History Monday: The Kingdom of Mapungubwe

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe is one of the pre-colonial kingdoms of Southern Africa. Dating between 1075 and 1220 CE. Located in the Limpopo region of South Africa, it is included in our History Monday’s as it has great significance to the early history of  Zimbabwe

Mapungubwe, located in the very north of South Africa just below the Limpopo River, was an Iron Age settlement and kingdom which flourished between the 11th and 13th century CE. It was perhaps southern Africa’s first state. Mapungubwe, whose name means either ‘stone monuments’ in reference to the large stone houses and walls of the site or ‘hill of the jackal’, prospered due to the savannah’s suitability for cattle herding and its access to copper and ivory which permitted long-distance trade and brought gold and other exotic goods to the ruling elite. The site went into decline from the end of the 13th century CE, most likely due to an exhaustion of local resources, including agricultural land, and the movement of interregional trade to such sites as Great Zimbabwe further north. Mapungubwe was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003 CE.

Mapungubwe Plateau

Without any contemporary written records, a somewhat incomplete history of the communities living in this area must be pieced together from archaeological finds only. There is also very little evidence for the existence of any state apparatus beyond the obvious wealth of the capital which would suggest a centralised authority which monopolised trade, wealth, and could command labour to build large stone structures. The king & his court dwelt in a stone enclosure composed of stone walls & housing built on the highest level of the community’s territory. The kingdom of Mapungubwe was formed by Bantu-speaking peoples who were pastoralists. The area controlled by the rulers of Mapungubwe has at its heart a large sandstone plateau, easily defended due to its inaccessibility. As with other kingdoms in the region of southern Africa, agriculture, especially cattle herding and the growing of sorghum and cowpeas, brought plenty of food and a surplus that could be traded for needed goods. Archaeology has revealed extensive layers of bones and manure, which indicate that from the 9th century CE there were large cattle herds, the traditional source of wealth and political power in southern African communities. The archaeological record for the 10th century CE shows a marked increase in the number of domesticated cattle in the area as well as cotton cultivation and weaving as indicated by abundant finds of spindle whorls.

Government & Society

The chief or king of Mapungubwe was likely the wealthiest individual in the society, that is he owned more cattle and precious materials acquired via trade than anyone else. There was also some sort of religious association between the king and rainmaking, a vital necessity for agriculture in such a dry landscape. The king and his court dwelt in a stone enclosure composed of stone walls and housing built on the highest level of the community’s territory, a natural sandstone hill which is some 30 metres (98 ft) high and 100 metres (328 ft) in length. Occupation on the hill dates from the 11th century CE. That royal wives lived separately from the king is indicated by a number of separate dwellings where grindstones have been discovered. The whole complex was originally surrounded by a wooden palisade as indicated by postholes made in the rock.

1. Claassens, C. (2017) A brief history of  South Africa’s Pre-Colonial Kingdom of Mapungubwe. Available from: http://www.theculturetrip.com/africa/south-africa/articles/ a-brief-history-of-south-africas-pre-colonial-kingdom-of-mapungubwe/ (Accessed 22 July 2017)

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