The medieval states of Southern Africa boasted of sophisticated civilizations that were centered around agriculture, trade, and spirituality. Often dubbed the first kingdom of Southern Africa, the Mapungubwe Kingdom has been noted by various historians for its illustrious growth, and for being a forerunner to the later states that flourished in Southern Africa.
The Mapungubwe Kingdom was located in South Africa at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, and it witnessed its peak years of existence from circa 1075-1220. Mapungubwe’s name meant either “stone monuments” – because of the large stone houses and walls – or “hill of the jackal”. The kingdom thrived due to the savannah’s suitability for cattle herding and the lucrative long-distance trade brought about by its proximity to copper and ivory. In turn, these commodities enabled the ruling elite to acquire gold and other exotic goods.
After the Mapungubwe site had peaked from the 11th to 13th century CE, it went into decline from the end of the 13th century. This was mainly because of the exhaustion of local resources, particularly agricultural land, as well as the shift of interregional trade to northern sites such as Great Zimbabwe.
Archaeological findings have been the chief sources of information about the Mapungubwe communities since no written records were left. The kingdom originated from Bantu-speaking pastoralists. The mixed agricultural opportunities led to the growth of the communities. Agriculture – a central feature of southern African kingdoms – was at the heart of the Mapungubwe kingdom.
Cattle herding and the growing of sorghum and cowpeas yielded plenty of food for the kingdom. There was surplus produce and was essential for trade. Archaeological evidence showed extensive layers of bones and manure, signs that from the 9th century CE, there were large cattle herds – the overarching symbol of wealth, security, and political power in southern African communities. Cotton cultivation and weaving were also key economical features as revealed by copious finds of spindle whorls.
Mapungubwe was structured around social classes, with the chief or king being the wealthiest individual in society – as he owned more cattle and precious materials (obtained through trade) than anyone else. Archaeologists are of the view that it is the first class-based social system in southern Africa.
The king and his court resided in a stone enclosure made of stone walls and housing built on the highest level of the community’s territory (on a natural sandstone hill which is approximately 30 meters high and 100 meters in length). The capital at Mapungubwe hill was the supreme authority. The king was instrumental in rainmaking ceremonies, an important feature of the spiritual and agricultural life of the Mapungubwe inhabitants.
The elite lived on top of the Mapungubwe hill, whose occupation dates from the 11th century CE. The royal wives lived separately from the common inhabitants as evidenced by several separate dwellings where grindstones have been discovered.
The rest of the community lived in mud and thatch housing dispersed below the hill (there is one stone structure here). This area, known as Babandyanalo or K2, covers around 5 hectares and its original settlement predates the hill mentioned above. K2 is filled with cattle enclosures, burials, and figurines, all signifying the importance of this animal at the site.
Burial ceremonies were also centered around the societal hierarchy, with the kings buried along with their predecessors at the top of the hill. This was in a demarcated area away from the dwellings. Three of the people found in the cemetery at the hill were buried upright, in a sitting position, showing their royalty. They were buried with gold and copper ornaments and glass beads, indicating that the people of Mapungubwe were skilled in dealing with gold. The common residents were buried at the surrounding valley level. The total population of the Mapungubwe kingdom at its peak (mid-13th century CE) was 5,000 people.
The Mapungubwe plateau was abundant with carnivore animal remains and ivory splinters showing that animal hides and ivory elephant tusks were accumulated, tenably for trade with coastal areas reached by the Limpopo River. The presence of glass beads suggests trade with India, while fragments of Chinese celadon vessels show there was trade with other coastal states which traded with merchants travelling from India and Arabia by sea. Mapungubwe also benefitted copper and the gold trade that passed through from south-west Zimbabwe to the coastal city of Kosala. It is thought that initially, Great Zimbabwe was a client state of Mapungubwe.
Regarding art, pottery was produced in large quantities, showing a sophisticated society with professional potters. The pottery came in different forms. This included “spherical vessels with short necks, beakers, and hemispherical bowls while many are decorated with incisions and comb stamps.” Ceramic disks were also part of the Mapungubwe societal art, as well as whistles, a giraffe figurine; cattle, sheep, and goat figurines, and small figures of highly stylized “humans with elongated bodies and short limbs have been found in domestic settings.”
The kingdom of Mapungubwe went into decline due to various factors, chief among them being the exhaustion of local resources due to overpopulation, a phenomenon that could have been brought about by a series of droughts. Trade routes did not remain static as they shifted northwards to states like Great Zimbabwe and the Mutapa kingdom.