Skip to Content

Mapungubwe and Cultural Tourism

Mapungubwe Cultural Complex

The rich archaeological finds of Mapungubwe and its legacy as a creative, African city-state participating in a vast Indian oceanic trade route has become symbolic of a cultural, economic and environmental renaissance across the continent. Beads came from Asia, North Africa, India and from across the Arabic world. Some, it is said, even made their way from the markets of Cairo. Brilliant reds and blues in stark contrast to the restrained sand coloured landscape in which they were hidden for centuries.

The Mapungubwe Cultural Complex (in 2003 declared South Africa’s fifth World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)) encompasses stark sandstone terraces rising above the surrounding savannah plains, at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers. At viewing decks – with expansive views across lower-lying estuaries, valleys and distant plains – visitors can see well into neighboring Zimbabwe and Botswana’s world-renowned Tuli block; a cross-frontier area blessed with an exceptional biodiversity.

Prior to being abandoned in the 14th century, the Kingdom of Mapungubwe had developed into the largest kingdom found on the subcontinent at the time. A stratified, trade-based society located strategically on the north/ south and east/ west sub-continental trade routes. A rich bounty of natural resources, sold as part of an Indian Ocean network extending all the way to distant Arabia, India and China, meant that here her rulers could amass huge wealth and power. In turn, Chinese porcelain, cotton, glass, beads and other exotic commodities .owed into the interior of southern Africa. All well before the coming age of European exploration and dominance. The colourful beads found at Mapungubwe formed a stark contrast to the rather bland landscape they were found in. Royal palaces and enclosures, located at different sites (known as Mapungubwe Hill and its base, K2, Bambandyanalo and Schroda) provide insight into more than 400 years of state formation, its decline and eventual abandonment of the area. Collectively these sites are of immeasurable scientific importance in understanding much of southern-Africa’s undocumented past.

In light of 21st century concerns about climate change it is remarkable how the history of Mapungubwe mirrors a similar eco-drama as sudden climate change brought on severe drought conditions that devastated the agricultural base of the Mapungubwe economy. A rich, mighty powerbase shifted from southern Africa north to Great Zimbabwe – until recently a little-known historical link between these societies.

Sites of significance located within the Cultural Complex World Heritage Site include:
• The remains of palaces and royal enclosures
• Archaeological remains testifying to Mapungubwe’s growth 900 – 1200 AD
• Remains of early Stone and Iron Age settlement
• The haunting natural landscape characterised by stark sandstone formations

Estimates indicate that at its height, the Kingdom was comparable with the size of the Zulu Kingdom in the 19th century. Yet, Mapungubwe also tells of earlier, even more distant times of human habitation and settlement. Today there are over 150 documented rock art sites in the Limpopo/ Shashe confluence area, a rich library of images that provide insight into the world of hunter-gatherers; their rich cosmologies and belief systems. It is believed that the San and their forebears roamed the area for the last 5 000 years.

With the 19th century, rapid colonial expansion into the Soutpansberg district, aggravated by the presence of tsetse fly and malaria, the area became un.t for cattle herding and human habitation. Mapungubwe became a hunting ground, with some forestry and mining activity. With the formalisation of colonial Rhodesia and Bechuanaland, Mapungubwe became both a natural as well as geographic boundary that increasingly, and artificially, separated neighbouring communities as colonial boundaries were drawn.

More research however still needs to be conducted on the Mapungubwe architecture, oral traditions and indigenous knowledge. To enable better public interaction with and interpretation of the Mapungubwe legacy; an interpretation centre and exhibition is under development.