Unmasking ancient kingdoms

Mapungubwe in South Africa and Great Zimbabwe across the border are mysterious places. Ancient and otherworldly, these African kingdoms still hold plenty of secrets that keep both archaeologists and tourists captivated. However, what we do know is just as fascinating.

The royal ramparts of southern Africa’s first kingdom lie unobtrusively along the Limpopo River, though to the uninformed, Mapungubwe is simply a large rocky outcrop.
This was a bustling kingdom about 700 years ago. Over 5 000 people lived where the Limpopo and Shashe rivers meet, in the mighty Kingdom of Mapungubwe. Here, they hunted elephants for ivory, smelted gold, iron and copper, and traded with exotic cultures on the east coast of Africa. Gold and ivory were swopped for tiny glass beads, cloth and Chinese porcelain. All went well for 200 years, but then in 1290, the people of Mapungubwe grew restless, packed up and left. Malaria, dramatic climate change or political discord were all possible reasons — nobody knows for sure.

What is known is that the Kingdom of Mapungubwe split into factions. Some headed north and crossed the Limpopo to form part of the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, while others headed east to possibly form the Kingdom of Thulamela in northern Kruger National Park. Plenty of mystery remains.

We slowly climb the wooden ladder and summit the flat-topped royal Mapungubwe Hill. Crude rock larders, stone game boards and large free standing grinding stones are all still there to see, along with a panoramic view over Mapungubwe National Park. Down below, an archaeological dig site tells the story of what happened here through layers of earth. It's no surprise that the whole area is a Unesco World Heritage Site.



The ancient kingdom was discovered by a thirsty hunting party in 1932. In search of water, they approached a mud hut and asked the owner for a drink. He poured the water from an intriguing clay pot; but wouldn't say where he got it. Eventually, he whispered that it came from a nearby hill. That hill was the site of the ancient Kingdom of Mapungubwe, lost from sight for centuries.

The University of Pretoria has extensively excavated the site since then and estimates that the area was inhabited from AD 1030 to 1290. Archaeological evidence suggests the actual hill was only settled in about AD 1220, when Mapungubwe was already the hub of a powerful kingdom ruling the north of Limpopo province, along with northeast Botswana and southern Zimbabwe.

Interestingly, Mapungubwe gives evidence of one of the first class systems in southern Africa. The royals lived on the hilltop while farmers and crafters lived around the base of the hill, offering a protective buffer to the royals. The commoners farmed cattle, sheep and goats, millet, sorghum and cotton – evidence of which has been found in ancient storage huts. It was a powerful and rich kingdom if the countless rare treasures unearthed there are anything to go by. Examples of these are on display in the museum and interpretation centre in Mapungubwe National Park.

The most famous discovery by far is the one-horned gold rhinoceros, though jewellery, ornaments and countless glass beads were also found on the royal hill. Archaeologists also found three royal graves filled with treasures. This Iron Age community appeared to have buried at least some of their dead in a sitting position, facing east. The reason remains a mystery.



Less seems to be known about the group who created Great Zimbabwe. The stone-walled kingdom adorned with fiery aloes is an ancient city built by the ancestors of the Shona people. Construction started in the 11th century and it took over 300 years to complete the structure with walls five metres thick and 11 metres high. In its prime, Great Zimbabwe was thought to be home to between 10 000 and 18 000 Shona cattle herders, along with traders who travelled as far as Zanzibar to barter with gold and ivory.

Great Zimbabwe’s influence was vast and stretched for 100 000 km.. Its massive, open-topped Great Enclosure remains the largest stone structure south of the pyramids. The remaining ruins cover an impressive 730 hectares. However, archaeologists still don't know the definitive purpose of this Great Enclosure, built from solid granite blocks. It was possibly a royal escape from the masses, though that is mere speculation. Plentiful treasures were discovered here too, most notably eight large soapstone birds, along with pottery, iron gongs and hoes, gold beads and copper ingots. Glass beads, Arabian coins and chinaware allude to foreign trade links, suggesting that Great Zimbabwe was a key trading centre. Thulamela, in northern Kruger National Park, may not be as impressive as Great Zimbabwe, though similar artifacts were found there, which also suggest trade. It's believed that Shona ancestors established this Iron Age city as well, which was inhabited from 1240 to 1700. Evidence of different social classes was also found here.

It is also not clear why the 2 000 inhabitants of Thulamela left. These and many other questions remain unanswered since there's no written history from the kingdom, and its oral history disappeared with its residents. Only two royal skeletons remain. The intrigue around southern Africa’s early kingdoms continues, and seemingly always will. Great Zimbabwe is the most elaborate for sure, while it's believed Mapungubwe was the first – though it was also the simplest and most hidden of them all.


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Words by: Keri Harvey
Images by: ISTOCK
Courtesy of Mikateko Media.