Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
Cultural South Africa Africa Northern Province

The Mapungubwe landscape contains evidence for an important interchange of human values that led to far-reaching cultural and social changes in Southern Africa between AD 900 and 1300. The establishment of Mapungubwe as a powerful state trading through the East African ports with Arabia and India was a significant stage in the history of the African subcontinent. The remains in the Mapungubwe area are a remarkably complete testimony to the growth and its subsequent decline of a state of which at its height was the largest kingdom in the southern African subcontinent. They also graphically illustrate the impact of climate change and record the growth and the decline of the kingdom of Mapungubwe: a record of a culture that became vulnerable to irreversible change.

The Mapungubwe kingdom had largely faded out of history by the mid-16th century. At the height of its powers, the centralized and hierarchical society encompassed at least 9,000 people and had huge wealth and influence gained from harvesting rich natural resource and trading these, via Indian Ocean ports, with Arabia, India and China. Sited at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, which flooded to provide fertile alluvial soils, and with almost ideal climatic conditions, Mapungubwe had attracted Iron Age agriculturalists from the mid-1st millennium AD, and before that there is much evidence of hunter-gatherers. What transformed Mapungubwe from a small-scale, rural society into an influential city-state was the development of a social structure that encouraged population growth through comparatively intensive agriculture, and of a hierarchical system that produced specialization and a trading economy (ivory and gold). Mapungubwe's wealth and social structures are evident in the three palaces built during the three phases of its growth between 900 and its demise, brought on by a rapid change in the climate, a sort of mini Ice Age. The southern African power base shifted north to Great Zimbabwe. The overall site thus illustrates successive stages in the creation of the first indigenous kingdom in Southern Africa and its ultimate decline. The Mapungubwe is magnificent in landscape terms, with superb views in all directions, but the excavated remains are not very impressive. Specifically the site contains:

  • Remains of palaces, 1220-90 (Mapungubwe period): these reflect not only Mapungubwe's great wealth but also the social, religious and political hierarchy that developed as a result of population expansion based on successful intensive agriculture and international trade through East African coastal ports with India and China of gold and ivory in return for ceramics, glass beads and other luxury goods
  • Archaeological remains testifying to Mapungubwe's growth, 900-1200: Zhizo sites represent the first pioneer farmers to settle near the rivers. The largest is Schroda on a plateau overlooking the Limpopo valley. A degree of hierarchy was emerging, but the settlements still reflected a very typical southern African pattern - houses encircling a large cattle enclosure. Large quantities of clay figurines of people and animals (domesticated sheep, goats, cattle and dogs) suggest some sort of centralised ritual ceremonies. After a century Schroda was abandoned and a new capital established by incoming people: Leopard's Kopje. There is also evidence of iron and copper working. After another century came the final phase of Mapungubwe with, it seems, the population moving to the bottom of the hill below the newly built palace.
  • Remains of early settlement: Stone Age and Iron Age, and rock art: the combination of a riverine environment and sandstone hills seems to have provided a focus for human settlement whenever climatic conditions have been favourable. Ancestors of the San Bushmen lived in the area for many millennia;Stone Age occupation is evident from 26 sites. Between AD 250 and 900, these hunter-gathers were gradually replaced or absorbed by Iron Age agriculturalists who, after 900, begun to form the foundations of the Mapungubwe state.
  • 'Natural' landscape surrounding the built remains: this extensive landscape is today a backdrop for the site. The huge agricultural enterprise of the final phase at Mapungubwe has vanished and much of the core of the landscape has now been returned largely to its unimproved state with wild grazing game animals. Some farms still remain, growing citrus in irrigated fields. In the valley irrigation allows large-scale commercial farming and game ranching but some of this has been cleared and it is planned more will follow.