the direct descendents of the original occupants of Mapungubwe) and indeed, black South Africans. Just like Great Zimbabwe was associated with Arabs and everything non-African (e.g. Mullan,1969), early writings on Mapungubwe sought to associate it with everything but Bantu (e.g. Gardner, 1949 & 1955) albeit there were some authors who avaoided falling into the same trap (e.g. Walton, 1956 (a), (b)). Incidentally, it is only among the Vhangona, Vhatwanamba and Vhaleya clans (of all the black people in South Africa) that oral history and folklore making references to Mapungubwe exists to this day. Moreover, when Prof. Lestrade was conducting his ethnological investigations at the time of the first excavations of Mapungubwe, he could not find a single informant from among the Western Venda Kings/Chiefs (Mphephu-Ramabulana, Sinthumule, Kutama, etc.), Eastern Venda Kings/Chiefs (Tshivhase, Mphaphuli, Rammbuda, Makuya, etc.) nor among the Vhalemba, Tsonga-Shangaan and Karanga who was able to recognise the name Mapungubwe or its site albeit these informants had no problem in knowing about Great Zimbabwe (Fouche, 1937) (we cannot however, discount the possibility that Lestrade may simply have been seeking information from the wrong or uninformed informants!). However, Lestrade had no such problems with the Ngona, Twanamba and Leya informants.

According to an article published in 1985: translated from the Afrikaans text: Remains of a Rock Fort located on top of the hill, were under investigation, dated back to the 11th century. The Archeological site is closed to the public, except for supervised visits and tours. However some of the items discovered where on display at the Department of Archeology, at the University of Pretoria. Mapungubwe Hill and K2 were declared national monuments in the 1980s by the government.11 Until 2002 when the University of Pretoria was undergoing renovations that a large number of the artefacts collected where subsequently found locked away and forgotten in a storage room, the architect contracted to do the renovations at the University of Pretoria, Mr Moorrees Janse van Rensburg came across this room and had to break through the door as the keys were gone and no one had any knowledge of what was in the room.

When Mr van Rensburg broke the door open he found a room filled with small boxes, in those boxes were priceless gold artefacts that came from the original site. It is still a mystery how these artefacts ended up at the University and when they arrived, but the fact remains that these were deliberately kept from the public eye.

The artefacts found dated from approximately 1000 AD to 1300 AD and consisted of a variety of materials such as pottery, trade glass beads, Chinese celadon ware, gold ornaments (including the famous golden rhino), ceramic figurines, organic remains, crafted ivory and bone and refined copper and iron.

Burials at Mapungubwe Hill

At least twenty four skeletons were unearthed on Mapungubwe hill but only eleven were available for analysis, with the rest disintegrating upon touch or as soon as they were exposed to light and air. Most of the skeletal remains were buried with few or no accessories with most adults buried with glass beads. Two adult burials (labeled numbers 10 and 14 by the early excavators) as well as one unlabelled skeleton (referred to as the original gold burial)12 were associated with gold artefacts and were unearthed from the so-called grave area upon Mapungubwe hill. Recent genetic studies found these first two skeletons to be of Khoi/San decent and thought to be a king and queen of Mapungubwe. Despite this latest information the remains were all buried in the traditional Bantu burial position (sitting with legs drawn to the chest, arms folded round the front of the knees) and they were facing west. The Skeleton numbered 10, a male, was buried with his hand grasping the golden Scepter.

The skeleton labelled number 14 (female) was buried with at least 100 gold wire bangles around her ankles and there were at least one thousand gold beads in her grave. The last gold burial (male), who was most probably the King,was buried with a headrest and three objects made of gold foil tacked onto a wooden core-a bowl, scepter and rhino. At least two more rhino were in the sample, but their association with a specific grave is unknown.

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 20 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 and hence claimed the right to bury their "ancestors" with dignity. It is interesting that the current dominant aristrocats/monarchs of Venda (the Singo dynasty) whom legend, written and oral history suggests they migrated into Venda (on both sides of the Limpopo river) accompanied by their Vhalemba vassals (and in the process, conquered and subjugated the Vhangona), distanced themselves from anything related to Mapungubwe. Indeed, the principal eastern Venda King, Tshivhase's name is derived from the praise name celebrating barbaric acts of arson committed during the subjugaton of the Vhangona (he called himself, Tshivhasa midi ya vhathu, yawe i tshi sala yo tshena – i.e. He who reduced Ngona kraals to rubble through fire whilst his kraals remain untouched). As such, it came to pass that none of the three Singo Kings in the area(Ramabulana, Tshivhase and Mphaphuli) and their Chiefs (Rammbuda, Makuya, Nethengwe, Mutele, Mhinga, Tshikundu, Musekwa, Ramovha, Tshikundamalema, Mugivhi, etc.) despite them being overlords of present day Venda, took any part in the reburial ceremonies at Mapungubwe since they categorically claimed no association whatsoever with Mapungubwe! This is in stark contrast to 1996, when Chiefs Nethengwe and Mutele, among others, fully participated in the ceremonies related to the Thulamela kingdom, another "Mapungubwe like kingdom (but much later than Mapungubwe) that was "discovered" by park rangers in the northern parts of the Kruger National Park in 1993 (once again, it needs to be mentioned that descendants of the Thulamela occupants, the Vhanyai always knew about Thulamela and did not need to "discover" it, Thulamela and Greater Zimbabwe stems from a later period as Mapungubwe and are of Bantu origin. The people of Mapungubwe were probably displaced by the southward migration of the Bantu people. The rise of firstly Thulamela and shortly afterwards, greater Zimbabwe, probably lead to the demise of Mapungubwe). This unwillingness by the current (Singo dynasty) overlords of Venda to refrain from laying any claim or association with Mapungubwe probably explains why none of their key informats had any idea what and where Mapungubwe was when Prof. Lestrade inquired back in 1933! This also reflects the migration patterns of the Bantu people through the recent ages.

