The Golden Rhinoceros
The discovery of gold in stone ruins north of the Limpopo River in the 1890s attracted prospectors and treasure hunters to the Limpopo River valley. In 1932, the ruins of Mapungubwe were uncovered. Subsequent excavations revealed a court sheltered in a natural amphitheater at the bottom of the hill, and an elite graveyard at the top—with a spectacular view of the region. Twenty-three graves have been excavated from this hilltop site. The bodies in three of these graves were buried in the upright seated position associated with royalty, with a variety of gold and copper items, exotic glass beads, and other prestigious objects. These finds provide evidence not only of the early smithing of gold in southern Africa but of the extensive wealth and social differentiation of the people of Mapungubwe. Most spectacular among these finds is a gold foil rhinoceros molded over what was likely a soft core of sculpted wood.
Trade Links to the North
Located at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shasherivers, the community settled at K2 close to Bambandyanalo Hill during the eleventh century but had expanded to nearby Mapungubwe Hill by 1220. Mapungubwe flourished as a city and trading center from 1220 to 1290/1300. Considered by some as the capital of southern Africa’s first state, Mapungubwe may have reached a population of 5,000. The city grew in part because of its access to the Limpopo River, which connected the region through trade to the ports of Kilwa and other sites along the Indian Ocean. This new trade was grafted onto existing regional networks along which salt, cattle, fish, metals, chert, ostrich-eggshell beads, and other items had been flowing for centuries. New prestige items, including glass beads and cloth, were introduced through the Swahili trade and were likely exchanged for gold, ivory, and other locally produced goods.
Mapungubwe is the earliest known site in southern Africa where the leaders were spatially separated from their followers, reflecting the evolution of a class-based society. The homes, diet, and elaborate burials of the wealthy and privileged elite, contrast to those of the commoners, who lived at the foot of Mapungubwe and the surrounding plateau. The settlement at Mapungubwe reflects the earliest evidence of what was a very uneven but significant set of economic and social transformations notable in several sites in the region. The distinctive stone wall architecture, a symbolic expression of differential status, was carried out to its fullest extent at Great Zimbabwe.
The Decline of Mapungubwe
Mapungubwe was short-lived as a capital, thriving only from 1290 to 1300. Mapungubwe’s decline was linked to radical climatic changes that saw the area become colder and drier. At the time of Mapungubwe’s decline, Great Zimbabwe began to grow in importance.
Mapungubwe, K2, and other Iron Age sites in the Limpopo River valley are presently under study by the University of Pretoria, University of the Witwatersrand.
Apley, Alice. “Mapungubwe (ca. 1050–1270).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mapu/hd_mapu.htm (October 2001)