Culture and society
Mapungubwean society was "the most complex in southern Africa".
It is thought by archaeologists to be the first class-based social system in southern Africa; that is, its leaders were separated from and higher in rank than its inhabitants. Mapungubwe’s architecture and spatial arrangement also provide "the earliest evidence for sacred leadership in southern Africa".
Life in Mapungubwe was centered around family and farming. Special sites were created for initiation ceremonies, household activities, and other social functions. Cattle lived in kraals located close to the residents' houses, signifying their value.
Most speculation about society continues to be based upon the remains of buildings, since the Mapungubweans left no written record.
The kingdom was likely divided into a three-tiered hierarchy with the commoners inhabiting low-lying sites, district leaders occupying small hilltops and the capital at Mapungubwe hill as the supreme authority.
Elites within the kingdom were buried in hills. Royal wives lived in their own area away from the king. Important men maintained prestigious homes on the outskirts of the capital. This type of spatial division occurred first at Mapungubwe but would be replicated in later Butua and Rozwistates.
The growth in population at Mapungubwe may have led to full-time specialists in ceramics, specifically pottery. Gold objects were uncovered in elite burials on the royal hill.
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape *
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Country South Africa
Criteria ii, iii, iv, v
Region ** Africa
Inscription 2003 (27th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List
** Region as classified by UNESCO
After Mapungubwe's fall, it was forgotten until 1932 (but not to the descendents of the original occupiers of the hill, the Vhangona, the Vhatwanamba and Vhaleya clans among the present day Venda people on the South African side as well as residents of present day Rebublics of Zimbabwe and Botswana).
On New Year's Eve 1932, E. S. J. van Graan, a local farmer and prospector and his son, a former student of the University of Pretoria, set out to follow up on a legend he had heard from a very old native about a strange story of a white man gone mad.
The mad white man was a character well known at the time called Lottering who in the last decades of the nineteenth century had established himself about half a mile from Mapungubwe. This Lottering had apparently climbed the sacred Mapungubwe hill and found items because he presented to van Graan's informant, a big earthenware pot, beautifully made and unlike anything the natives had at that time. It is unclear what else he found.
Following the story, van Graan made inquiries until at last he located the general area where the Mapungubwe hill was supposed to be located. On 31 December 1932, he set out with his son to investigate. Father and son were joined on the way by three other adventurers and had to be very secretive about their search since the land on which the hill is situated was private property, whose owner was unknown, nor had he given permission for exploration on his property.
An old Mungona native called Tshihwana had promised to point out the hill to van Graan but when a party of five whites arrived, he developed cold feet and refused point blank to point out the way and told them that they would never find the place, nor the secret way up and if they do, they would never come back alive!
Eventually, the five men persuaded Tshihwana's son to show them the hill which turned out to be a great mass of sandstone, about 31 meters high and 320 meters long with sheer cliff sides, and apparently un-scalable except with the help of ladders and ropes. At this point, Tshihwana's son, who was literally shivering with fright and had to be forcibly detained, at last pointed the secret stairway to the top. Such was his fright that he had to point it out facing the other way to avoid directly looking at the hill. Such was the reverence of the Mapungubwe hill that it was believed that untold misery would be visited upon anyone who not only ascends the hill, but so much as look at it directly! On reaching the top, the five men found breastworks of stone and great boulders balanced on smaller stones, ready to be pushed on intruders. Scattered all over the top were great quantities of potsherds.
A search on the surface which proved to be loose sandy soil brought to light, rusted remains of iron tools and some bits of copper wire and glass beads. Soon, an exposed yellow metal plate was discovered which the senior van Graan pronounced to be gold. An excited search followed and the five men were soon finding gold beads, bangles, broken bits of thin gold plating and human remains adorned with quantities of gold and beads. The next day (1 January 1933), yielded even larger pieces of gold including the remains of the now famous Mapungubwe Rhinoceros.
The five men had realised a schoolboy's dream! They had found hidden treasure! In the end, the spoils were divided equally between the five men who went their separate ways. Fortunately, the van Graans were men of education and the junior van Graan, who as fate would have it, was an archeology student, sent some specimens from his share to his old professor, Leo Fouche’.
To cut a long story short, the five men were finally persuaded (upon compensation and subtle threat from the law) to turn over their loot to the government and the absentee owner of the farm (Greefswald), a Mr. E.E. Collins, was located and persuaded to sell his farm to the then Union (of South Africa) government.
The site was turned over to the University of Pretoria for further exploration which continues to this day and it yielded more findings than what the five adventurers found. The find, when it made its way into the public domain stirred a lot of excitement with hundreds of treasure hunters streaming to the area.
