Website Category: Traditional Cultural Landscapes
Area: 282 km2
Criteria: (ii) interchange of values (iii) cultural tradition (iv) icon of an era
(v) interaction with the environment
Location and Values: Mapungubwe cultural landscape is located in the extreme north of South Africa, near the border with Zimbabwe and Botswana. For about 400 years, between 900 and 1300 AD it was the centre of perhaps the greatest Kingdom in southern Africa, based on trade in gold and ivory through the Swahili trading ports of eastern Africa. It was subsequently eclipsed by the development of Great Zimbabwe, 250 km to the north (which was at its zenith between 1300 and 1450 AD), and then a later kingdom based at Khami (1450 to 1650). Today, little remains of the settlements that existed, but meticulous archaeological work has revealed the remains of three palaces, evidence of a complex social structure, large quantities of clay figurines (suggesting some kind of centralised ritual ceremonies), and evidence of iron and copper working.
Slideshow of the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape: The slideshow provides a comprehensive virtual tour of Mapungubwe, featuring 95 photos of its landscape features, archaeological sites, visitor facilities and wildlife. The tour begins at the main entrance, with its impressive reception building and spectacular nearby views across the parched (dry-season) landscape. There follow a series of pictures from the new visitor centre (officially opened in September 2012), an architecturally stunning domed dry-stone structure that provides a suitably impressive home for the archaeological treasures within. Some of these treasures - including the famous gold-leaf rhino and collections of beads, pottery and figurines - are shown in close-up detail (courtesy of SA world heritage). The visitor centre tour includes a short walking route outside the building, with spectacular views of the Limpopo River Basin, the heart of the ancient kingdoms that once existed here.
The slides that follow show what can be seen by participating in the official guided 'heritage tour' run by SANParks. Participants park their private cars at the park entrance and are transported through the middle of the park in an official tour 'bus'. The tour passes the K2 archaeological site (the centre of the ancient kingdom before it moved to Mapungubwe Hill), with stops to view landscape features and wildlife. Participants disembark about 500 metres from the foot of Mapungubwe Hill and are given a safety briefing by the armed ranger-guide (since elephants and other potentially dangerous wildlife roams the area). The group then proceeds to the foot of the hill, where an archaeological excavation is exposed (by rolling back a rather clever domed roof and folding stairway!). Below ground a 2m-deep excavation is exposed, showing layers of debris and archaeological artefacts from different periods in the history of Mapungubwe. From here the tour proceeds up Mapungubwe Hill, through a tight rock fissure (which provided a natural defensive position in ancient times) onto the hill top. Here are hints of the archaeological relicts that have been found here - including the royal graves that yielded the famous gold artefacts. Rock mortars (for grinding food grains) are seen, as well as other depressions in the rocks where games were played, and homesteads anchored. An excavated hole which served as a water reservoir can still be seen, and the site of a re-burial of the ancient human remains that were excavated. Aluminium tags mark the spots where significant archaeological finds have been made, and the extensive views in all directions are well worth the climb.
The remainder of the slideshow covers other aspects of the world heritage site, taking in some of the notable view sites and wildlife. It starts with a spectacular raised walkway through the riverine forest to a viewing hide on the banks of the Limpopo River - the Treetop Walk. From here the virtual tour moves to the nearby Confluence Viewpoints, where a series of viewing platforms provide spectacular views over the Limpopo Valley at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers (which marks the international boundary between South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe). There are picnic tables, toilets and other facilities here, and some interesting fossilised termite mounds can be seen in the distance. A map on one of the interpretation boards shows the extent of rock-art finds across the landscape, and some examples of this are featured (courtesy of SA world heritage). Mapungubwe is a new national park, still under development. It has inherited some unsightly infrastructure in the form of a long series of boreholes and associated overground powerlines and a pumping station - for the nearby Venetia diamond mine. The slideshow finishes on the eastern side of the park, where the Mapungubwe ancient civilisations began (around Schroda), but there is nothing of archaeological interest to be seen in this area - just views of giant old Baobab trees, wildlife, mopane woodland, and the more open Khongoni Plains area.
Comments and Impressions: Of the three great trading empires of southern Africa (Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Khami), Mapungubwe has the fewest tangible remains, and visitors hoping to get a real sense of how these ancient cultures lived may leave disappointed - there is very little evidence of the ancient settlements to be seen. However, the landscape is spectacular, with low hills overlooking the floodplains at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, and there is a remarkable abundance of wildlife including rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, giraffe, oryx, kudu and a host of other notable megafauna. The visitor centre is first class, bringing the story behind Mapungubwe to life, and serving as a wonderful educational facility.
Google Earth View: To view satellite imagery of the Mapungubwe area on Google Earth, click here. This opens a new window, so when you are finished, just close the Google Earth page and you will be straight back here to continue browsing other world heritage sites around Africa. You can learn an enormous amount from this kind of ‘bird’s eye view’, so take a few minutes to explore the area by panning in and out!