In true native tradition when a royal is buried, the Mapungubwe reburials were conducted at night. Each of the groups laying claim to the remains were allowed an opportunity to perform the relevant rituals (according to their traditions) associated with the burial of a royal. Interestingly, it was only the Vhangona who performed the necessary ceremonies that included among others (a) the rare "Tshikona Tsha Tshikumo" (Tshikumo is the solemn Tshikona which is performed to herald the passing of a King/Chief; and unlike the regular Tshikona dance, where participants go through choreographed moves while blowing their flutes, the Tshikumo is performed while the participants are sitting down), (b) "u phasa" (offering libation) and (c) the throwing of "Thangu" (divination bones) to obtain the necessary permission as well as appeasing the spirits. The Vhatwanamba and Vhaleya representatives neither performed any burial ritual for their departed ancestors nor provide their traditional doctor while the Vhalemba traditional doctor who was present, one Mrs. Masindi Mulovhedzi, not only claimed to have left her divining bones at home, and could therefore not conduct the necessary Lemba burial rituals befitting the occasion, but also refused the offer to use the divining bones provided by the Vhangona traditional doctors present at the ceremony (Messers. Mashudu Dima and the late Tuwani Nemungadi) as well as refusing point blank to ascend the hill when it was time for the reburial ceremony. Moreover, she also admonished her fellow Vhalemba in attendance about the dangers of dabbling in foreign practices and claimed the Mapungubwe hill has always been known as a no go area especifically for the Vhalemba (and in the process, dissuaded some among them from ascending the hill for the reburial ceremony)! This still leaves open the question of who really was the original builders of Mapungubwe ? It would appear, though, that the Mapungubwe hill is still as sacred and feared today, as has always been the case for the past one thousand years!

The Mapungubwe Landscape was declared a World Heritage Site on 3 July 2003.

Panorama from the top of Mapungubwe Hill

Mapungubwe National Park

The area is now part of Mapungubwe National Park, which with the Tuli Block (Botswana) and the Tuli Safari area (Zimbabwe), forms part of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area, now officially known as Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area.

See also


  1. ^ Hall, page 35
  2. ^ Hrbek, page 373
  3. ^ Hrbek, page 322
  4. ^ Hrbek, page 323
  5. ^ Hrbek, page 326
  6. ^ a b c Hrbek, page 324
  7. ^ a b c d Hrbek, page 325
  8. ^ "9/2/240/0001 - Mapungubwe Archaeological Site, Greefswald, Messina District". South African Heritage Resources Agency. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  9. ^ Mapungubwe: SA's lost city of gold
  10. ^ Origin of Species and Evolution, Wits University Showcase
  11. ^ "Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site: History of the Park". SANParks. Retrieved 17 November 2009. 
  12. ^ A. Duffey 2012. Mapungubwe: Interpretation of the Gold Content of the Original Gold Burial M1, A620. Journal of African Archaeology 10 (2), 2012, pages 175-187.


  • Fouche', L (1937). Mapungubwe: Ancient Bantu Civilisation on the Limpopo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 183 pages. 
  • Gardner, G.A (1949). "Hottentot Culture on the Limpopo". South African Archeological Journal 4 (16): 116–121. 
  • Gardner, G.A (1955). "Mapungubwe: 1935 – 1940". South African Archeological Journal 10 (39): 73–77. 
  • Hall, Martin & Rebecca Stefoff (2006). Great Zimbabwe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 48 pages. ISBN 0-19515-773-7. 
  • Hrbek, Ivan; Fasi, Muhammad (1988). Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. London: Unesco. pp. 869 pages. ISBN 9-23101-709-8. 
  • Mullan, James.E (1969). The Arab Builders of Zimbabwe. Mutare: Rhodesia Mission Press. pp. 173 pages. 
  • Walton,J (1956). "Mapungubwe and Bambandyanalo". South African Archeological Journal 11 (41): 27. 
  • Walton,J (1956). "Mapungubwe and Bambandyanalo". South African Archeological Journal 11 (44): 111. 

External links

Coordinates: 22°11′33″S 029°14′20″E / 22.19250°S 29.23889°E / -22.19250; 29.23889

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