Most people think “wild animals” when they travel to the Kruger National Park. But there are several fascinating archaeological sites which indicate that the park was at times inhabited by both Stone Age and Iron Age people.
Like elsewhere in the country, there are bushman paintings, although none rival those of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg or the Cederberg in the Cape. Nevertheless, the Stone Age bushmen were the original inhabitants of Kruger, as they were of our country, having lived here for thousands of years. They are the true, rightful inheritors of the region!
Then, from about 200 AD, pastoralists from Central Africa had slowly entered southern Africa. They were Iron Age people, and knew how to fashion metal tools from minerals. They grew crops and kept cattle, and were more inclined to settle down and live in one area, whereas the Bushman were nomadic and most probably moved with the migrations of animals which followed the rains.
I went a few days ago to Thulamela in northern Kruger, about an hour’s drive north of Punda Maria, with guides Eric Maluleke and Daniel Shibambu. Tours to Thulamela can be arranged through Punda Maria camp.
In 1983, a SANParks ranger Philip Nel was walking in the beautiful area where huge baobabs stand sentinel on top of several hills, and below the exquisite Luvuvhu River winds its way towards its confluence with the Limpopo River. Philip came across some fallen stone walls on top of one of the hills. The north of Kruger is one of the most remote, and inaccessible to tourists, so Philip was probably the first person to see the ruins for hundreds of years…
Archaeologists started excavating the site in 1991, and discovered that the site was probably inhabited from around 1200 AD, although the stone walls were only built from around 1450 AD. The word Thulamela is derived from the words “thula” meaning “raised place” and “mela” meaning “to grow or germinate”. There were about 2 000 people who lived here, and they were probably Shona or Venda speaking, and they had probably lived in the region for about 500 hundred years.
Experts think that Thulamela was the last settlement of the Venda or Shona speaking people, who had previously lived at places like Mapungubwe (my next stop!) and Great Zimbabwe, which were the first examples of a formalized, hierarchical and urban society in southern Africa. They were also amongst the first traders in the region: ivory from elephants and gold were traded for glass beads from India and Chinese porcelain, both of which have been found at Thulamela.
All these settlements were located near the Limpopo River, or its tributaries, and some experts believe they used the river to transport ivory and gold to the coast on canoes, where they would meet Muslim traders from the east who sailed up and down the African coast.
At Thulamela, two graves were found on top of the hill, one of an elderly man, and one of a young woman. Both were wearing gold bracelets and beads, and the woman was buried with her hands tucked underneath her cheeks, a position of supplication that the Venda people still use today. They most probably were of “royal” position,and probably lived among the 500 or so privileged society on top of the hill, while about 1 000 “commoners” lived on the lower slopes. The graves were excavated and studied, and then the skeletons were reburied in a ceremony with the local communities.
The stone walls have been beautifully reconstructed – in fact, Eric was the head stone mason at the time, and more than 2 000 tons of rock were placed carefully without cement or mortar, just as they were several hundred years ago. It took 14 months to complete, and must have been quite a job!
Thulamela is definitely worth visiting. It’s situated in one of the prettiest parts of the park, and there is a certain eeriness about the place. It’s strange to think that the Venda people who lived here would have sat underneath the same baobab trees, which are no doubt several thousand years old.
Experts aren’t sure why people abandoned Thulamela (or Mapungubwe), but it could have been an increasingly arid climate made crop-growing and cattle-keeping unsustainable, or because the trade networks collapsed when the Portuguese first arrived in southern Africa, and took control from the Arab traders.
I’ll soon be in Mapungubwe National Park, which preceded Thulamela by several hundred years, and was probably one of the most fascinating and richest archaeological finds in southern Africa. More to come! But before I head to Mapungubwe, my last few days in Kruger are going to be spent in the most northern part of the park – Pafuri, where I will be staying at the Wilderness Safaris camp. Can’t wait!
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