An afternoon in the ruins of Mapungubwe

A thousand years ago an African civilisation wrought beautiful objects, and traded with Egypt, India and China.

We reached the summit of Mapungubwe Hill in the late afternoon. As we stood in awe surveying our surroundings, a gentle breeze swept over the serene mountaintop. It felt like a welcome gesture from the gods.

The summit offered a panoramic view of Mapungubwe National Park, located about 80km west of Musina, Limpopo. It is a Unesco World Heritage site owing to its historical and archeological significance to Africa, its people and humankind in general.

To the northwest of Mapungubwe Hill, the beauty of the wide Limpopo River, on its way to meet the Shashe River, begs the viewer’s eyes to linger. It always incites a smile.

To the east, north and south, curiously shaped sandstone hills tower over the dry, open plains where giant baobabs stretch into the skies like abstract artworks of the gods. Legend has it that baobabs were planted upside down by the gods as an expression of their wrath long before the Mapungubwe ancestors set foot on this land. 

It felt good to be standing at one of the many sites in the history of civilisation, that dispels the myths perpetrated by colonialists that Europeans brought light to what they termed “darkest” Africa. Here, more than 800 years ago, Africans ruled over vast stretches of land, mined gold, designed and made beautiful artefacts mined and traded with people across the continent, and from across the seas.

Standing there, I couldn’t shake the deep-seated pain of curiosity induced by history. What did the people of Mapungubwe do on such lovely afternoons here on the flat hilltop? What matters did they discuss? What did they do when the sun set? Did they sing? What did they sing about?

Did they foresee and talk about such a time when Mapungubwe would be deserted and reduced from a centre of power in an old African civilisation to a heritage site subject to the intrigue of scholars, researchers, travellers and historians? There’s a certain melancholy in the way that history throws up so many questions along with the answers that are salvaged from our deep past.

A thriving capital

Our deeply knowledgeable and passionate guides, Johannes Masalesa and Cedric Setlhako, took us back 800 years to a time when this hilltop was home to royalty, when earthen huts were perched where we now stood.

The area was inhabited by a growing Iron Age community from 900 AD. Mapungubwe was a thriving capital of a kingdom that stretched across the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Gold was mined just across the Limpopo river in what is now Zimbabwe and traded with people as far away as present day Egypt, India and China. They also traded in ivory, pottery, copper and other goods. In turn, the traders from across the seas brought with them spices, silk, glass beads, ceramics and other trinkets.

Historical research shows that Mapungubwe was occupied between 1220 and 1290, when it was abandoned for reasons not clear but believed to be linked to either drought or disease.

The local people knew of its rich history and held Mapungubwe Hill and the surrounds in awe, and it was only in 1932 that its legendary status as the centre of a great African civilisation reached the outside world after a local farmer and prospector, ESJ van Graan, and his son, were shown the hill by the cousin of a man known as Mokwena, a descendant of the inhabitants of the kingdom.

If Mokwena’s cousin had not broken with tradition, which dictated the hill’s legendary status not to be revealed to outsiders, or even pointed at out of respect, the treasures of Mapungubwe may have remained undisturbed and hidden where the elders had left them. Curse the tjatjarag descendant who defied the gods and tradition, and revealed the ages old secret to Van Graan, the equally tjatjarag stranger.

The knowledge of this aspect of our past would have remained among the local people, and the story of an African civilisation would not have been spread to the rest of the world.

Van Graan, his son and a group of friends explored the site and uncovered extraordinary treasures, including gold-plated artefacts and glass beads, as well as a human skeleton.

Van Graan’s son was a student at the University of Pretoria, and when he revealed the findings to his professor, a ceaseless caravan of white scholars, explorers, archeologists and researchers made their way to Mapungubwe. 

The excavations at Mapungubwe over the years yielded fascinating objects that connect this place to a world across the seas. They expose a people who were industrious, creative crafters with an expert understanding of metallurgy.

Valuable insights

Mapungubwe is one of an archipelago of historical sites that, together, throw the colonial history of Africa into the dustbin. Africa was neither isolated from the rest of the world prior to European conquest, nor was it backward. The racist fantasies that declare that Africans were so backward when they met Europeans that they shivered while exchanging their land and cattle for pieces of broken mirror tell us far more about those that trade in racist myths than they do about reality.

The park’s Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre offers valuable insights into the ecological history of the ancient city. The centre, designed in the stone wall method of building similar to that of Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe, won the 2009 World Architectural Building of the Year award. It houses historical artefacts, images and information that takes visitors on the long journey of the Mapungubwe pioneers.

The park offers activities such as guided tours to the archaeological and cultural sites, and game drives along carefully designed eco routes that do not disturb the rugged nature of the area.

On a self-drive around the park, I came across large herds of elephant that move across the international borders between the three countries at will, just like, the Mapungubweans did in the days before the Berlin conference fragmented and divided Africa into little portions controlled by bearded European men in faraway countries.

As we approached Mapungubwe Hill on a game truck, we spotted a herd of more than a dozen elephant powering slowly in our direction. Setlhako carefully brought the truck to a halt. We waited patiently to allow them to make their way. It was a sight to behold, the gentle giants of Africa moving about freely below the ancient hills.

I wondered if this was the sight the inhabitants of old Mapungubwe witnessed daily. It must have been a good life, I thought.

– Mukurukuru Media.

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