The rest of the community lived in mud and thatch housing spread out below the hill, although there is one stone structure here. This area is known as Babandyanalo or K2 and, covering around 5 hectares (12.3 acres), its original settlement pre-dates the hilltop site above. Babandyanalo is abundant in cattle enclosures, burials and figurines, all attesting to the importance of this animal at the site. The total population of Mapungubwe at its peak in the mid-13th century CE was around 5,000 people.
The king was buried along with his predecessors at the top of the hill site in a demarcated area away from the dwellings while commoners were buried at the surrounding valley level. A wooden staircase connected the two levels, the sockets for the steps being clearly visible in the sandstone cliff face. There are some grander residences dotted around the outskirts of the lower level town, and these probably belonged to male relatives of the king. It is known that in Bantu society such males, serious competitors for the king’s position, were not permitted to live directly within the community.
There are many other smaller but still impressive hilltop sites across the Mapungubwe plateau which are located anywhere from 15 to 100 kilometres (9 to 60 miles) from the capital. Containing stone residences and walls, they likely belonged to local chiefs who acted as vassals to the king at Mapungubwe.
The Mapungubwe plateau has a very high number of carnivore animal remains and ivory splinters, suggesting that animal hides and ivory elephant tusks were accumulated, probably for trade with coastal areas reached by the Limpopo River. The presence of glass beads, almost certainly from India, and fragments of Chinese celadon vessels indicate there was certainly trade of some sort with other states on the coast who, in turn, traded with merchants travelling from India and Arabia by sea. Contemporary with the Kingdom of Zimbabwe (12-15th century CE), located to the north on the savannah plateau on the other side of the Limpopo River, Mapungubwe would also have benefitted from locally-sourced copper and the gold trade that passed through from south-west Zimbabwe to the coastal city of Kosala. Indeed, initially, Great Zimbabwe may have been a client state of Mapungubwe. The prosperity that trade links brought would likely have led to a strengthening of political authority in order to control and even monopolise these lucrative interregional connections. Gold objects at Mapungubwe are the first known indicators the metal had an intrinsic value of its own in southern Africa.
Pottery was produced on a scale large enough to suggest the presence of professional potters, and it is another indicator of a prosperous society, perhaps with different class levels. Forms include spherical vessels with short necks, beakers, and hemispherical bowls while many are decorated with incisions and comb stamps. There are also ceramic disks of unknown purpose, whistles, and one giraffe figurine. In addition, cattle, sheep, and goat figurines, and small figures of highly stylised humans with elongated bodies and short limbs have been found, often in a domestic setting. The figures may have been used as votive offerings to ancestors or gods and relate to prosperity and fertility but their precise function is not known. Other finds include small jewellery items made from copper or ivory.
A particular type of decoration, only found elsewhere at Great Zimbabwe, was to beat gold into small rectangular sheets which were then decorated with geometrical patterns made by incision and used to cover wooden objects (which have not survived) using small tacks, also made of gold. One such covered object may have been a sceptre, while additional evidence of local gold-working is a rhinoceros figurine made from small hammered sheets, fragments of gold bangles, and thousands of small gold beads. These objects were found at the royal burial site, and, dating to c. 1150 CE, these are the first known indicators that gold had an intrinsic value of its own (as opposed to just a commodity currency) in southern Africa.
The kingdom of Mapungubwe was already in decline by the late 13th century CE, probably because of overpopulation putting too much stress on local resources, a situation that may have been brought to a crisis point by a series of droughts. Trade routes may also have shifted northwards and local resources run out. Certainly, the kingdoms that now prospered were to the north, such as Great Zimbabwe and then the Kingdom of Mutapa in northern Zimbabwe and southern Zambia, established c. 1450 CE.
- Claassen, C. (2017) A brief history of South Africa’s pre-colonial Kingdom of Mapungubwe. Available from: https://theculturetrip.com/africa/south-africa/articles/a-brief-history-of-south-africas-pre-colonial-kingdom-of-mapungubwe/ (Accessed 22 July 2017)