Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape in Mapungubwe National Park, part of the Limpopo/Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area, is South Africa’s 5th World Heritage Site. Mapungubwe was an ancient African citadel set atop a natural stone stronghold, overlooking what are now the adjoining borders of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers.
Archaeological remains discovered on this hill in 1933 record the growth and then decline of an African capital city between AD 900 and 1300, which at its height, was the largest kingdom in southern Africa. Intact royal grave sites have produced priceless golden artefacts including a gold-foiled rhinoceros, royal sceptre and bowl.
These items, along with thousands of beads and other tools, are clues to a prosperous and powerful society, whose economy, significantly, was rooted in trade, rather than agriculture or animal husbandry. Artefacts recovered show Arab, Chinese and Indian traders reached this area from Mozambique, bringing with them glass beads, cowrie and mussel shells to exchange for ivory and gold (it is believed the ‘Mapungubwians’ panned for gold from the Shashe River).
With no written records or surviving oral history, Mapungubwe remains a place of myth and superstition.
The treasures unearthed here can be viewed at the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria. Some scientists have argued that irreversible climate change brought this civilisation to an end, whilst others cite a shift in trade routes from Mapungubwe to Great Zimbabwe, another influential African civilisation known to have existed around the same time.
What is certain is that Mapungubwe provides convincing evidence of a powerful African trading empire, with a complex economy and social hierarchy that existed in Southern Africa long before the Europeans arrived at the Cape in 1652.