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Thulamela is a stone walled site is situated in the Far North region of the Park and dates back to approximately 450 – 500 years before present (BP).

This late Iron Age site forms part of what is called the Zimbabwe culture which is believed to have started at Mapungubwe. Mapungubwe’s decline coincided with the increase of Great Zimbabwe’s importance. When Great Zimbabwe was abandoned about 300 years later, possibly due to political break down, several groups moved south across the Limpopo river into the North Eastern areas of South Africa (and Northern Kruger) and established new smaller chiefdoms such as Thulamela.

Sacred Leadership

It is believed that the notion and system of sacred leadership developed both from an increase in trade along the east coast and in the interior as well as from an increase in population at Mapungubwe. According to oral histories the Nyai division of the Shona – speaking Lembethu occupied Thulamela and believed that there was a mystical relationship between their leader and the land. They believed that the ancestors of the leader (or Khosi) would intercede on behalf of the nation. The Khosi, who was an elusive figure and could only be seen by certain individuals, lived in a secluded hilltop palace in view of the commoners as an indication of his sacredness.

The Khosi had a number of officials working for him, some of the most important included:

  • The Messenger – a close and trusted confident who kept the chief informed of all court proceedings and visitors
  • Personal Diviner and Herbalist – safeguarded the Chief’s health and scrutinized the intention of the visitors
  • Makhadzi (ritual sister) – the chief ruled together with her. Her function was that of national advisor and had to be kept informed of all decisions taken by the council. She was also instrumental in the appointment of a new chief.
  • Khotsimunene (brother) – legal expert in charge of the public court.

If a commoner wished to meet the Khosi he would go to a special chamber with two entrances (one from the Khosi’s hut which he would use and the other for the visitor). The chamber was divided probably by a central wall separating the visitor from the Khosi and so emphasis the Khosi’s sacredness.

Trade at Thulamela

Trade was an integral part of life at Thulamela and trade networks extended though the interior of the continent to include Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Central Africa (evidence given by the iron gong on the site)

At the time that Thulamela was occupied trade on the Indian Ocean was dominated by Muslim Traders which facilitated movement of goods from the Middle East, India, South East Asia and China. Ivory and gold were often traded along the east coast (possibly at Sofala, present day Biera) for glass beads, clothe and glazed ceramics.

Thulamela Trail

  • Cost: R240 per person payable at Punda Maria camp.
  • Booking: It is advisable to make a prior booking at least one week in advance.
  • Age group: 12 years and above.
  • Group size: minimum of 2, maximum of 8.
  • Pick-up point: Punda Maria and Pafuri picnic sites.
  • Departure time: 07:00
  • Transport: Provided in the form of a ten-seater open safari vehicle. Own transport is also allowed.
  • Refreshments: No food or drinks are available.
  • Requirements: Water bottle, cap and camouflaged clothing. Safety boots are preferable.

Food and Farming

The site was most probably chosen due to the fertile soils of the area where various kinds of sorghum and millets were farmed. The grains from these crops would be ground to be used for porridge and beer. Clay spindle wheels would suggest that cotton was also cultivated for making cloth. The spindles were used to spin the thread by the women while men would weave the thread on low flat looms fixed to the ground. While the Khosi lived in a stone walled palace on top of a hillside, the commoners most probably lived near their fields

The numerous potshards found on the site are the remains of discarded clay pots made by the women at Thulamela for cooking, eating and drinking. The pots were of various shapes and sizes, and often decorated.


During the excavations 2 graves were found beneath hut floors. Graves offer information about individuals of the past by reflecting belief systems from the burial itself, technology from the grave objects and from the bones diet, health, stature, sex and age.

he first skeleton was that of a female and dates to around AD 1600. The person was aged between 45 -60 years and was + 1.73m tall. The roughly oval shaped grave had been dug through a hut in the wives area and the person was laid on her side.

The second skeleton was that of a male which dated to around AD 1450, which could suggest that the person never lived at Thulamela. The skeleton was also broken and packed in a square shape, suggesting that the person did not die on the site.