Ivor W. Hartmann is a Zimbabwean writer, editor, publisher, and visual artist. Awarded The Golden Baobab Prize (2009), finalist for the Yvonne Vera Award (2011), selected for The 20 in Twenty: The Best Short Stories of South Africa’s Democracy (2014), awarded third in the Jalada Prize for Literature (2015), and Nommo Awards nomination (2017). His works have appeared in many publications. He runs the StoryTime micro-press, publisher of the African Roar and AfroSF series of anthologies. He is a founding member of the African Speculative Fiction Society, and on the advisory board of Writers International Network Zimbabwe.

07 September 2007

Mapungubwe: Southern Africa’s oldest discovered Kingdom

In early 1932 in Apartheid South Africa, Mr van Graan and his son were out hunting for game near their farm in the Limpopo Valley, at the confluence area of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. In the scorching heat of the day Mr van Graan passed by an old man sitting outside his hut. Thirsty he stopped to ask the old man for a drink of water, what happened next would forever change the scope of Southern African history. The old man obliged van Graan and brought him water in a most unusual beautiful ceramic bowl marked with a fine design. Van Graan immediately noticed its strangeness in comparison to the standard bowls of the area, but when he asked about it, the old man vehemently refused to answer his questions, so eventually they left.

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” -Alex Schoeman Archaeologist Wits University

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 South Africa was not truly settled by the indigenous African peoples at that time, but rather moved through. By 1980 technology had vastly improved and when Wits University age tested the Mapungubwe artefacts they tested from 1000 AD - 1300 AD. This little fact of a true settled indigenous African civilisation some est. 452 years before Van Riebeeck. Wholly disproved the propaganda myth and was prevented by the government from surfacing, and only came into public view sometime after independence in 1994. I think this attitude of those times has a lot to do with unprofessional ransacking of what is now a recognised world heritage site. Personally I could never credit this anathematise propaganda given the plain fact that Africa has been inhabited for 100 000’s of years by local indigenous peoples. Who could truly say what lays buried in the past, and still is over so much time.

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 Limpopo area and founded the first capital of Zhizo (Shroda Farm). Numbering around 300 to 500 people the Zhizo were primarily pastoral peoples who herded cattle farmed grains and hunted Elephants for Ivory. This was traded to Arab Dhows that traversed the coastline and is accountable by the large number of exotic glass beads found at the site. Also unique to the site were distinctive ceramic figurines that were believed to have been used as symbolic tools to teach the young about important political, social and spiritual principals. In 1020 AD the Zhizo peoples where pushed out and north of the area by a new influx of the so called the “Leopards Kopje” people.

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 Western Shona. The LK people formed a new capital at what is now known as K2. From 1020 - 1220, K2 thrived into a population of over 1500 people with prodigious harvests from fertile lands and a greatly increased wealth from established Arab trading routes. It is believed that this increase in wealth lead to the emergence of societal class divisions and the formation of a royal family with a single chief of chiefs becoming King of the LK peoples. But by 1220 AD, K2 had become overpopulated and with the discovery of a unique highly defensible mesa plain, the King moved the capital to what we now know as Mapungubwe.

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 Limpopo to dry up and thereby make the area unfavourable. Another is that Portuguese colonisation in Mozambique caused a shift in trade routes. But the one that works for me is these together and Great Zimbabwe.

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 Mozambique to Namibia, and lasted all together over 392 years, if you count from the arrival of the Mapungubwe people at Great Zimbabwe. If this is indeed the case then from Zhizo in 1021 AD, to Zimbabwe 2007 AD, you have traceable 986 years of Shona civilisation in Southern Africa.

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 Limpopo but unique to Mapungubwe is the red and yellow sandstone outcrops that are often topped with larval up thrusts of jet black dolomite. From the top of Mapungubwe you can see a massive natural dolomite dead straight wall that reaches at least 20m high and stretches across the valley just pinching the other side. With florescent yellow of the abounding fever trees, the hulking bulk of thousand year old Baobab’s, the dark green of the low shrubs contrasting against the moon like landscapes. There are oddly shaped mesa’s jutting into the skyline everywhere you look. The bigger ones pool water in their depths, and provide year round silent secret deep pools underneath their overhangs. There is an indefinable ancient spiritual heritage that seems to pervade this lush and African old timeless and sacred place.

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 Africa. Let’s all take pride in discovering the achievements of our ancestors and learn from their wisdom.

“If you don’t known your past you don’t know your future” -Bob Marley

This is a website for Zimbabwean Author Ivor W. Hartmann. All posts on this site are Copyright © Ivor W. Hartmann 2007-2011. All rights reserved.