However, by the time news of the find made its way into public domain, adequate protection from the police had been secured ensuring the preservation of what has come to be one of the most important archeological finds in present day South Africa. Although the University of Pretoria excavated the site ever since 1932.
Mapungubwe was not known to the general public until well into the 1990s (though it was well known within the archeological circles). Obviously, the find challenged and made nonsense of the conventional wisdom prevailing in South Africa at the time regarding race relations. Indeed, immediately after the find (and just like with other sites such as Great Zimbabwe), concerted attempts were made to dissociate Mapungubwe from the native people (e.g. the Vhangona, Vhatwanamba and Vhaleya clans within the Venda nation who are the direct descendents of the original occupants of Mapungubwe) and indeed, black South Africans.
Just like Great Zimbabwe was associated with Arabs and everything non African (e.g. Mullan,1969), early writings on Mapungubwe sought to associate it with everything but Bantu (e.g. Gardner, 1949 & 1955) albeit there were some authors who avoided falling into the same trap (e.g. Walton, 1956 (a), (b)).
Incidentally, it is only among the Vhangona, Vhatwanamba and Vhaleya clans (of all the black people in present day South Africa) that oral history and folklore making references to Mapungubwe exists to this day.
Moreover, when Prof. Lestrade was conducting his ethnological investigations at the time of the first excavations of Mapungubwe, he could not find a single informant from among the Western Venda Kings/Chiefs (Mphephu-Ramabulana, Sinthumule, Kutama, etc.), Eastern Venda Kings/Chiefs (Tshivhase, Mphaphuli, Rammbuda, Makuya, etc.) nor among the Vhalemba, Tsonga-Shangaan and Karanga who was able to recognise the name Mapungubwe or its site albeit these informants had no problem in knowing about Great Zimbabwe (Fouche, 1937).
It is important to note that we cannot however, discount the possibility that Prof. Lestrade may simply have been seeking information from the wrong or uninformed informants albeit he had no such problems with the Ngona, Twanamba and Leya informants. However, it should not surprise us that the Kings and Chiefs of the Singo dynasty in Venda may generally have been less informed about Mapungubwe. According to their traditions, they are recent migrants into Venda, having only migrated there in the late 1600s, long after Mapungubwe's abandonment!
According to an article published in 1985: translated from the Afrikaans text: Remains of a Rock Fort located on top of the hill, were under investigation, dated back to the 11th century. The Archeological site is closed to the public, except for supervised visits and tours. However some of the items discovered where on display at the Department of Archeology, at the University of Pretoria.
Mapungubwe Hill and K2 were declared national monuments in the 1980s. Until 2002 when the University of Pretoria was undergoing renovations that a large number of the artifacts collected where subsequently found locked away and forgotten in a storage room, the architect contracted to do the renovations at the University of Pretoria, Mr Moorrees Janse van Rensburg came across this room and had to break through the door as the keys were nowhere to be found and no one had any knowledge of what was in the room. It appeared that this was a secret that was purposely withheld from the South African public.
When Mr van Rensburg broke the door open he found a room filled with small boxes, in those boxes were priceless gold artifacts that came from the original site. It is still a mystery how these artifacts ended up at the University and when they arrived, but the fact remains that these were deliberately kept from the public eye.
The artifacts found dated from approximately 1000 AD to 1300 AD and consisted of a variety of materials such as pottery, trade glass beads, Chinese celadon ware, gold ornaments (including the famous golden rhino), ceramic figurines, organic remains, crafted ivory and bone and refined copper and iron.
Burials at Mapungubwe Hill
At least twenty four skeletons were unearthed on Mapungubwe hill but only eleven were available for analysis, with the rest disintegrating upon touch or as soon as they were exposed to light and air. Most of the skeletal remains were buried with few or no accessories with most adults buried with glass beads.
Two adult burials (labeled numbers 10 and 14 by the early excavators) as well as one unlabeled skeleton (referred to as the original gold burial) were associated with gold artifacts and were unearthed from the so called grave area upon Mapungubwe hill.
The remains were all buried in the traditional Bantu burial position (sitting with legs drawn to the chest, arms folded round the front of the knees) and they were facing west. The Skeleton numbered 10, a male, was buried with his hand grasping the golden Scepter.
The skeleton labeled number 14 (female) was buried with at least 100 gold wire bangles around her ankles and there were at least one thousand gold beads in her grave. The last gold burial (male), who was most probably the King,was buried with a headrest and three objects made of gold foil tacked on to a wooden core-a bowl, scepter and rhino. At least two more rhino were in the sample, but their association with a specific grave is unknown.
In 2007, the South African Government gave the green light for the skeletal remains that were excavated back in 1933 to be reburied on Mapungubwe hill in a ceremony that took place on 20 November 2007.
