Kingdom of Mapungubwe

Kingdom of Mapungubwe
Kingdom of Mapungubwe

Mapungubwe Hill

Capital Mapungubwe
Religion Cult of Mwari
Political structure Kingdom
President Unknown (first)
Unknown (last)
 - K2 culture moves to Mapungubwe Hill 1075
 - Mapungubwe Hill abandoned and travels to different places 1220
Historical states
in present-day
South Africa
South Africa topo continent.png

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 29.6°E / -22.033; 29.6), 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 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 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 councilor.[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]


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, national park, and archaeological site. Contrary to conventional wisdom which suggests that Mapungubwe means "place of Jackals or place where jackals eat", derived from Phunguwe, the Venda word for Jackal or Phukubje, the Tsonga word for Blackbacked jackal; Mapungubwe means "place of boiling stones". The word is derived from Pungu (Venda) for boiling/simmering (most probably from the obvious evidence of extensive volcanic activity in and around the area and the suffix bwe/hwe (Venda), tye (nguni), bye (tsonga), we (Kiswahili), etc which are all (Bantu language) for stones/rocks/boulders, e.g Mahematshena – (Venda for – place of white rocks/stones/boulders), Zimbabwe(Dzimba za Mabwe) houses of stones, Mawe – Kiswahili for stones, e li tye (Xhosa/Zulu for stone), etc. The hill was littered with human bones which attracted these scavengers.[8] 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.[6] Aside from the king, there was principal councilor who organized cases to be heard by the royal court as well audiences before the king.[7]

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 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.

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]


Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape *
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Country South Africa
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iii, iv, v
Reference 1099
Region ** Africa
Inscription history
Inscription 2003 (27th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List
** Region as classified by UNESCO

After Mapungubwe's fall, it was forgotten until 1932. On New Year's Eve 1932, E. S. J. van Graan, a local farmer and prospector, and his son, a former student of the University of Pretoria, discovered the wealth of artifacts on top of the hill. They reported the find to Professor Leo Fouché of the University of Pretoria, paving the way for excavations that continue to this day. Although the University of Pretoria excavated the site ever since 1932 it was kept top secret[citation needed]. According to an article published in 1985: translated from the Afrikaans text: Remains of a Rock Fort located on top of the hill, where under investigation, dated back to the 11th century. Archeological site is closed to the public, 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.[11] Until 2002 when the University of Pretoria was under going renovations that a large number of the artifacts 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 nowhere to be found and no one had any knowledge of what was in the room. It appeared that this was a secret that was purposely withheld from the South African public.

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

The artifacts 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.

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 d Hrbek, page 324
  7. ^ a b c d e Hrbek, page 325
  8. ^ du Plessis, E.J. (1973). Suid-Afrikaanse berg- en riviername. Tafelberg-uitgewers, Cape Town. p. 139. ISBN 0-624-00273X. 
  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. 


  • 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. 

External links

Coordinates: 22°11′33″S 029°14′20″E / 22.1925°S 29.23889°E / -22.1925; 29.23889

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