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Mapungubwe Hill viewed from the north, The gold rhino of Mapungubwe.

Looking for Clues on the Hill of the Jackal: The Rich African Kingdom of Mapungubwe


Mapungubwe is an Iron Age archaeological site in the southern part of the African continent. This city, which is located on the northern border of modern day South Africa with Zimbabwe and Botswana, was once the center of the region’s first indigenous kingdom. This kingdom is referred to today as the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, and developed into the largest of its kind in the area of southern Africa before it was abandoned during the 14th century AD.

The Development of the Kingdom

Mapungubwe is commonly said to mean “Hill of the Jackal”, and is an area of open savannah at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. It is unclear as to when this kingdom was founded. One source, for instance, suggests that Mapungubwe was established around 900 AD, whilst another suggests that it was founded around the middle of the 11th century AD.

Due to the lack of written sources (both from within and outside the kingdom), our knowledge of Mapungubwe is dependent on the available archaeological evidence. Fortunately, the rich archaeological information allows us to gain an understanding of the way this kingdom developed.

Taken from South Africa, to the left is Botswana and Zimbabwe is on the right. The river running from left to right is the Limpopo River. The river which disappears on the horizon is the Shashe.

Taken from South Africa, to the left is Botswana and Zimbabwe is on the right. The river running from left to right is the Limpopo River. The river which disappears on the horizon is the Shashe. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Whilst the establishment of Mapungubwe is unknown, what can be said with more certainty is that it flourished as a center of trade between 1220 AD and 1300 AD. One factor that contributed to this is Mapungubwe’s geographical location. As the city is located at the crossing of the north / south and east / west routes in southern Africa, it was able to control trade. Additionally, the Limpopo River allowed Mapungubwe to transport trade goods to East African ports along the Indian Ocean coast such as Kilwa. Furthermore, gold and ivory, which were luxurious goods, were harvested from the kingdom’s hinterlands.

Topographical map of South Africa, continent version.

Topographical map of South Africa, continent version. (CC BY 2.5)

The Social Structure in Mapungubwe

Mapungubwe is known to have also traded with the East, most notably India, China, and Persia. This can be seen in the artifacts found in Mapungubwe. In return for their precious gold and ivory, the merchants of Mapungubwe obtained such foreign objects as porcelain from China and glass beads form Persia. In addition, Mapungubwe’s trade relations with foreign states “created a society that was closely linked to ideological adjustments, and changes in architecture and settlement planning”.

An artistic impression of Mapungubwe.

An artistic impression of Mapungubwe. (africanlegends)

This can be seen, for instance, in the way that the wealth brought in by trade influenced the hierarchical structure of the kingdom. It has been established that different social classes existed in Mapungubwe. On the top of the Mapungubwe Hill, remains of elite habitation have been found. The common people, on the other hand, made their homes at the bottom of this hill and in the surrounding areas. In addition, it has been pointed out that a garbage site located where the common people lived reveals that the food that the elite ate was quite different from the rest of society.

The differences between elites and non-elites can also be seen in their burial practices. It has been reported that on the top of Mapungubwe Hill, 23 graves have been excavated so far. Three of these graves contained bodies buried in an upright seated position. This form of burial is associated with royalty, and shows that there was further differentiation amongst the elites of Mapungubwe.

Additional evidence of the high status of these three individuals can be seen in the grave goods that they were buried with. These include a variety of gold and copper objects, glass beads, and other luxurious goods.

The presence of gold objects in such graves has been cited as evidence for early gold-smithing in southern Africa. One of the most impressive of these gold objects is a small gold rhinoceros, which was made of gold foil molded around a core of sculpted wood. This gold rhinoceros is perhaps the most recognizable artifact of Mapungubwe, and has since become the symbol of the kingdom’s cultural sophistication.

A drawing of the Gold Rhino from a burial site on Mapungubwe hill.

A drawing of the Gold Rhino from a burial site on Mapungubwe hill. (siyajkak/CC BY SA 3.0)

The Fall of the Kingdom

The end of Mapungubwe is generally said to have been brought about by a change in the climate. Around 1300 AD, the climate of that region became cooler and drier. This meant that agriculture in the region was affected, and was no longer able to support Mapungubwe’s high population. As a result, the people had to disperse to areas that were better able to sustain them.

Another suggestion is that there were changes in the trade routes. Since the people of Mapungubwe relied heavily on trade, the usage of trade routes that by-passed the kingdom would almost certainly have had a negative impact on their livelihood, thus forcing them to migrate.

Featured image: Mapungubwe Hill viewed from the north Public Domain, The gold rhino of Mapungubwe

By Wu Mingren           


Apley, A., 2011. Mapungubwe (ca. 1050–1270). [Online]
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South African History Online, 2015. Kingdoms of southern Africa: Mapungubwe. [Online]
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South African History Online, 2015. Mapungubwe. [Online]
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South African Tourism, 2016. Mapungubwe World Heritage Site. [Online]
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UNESCO, 2016. Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape. [Online]
Available at:, 2016. Mapungubwe: SA's lost city of gold. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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