The remains were claimed by various groups, namely the Vhangona (the aboriginal Vhavenda), the Vhatwanamba, Vhaleya, the San as well as Vhalemba who all claimed to be the rightful descendents of the Mapungubwe people and hence claimed the right to bury their “ancestors” with dignity.
It is interesting that the current dominant aristocrats/monarchs of Venda (the Singo dynasty) whom tradition, written and oral (which most importantly, the Lemba do not dispute) suggests they migrated into Venda (on both sides of the Limpopo river) accompanied by their Vhalemba vassals (and in the process, conquered and subjugated the Vhangona), distanced themselves from anything related to Mapungubwe and Mapungubwe reburials.
Peripherally, the principal eastern Venda King, i.e. Tshivhase's name is derived from the praise name celebrating barbaric acts of arson committed during the subjugaton of the Vhangona (he called himself, Tshivhasa midi ya vhathu, yawe i tshi sala yo tshena - i.e. He who reduced Ngona kraals to rubble through fire whilst his kraals remain untouched).
As such, it came to pass that none of the three Singo Kings (Ramabulana, Tshivhase and Mphaphuli) and their Chiefs (Rammbuda, Makuya, Nethengwe, Mutele, Mhinga, Tshikundu, Musekwa, Ramovha, Tshikundamalema, Mugivhi, etc.) despite them being overlords of present day Venda, took any part in the reburial ceremonies at Mapungubwe since they categorically claimed no association whatsoever with Mapungubwe!
This is in stark contrast to 1996, when Chiefs Nethengwe and Mutele, among others, fully participated in the ceremonies related to the Thulamela kingdom, another "Mapungubwe like kingdom (but much later than Mapungubwe) that was "discovered" by park rangers in the northern parts of the Kruger National Park in 1993 (once again, it needs to be mentioned that descendants of the Thulamela occupants, mostly the Vhanyai always knew about Thulamela and did not need to "discover" it).
This unwillingness by the current (Singo dynasty) overlords of Venda from laying any claim or association with Mapungubwe probably explains why none of their key informants had any idea what and where Mapungubwe was when Prof. Lestrade inquired back in 1933! Indeed, conqurers they may have been these Singo, but they certainly had enough integrity not to make unfounded claims.
In true native tradition when a royal is buried, the Mapungubwe reburials were conducted at night. Each of the groups laying claim to the remains were allowed an opportunity to perform the relevant rituals (according to their traditions) associated with the burial of a royal.
Interestingly, it was only the Vhangona who performed the necessary ceremonies that included among others (a) the rare "Tshikona Tsha Tshikumo" (Tshikumo is the solemn Tshikona which is performed to herald the passing of a King/Chief; and unlike the regular Tshikona dance, where participants go through choreographed moves while blowing their flutes, the Tshikumo is performed while the participants are sitting down), (b) "u phasa" (offering libation) and (c) the throwing of "Thangu" (divination bones) to obtain the necessary permission as well as appeasing the spirits.
The Vhatwanamba and Vhaleya representatives neither performed any burial ritual for their departed ancestors nor provide their traditional doctor while the Vhalemba traditional doctor who was present, one Mrs. Masindi Mulovhedzi, not only claimed to have forgotten her divining bones at home, and could therefore not conduct the necessary Lemba burial rituals befitting the occasion, but also refused the offer to use the divining bones provided by the Vhangona traditional doctors present at the ceremony (Messers. Mashudu Dima and the late Tuwani Nemungadi) on account of claiming to be inebriated, as well as refusing point blank to ascend the hill when it was time for the reburial ceremony!!
Moreover, she also admonished her fellow Vhalemba at the ceremony about the dangers of dabbling in practices "foreign" to the Lemba culture and told them the Mapungubwe hill has always been known as a no go area specifically for the Vhalemba (and in the process, dissuaded some among them from ascending the hill for the reburial ceremony)! Who would have thought that more than a thousand years later, the Mapungubwe hill is still as sacred and feared!!
The Mapungubwe Landscape was declared a World Heritage Site on 3 July 2003. It is also part of the 'Vhembe Biosphere Reserve', named a biosphere reserve by UNESCO since 2009.
The reserve includes also the Blouberg Range, the Kruger National Park, the Makgabeng Plateau, the Makuleke Wetlands and the Soutpansberg.
Parts 1&2 are from Wikipedia and not my own wishful thinking.
I participate because I care - CUSTOS NATURAE
Convenor of the AIKONA Group.
No to Hotels in and commercialization of our National Parks.
Done 141 visits to National Parks.
What a wonderful privilege.
Last edited by gmlsmit on Sat Jul 07, 2012 7:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.