Mapungubwe National Park

The area was a sophisticated trading centre.


IT SEEMS the mists of time are far from dampening the spirit of heritage celebrations in Limpopo, a province affectionately known as The Eden of Africa.

In South Africa, September is the month in which cultural diversity is embraced as witnessed by the colourful celebrations of Heritage Month. The streets were abuzz with an assortment of attire in a riot of colours.

Before the curtain comes down, let’s take a tour of Mapungubwe National Park, a sacred place blessed with a wealth of culture and heritage.

The ancient city of Mapungubwe (meaning ‘hill of the jackal’) is an Iron Age archaeological site which was discovered in 1932 but hidden from public attention until only recently, was declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in July 2003.

The most spectacular of the gold discoveries in Mapungubwe is a little gold rhinoceros, made of gold foil and tacked with minute pins around a wooden core. The golden rhino was recovered in 1934 from a royal grave at the site of Mapungubwe.

It is a representation of one of the region’s most physically powerful animals– the rhinoceros – and one of the region’s most enduring symbols of power – gold.

When I toured this heritage site frequently as a devoted tourist, I always find serenity an area of open savannah at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers and abutting the northern border of South Africa and the borders of Zimbabwe and Botswana.

The international body confirmed, together with historians, that Mapungubwe thrived as a sophisticated trading centre from around 1220 to 1300.

In its statement on the listing, Unesco describes Mapungubwe as the centre of the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century.

“What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivalled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years,” Unesco said.

Mapungubwe was home to an advanced culture of people for the time – the ancestors of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. They are said to have traded with China and India, had a flourishing agricultural industry, and grew to a population of around 5 000.

Mapungubwe is probably the earliest known site in southern Africa where evidence of a class-based society existed (Mapungubwe’s leaders were separated from the rest of the inhabitants).

Mapungubwe thrived as a sophisticated trading centre from around 1220 to 1300.

What is so fascinating about Mapungubwe is that it is testimony to the existence of an African civilisation that flourished before colonisation.

Between 1200 and 1300 AD, the Mapungubwe region was the centre of trade in southern Africa.

Wealth came to the region from ivory and later from gold deposits that were found in Zimbabwe. The area was also agriculturally rich because of large-scale flooding in the area.

The wealth in the area led to differences between rich and poor.

In the village neighbouring Mapungubwe, called K2, an ancient refuse site has provided archaeologists with plenty of information about the lifestyles of the people of Mapungubwe.

According to the University of Pretoria’s website: “People were prosperous and kept domesticated cattle, sheep, goats and dogs.

“The charred remains of storage huts have also been found, showing that millet, sorghum and cotton were cultivated.

Findings in the area are typical of the Iron Age. Pottery, wood, ivory, bone, ostrich eggshells and the shells of snails and freshwater mussels, indicate that many other materials were used and traded with cultures as far away as East Africa, Persia, Egypt, India and China.

Mapungubwe’s fortune only lasted until about 1300, after which time climate changes, resulting in the area becoming colder and drier, led to migrations further north to Great Zimbabwe.

It was in 2004 that the South African National Parks (SANParks) opened Mapungubwe National Park, incorporating the Unesco-designated Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape in an area covering well over 28 000 hectares.

The park forms part of an ambitious project to develop a major transfrontier conservation area, the Limpopo/Shashe Transfrontier Park, which will cross the borders of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, linking Mapungubwe National Park witho Botswana’s Tuli Block and Zimbabwe’s Tuli Safari area.

Besides the rich cultural heritage of Mapungubwe National Park, most of the continent’s big game roam here.

There is also a tremendous diversity of plant and animal life.

Sandstone formations, mopane woodlands and unique riverine forest and baobab trees form an astounding scenic backdrop for a rich variety of animal life.

Elephant, giraffe, white rhino, eland, gemsbok and numerous other antelope species occur naturally in the area, while visitors can spot predators like lions, leopards and hyenas and birders can tick off 400 species, including kori bustard, tropical boubou and pel’s fishing owl.

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