The discovery of the stone citadel of Thulamela, which means ‘place of birth’ in the VhaVenda language, is regarded as one of the most important archaeological sites in South Africa. Lying west of Pafuri, Thulamela was a stone-walled city atop a plateau in the Soutpansberg, and archaeological digs there revealed a well-organised mountain kingdom, ruled by an African monarch that flourished between 1200 and 1600 AD.
Its inhabitants were highly industrialised, and included skilled goldsmiths and iron workers. The findings at Thulamela, coupled with the discovery of numerous pre-colonial mines in the region, show that the local people extracted iron ore, converted it into iron and traded with it long before the arrival of Europeans in southern Africa.
Thulamela’s citizens also bartered gold objects and glass beads from India, and shards of Chinese Ming Dynasty porcelain have been unearthed. Iron gongs suggest trade links with West Africa. A royal enclosure perched on the steep cliffs overlooking the Luvuvhu River was excavated, and the bodies of both the queen and king’were found ornamented with gold, indicating their royal status.
Extensive community consultation took place during the course of reconstruction and both local VhaVenda and Shangaan ChiTsonga cultures claim links to this site. The implications of Thulamela are profound, providing clues to a technologically sophisticated heritage, whilst underpinning a renewed southern African cultural renaissance.