In early 1932 in Apartheid South Africa, Mr van Graan and his son were out hunting for game near their farm in the
Van Graan had been brought up on tales of the famed 1890 gold discoveries at Great Zimbabwe and other areas. He also knew local legend hinted at the existence of similar settlements in his area. When he saw that perfectly preserved unusual pot that belonged to the old man it re-ignited all the old tales of treasure. They went back the next day with a large roll of low denominational cash and paid the old man question by question. What they managed to drag out of him was the existence of a sacred ancestral burial site but not it’s specific location. The old man was deathly afraid of angering the ancestral spirits and feared he had done so already by imparting so much information.
Van Graan would not be denied his gold fever and he persisted in badgering the old man for many months. The old man was however resolute would not cave in to van Graan’s demands, but in late 1932 the old man's young cousin returned home for the holidays. Van Graan managed to woo the cousin and through him the old man. On New Years Eve 1932 after parting with a relatively paltry sum the van Graan’s were led to the sacred site of Mapungubwe.
After some distance, they reached the base of a standalone oval shaped mesa some 30m high 300m in length and surrounded by sheer cliff faces. A mesa the van Graan’s had often passed in their hunting forays. The only way to ascend to the top was by scrambling up a well concealed split between the rocks. The split bore weathered tool marks of constructive widening to allow free passage. Upon finally reaching the mesa plain they were first taken aback by the amount of thick vegetation rooted in a deep soil, all the other mesa plains in the area were bare rock only.
Over the next months what occurred was perhaps indicative of the time and the ageless greed for gold. Van Graan brought tools up to the mesa and began a wholly haphazard and certainly destructive treasure hunt. As to how much was destroyed and stolen we will never know. I met a barman in Louis Trichardt, a town not far from the site on the way home, who proudly winked and whispered his ownership of several artefacts from the site. Even after the disclosure to and involvement of the Witwatersrand University of South Africa, this disrespectful destructive amateur archaeology-treasure hunting continued from 1933 - 50. That which did not glitter was thrown literally over the side of the mesa.
“So much was trashed then, we lost so much data” -
One of the great Apartheid myths was the original white ownership of the land through established settlement by Jan Van Riebeeck in 1652. It was argued that
The history of Mapungubwe does not start there but at a nearby site called Zhizo. In 900 AD it is believed the Zhizo people moved into the
Not much is known about the LK people except perhaps from the ceramics found that suggest they spoke Kalanga, which is an early form of
Once at Mapungubwe the King embarked on an ambitious multi purpose project. Over the course of many years an estimated 3000 tons of soil was transported and eventually covered the entire mesa plain. What this enabled was a royal graveyard and ample garden space, a self sustainable castle. One that could weather any assault, withstand any siege, or brace any natural calamity such as flooding, which would have been a common occurrence in the wet climate of the 1200’s. The Mapungubwe capital proved highly successful and is estimated to have reached 5000 - 9000 people at its peak. Thousands of beads and ceramics found evidence firm Arab and Chinese trading routes to Mapungubwe. But after only 80 years however in 1300 AD the Mapungubwe people abandoned their capital and it was to remain a sacred secret with the remaining local people for the next 632 years.
There are a number of theories about what happened to cause the sudden abandonment of Mapungubwe. One is that it was a change in climate that caused the
Although Great Zimbabwe is believed to have been first established in 1100 AD, it only truly became the big stone capital city of the great Manhumutapa Empire from an est. 1300 AD onwards. Perhaps the King aware of both the changing climate and Portuguese arrival saw Great Zimbabwe as the logical move to make. Although it is believed that the LK and Manhumutapaians were not warlike peoples (just as their possible descendants the Shona are culturally pacifistic peoples). The LK would have been at least 5000 strong when they arrived at Great Zimbabwe. And just like they out numbered the Zhizo and forced them to move without major bloodshed, so too they would have done at Great Zimbabwe. This can perhaps be attested by the accelerated expansion and building at Great Zimbabwe from the 1300’s onwards.
At its peak the capital Great Zimbabwe alone, was home to over 20 000 people and exhibited many of the cultural spiritual traditions and royal class systems that would seem to have their roots in Mapungubwe. Artefacts found at Great Zimbabwe also evidence the participation in the same Arab and Chinese trade routes. All together it puts up a convincing case for the King of Mapungubwe to have strategically moved his people to Great Zimbabwe. And in so doing founding what would become the Manhumutapa Empire that stretched from
Of course it can never be that simple, all cultures absorb or are absorbed at least partly by other cultures, the original LK Mapungubwe people would have already performed this process countless times before arriving at Zhizo. Just as I’m sure some of the Zhizo people remained and integrated with the LK to become the Mapungubwe people. If they did indeed go Great Zimbabwe next, that same process would have occurred again, and again, right up to the present day.
If you ever get to Mapungubwe yourself you will very quickly realise why they chose to settle there. The area is right along the banks of the
I was both awed and humbled to walk the same ground as my ancestors at Mapungubwe, for they are my ancestors too, we all came from
“If you don’t known your past you don’t know your future” -Bob Marley