So what is Mapungubwe anyway?

Mapungubwe National Park. (Photo: iStock)
Mapungubwe National Park. (Photo: iStock)

It’s a name that’s become synonomous with our heritage and proof of how advanced our ancestors were, but not many people know about it? Phumlani S Langa goes on a tour with SANParks to visit the ancient kingdom in Limpopo.

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe is not by and large known to the younger generation of South Africans, but it tells a tale of immense significance; a tale of an ancient people boasting traces of an advanced civilisation who lived more than 1 000 years ago in what is now northern Limpopo, east of Musina.

Seven hours from Johannesburg, the Mapungubwe National Park is breathtaking. The infinity of the grassland and the mystery of the baobab tree just don’t get old.

You can feel it in the air – there’s more to this place than meets the eye.

#trending was invited to the historical space to learn about the significance of the Mapungubwe Hill.

Not knowing what to expect and feeling a little fragile from the journey, our first stop is the museum – a beautiful modern structure that houses precious artefacts and preserves the natural beauty of the reserve. It looks like it belongs. For safety reasons, tourists are not allowed to take photos, and the security guards keep a beady eye on you.

Rey Thakuli, one of the guides, explains: “There have been a few threats to security and we think some people visit this place with ulterior motives.”


The Kingdom of Mapungubwe (1220 AD to 1300 AD) is located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, south of Great Zimbabwe. The name is derived from either Venda or Shona – it can’t be said for certain which one – and may mean “place of jackals” or “place of wisdom”. Some believe it means the place where rock turns to liquid.

All of this could be true of the region – it’s a template of sorts for how the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe might have come into being, and was once a major trading post with links to Rhapta and Kilwa Kisiwani on the African east coast.

The precolonial kingdom enjoyed a run of about 80 years. Three nations lived here – the Bukalanga from northeast Botswana, the Karanga from western Zimbabwe and the vhaVenda in the northeast of South Africa. They were the first Bantu people to cross the Limpopo River to the south.

How did these three nations communicate and accommodate their differences – sign language and drawings. Despite theories surmising that these nations were feuding, evidence suggests that they lived in harmony.


According to another guide, local farmer Jerry van Graan was out hunting one day in 1933 when he stopped to ask a man by the name of Mowena for some water. The man handed him a bucket with some cool water, which the farmer enjoyed. He asked Mowena where he got the water and Mowena told him his ancestors provided it.

Van Graan wanted to know where the ancestors were, but Mowena was reluctant to reveal this. Mowena’s brother was a little more open to the idea of receiving payment in exchange for providing this information and he showed Van Graan a hill. With his back to the hill – about 100m away – he gestured towards the hill. He wouldn’t face it because he feared his ancestors would curse him.

What Van Graan found at the summit of this hill was significant evidence suggesting that black people were, in fact, not as barbaric and savage as the racist ideology of apartheid had led people to believe.


The hill where the nobles of the day once lived is reached by climbing a steep staircase. An incredible rock fig tree flanks the steps.

Before the strenuous climb, a local traditional healer performs a ceremony, offering traditional beer to the ancestors and reminding us that we’re stepping on sacred land.

The view from the top is stunning. Traces of life remain carved into the rock. It contains hollows, which are said to have been used for bathing, and there are stones that look like they could have been used as mortars and pestles. A flat rock with little holes was most likely used to play a game with small pebbles that are moved from one to the other. Sound familiar?

An array of lost relics was retrieved at the two excavation sites. The most impressive was a mini rhino made of gold foil pinned to a wooden core. Featured in one of South Africa’s national orders – the Order of Mapungubwe – it has come to symbolise the ancient culture of Mapungubwe.

The rhino is a symbol of leadership among the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The wooden core has rotted away, leaving just the hard golden outer layer of the small sculpture that was probably made for the leader of the kingdom.

Other artefacts made in similar fashion include a golden sceptre and a golden bowl, found in a grave on Mapungubwe Hill where 24 skeletons were found. Some were too badly decomposed to allow for further examination, but much was learnt from the rest.

All these people were buried in the traditional Bantu way – sitting, with their legs against their chest and arms folded in front of the knees, facing west. Only some were buried with accessories. One of the female skeletons had roughly 100 gold bangles around her ankles and 1 000 glass beads in her tomb. Another skeleton was buried with a headrest and three objects made of gold foil: a rhino, a bowl and a sceptre.


Today’s society seems to forget that all our tribes were once one, but Mapungubwe is a timely reminder of our past. Radiocarbon dating shows the first buildings were constructed at the base of the hill at the beginning of the 11th century.

Adjacent to Mapungubwe is an even earlier sister site, Bambandyanalo. It seems the centre of the state shifted from Bambandyanalo to Mapungubwe hill in about 1045 AD, which some scholars believe to be because of overcrowding. Around this time, hills and mountains came to be associated with royalty and the noble classes began to build their structures on higher ground.

There are theories that suggest the emergence of Great Zimbabwe might have triggered the demise of Mapungubwe. A king’s power was based on how much he could amass to provide his people with food, especially in dry seasons. The larger the kingdom, the more agricultural tributes the king received, making him more able to provide.

Perhaps a change in climate saw the people of this kingdom leave in search of greener pastures. Perhaps the three nations had different ideas about the way forward. Whatever the cause, the kingdom perished when its inhabitants moved north and south.

The farmer’s discovery (which it really isn’t – people lived there and just because colonial powers know about it, it’s a discovery) was kept secret by government until South Africa’s liberation in 1994. The apartheid state kept Mapungubwe Hill under wraps for reasons I’m sure you can piece together.

Unearthing the truth about our history and heritage should be important to us youngsters.

Perhaps understanding the people who came before us can help our modern kingdom, which seems to be based on principles that are far removed from the ones our forefathers lived by.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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