Piecing together an old kingdom

SUN JOURNAL

History: South Africans study remains from a 1,000-year-old civilization, hoping to learn more about their mysterious ancestors.

January 31, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MAPUNGUBWE, South Africa -- A thousand years ago, they made their home atop a sandstone hill in the lush Limpopo River valley, where elephants, rhinoceroses and lions roam. The people were ruled by a king who traded ivory and crocodile skins with merchants arriving from as far away as Persia, Egypt, India and China. The people produced some of the finest gold artwork found on the African continent.

No one knows the name of the people who lived here, what language they spoke, or why, after apparently thriving in the river valley for more than 300 years, they decided to leave. But what is now known as the Mapungubwe Kingdom in South Africa's Northern Province is emerging as one of the country's most important historical symbols in the post-apartheid era.

Discovered in 1933 by adventurers searching for legendary royal graves, the long-hidden ruins were lost again in the racial politics of white-ruled South Africa. Under apartheid, school textbooks started the story of South Africa's history in 1652, when Dutchmen led by Jan Van Riebeeck arrived in present day Cape Town to establish a trading post. They paid scant attention to the history of the native inhabitants of southern Africa.

With little interest in the historical implications of the ruins, South Africa largely ignored Mapungubwe's cultural importance. As a result, few South Africans knew the ruins existed.

That changed after South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994. The new government rediscovered Mapungubwe, embracing it as a powerful symbol of South Africa's pre-colonial past.

In his speeches and writings, South African President Thabo Mbeki touts Mapungubwe's sophisticated achievements in art and international trade as evidence of Africa's greatness long before Europeans arrived on the continent.

"The source of our power comes not only from our present, but from our past, wherein the people of our land were seriously engaged in efforts to better the quality of their lives through the use and continuous improvement of technology," Mbeki says in a speech he wrote about the significance of Mapungubwe.

Images of the pottery, trade beads, ceramic figures and gold ornaments unearthed at the site appear on calendars and postcards and have inspired jewelry designs. The ruins also have generated tremendous interest among South African tribes, several of whom proudly claim they might be descendants of the kingdom's founders.

The artifacts found in Mapungubwe, including a golden staff and a rhinoceros made from thin gold foil, are some of Africa's most important cultural symbols "because they take African history so far back," says Sian Tiley, curator of the Mapungubwe African Heritage Exhibition at the University of Pretoria. "It has changed people's perspective on history."

Children now learn about the kingdom in school. And after decades as an inaccessible archaeological site, the ruins will soon be the centerpiece of a new park spanning the borders of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

"It is my belief that Mapungubwe has profound implications for educating South Africans about the advanced state of development of African people at a time when apartheid education contended that they were essentially simply hunters and gatherers," said Ben Ngubane, South Africa's minister of arts, culture, science and technology, at the opening of the university exhibition in June 2000.

In one of the earliest accounts of the Mapungubwe ruins, The Illustrated London News on April 8, 1933, announced a "remarkable discovery in the Transvaal: a grave of unknown origin, containing much gold-work, found on the summit of natural rock stronghold in a wild region."

Today, Mapungubwe is still in a "wild region" in the northern reaches of South Africa, where the Shashe River joins the Limpopo River to form South Africa's borders with Zimbabwe and Botswana. Elephants, lions, leopards, giraffes, baboons and other game inhabit the grassy valley.

And for all the attention the ruins have been given, they remain relatively undisturbed. South Africa's National Parks service does not advertise the site because it has no facilities for tourists. Visits are by appointment only.

It is easy to see how Mapungubwe slumbered unnoticed for nearly 1,000 years. For centuries, it has been shrouded in superstition. Some local tribes believe that ruins possess supernatural powers; they are afraid to look at Mapungubwe directly, let alone climb to the top.

"People say a man who looked at it went blind because he was disturbing his ancestors," Elanza van Lente, a South Africa National Parks guide, explains during a recent tour.

The sandstone hill - as tall as a 10-story building - rises sharply from the grasslands, offering no clues of the treasures on top.

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