The First Kingdom in Southern Africa: Mapungubwe

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The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was a pre-colonial state in Southern Africa located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, south of Great Zimbabwe. Its name, translated roughly from the Shona language, means “Hill of the Jackal”. It flourished from the end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 14th century. It was a rich Iron Age civilization that depended heavily on trade to survive, as malaria and sleeping sickness, borne by mosquitoes and tsetse made it difficult for the Mapungubwe people to farm cattle. It also produced gold and ivory within its borders and traded them far and wide.

Origin and Rise to Power

The areas of Shashe – Limpopo river confluence had been settled since the dawn of the 4th century. It was dotted with settlements relying mainly on fishing and bronze working to survive. It was during this time that people from the Khoi culture started to move into the hillside, attracted towards the Shashe-Limpopo area because of its mixed agricultural possibilities, due to the Shashe rivers and its location in Central Africa providing easy access to far reaching trade routes.

Slowly the population in this area began to grow and expand its trade opportunities, eventually creating ties as far as Egypt and India.

This small settlement grew into a town around the Bambandyanalo Hill and eventually grew to become a powerful city. By the 11th century the city had grown in power and influence to one of the richest in the immediate area. Soon the areas around the Shashe began to be overworked, and as a consequence population of the city could not be sustained. By the late 12th century a large part of the city had relocated to the Mapungubwe Hill, and formed the city of Mapungubwe, the capital of the Kingdom.

Mapungubwe flourished as a city and as a trading centre in the latter part of the 12th century, and turned into the centre of all trade in South Africa by 1220. At its peak Mapungubwe was the an important inland settlement in the African subcontinent, both in terms of wealth, cultural and architectural influence.

However the kingdom was short lived one, and soon went into an economic decline which eventually led to the abandonment of the cities.


Areas under influence, Administration and Population

At the height of its power, the Kingdom of Mapungubwe consisted of 3 major cities, namely the capital Mapungubwe, Schroda and Leopard’s Kopje. The biggest of these three was the capital, which was inhabited by almost 5,000 people, including the elite merchants and the royalty. The other two cities had around 3,000 people each. There were also roughly 200 small villages dotted around the countryside near these cities, putting the total population estimates of the whole kingdom as around 15,000 people.

All of these people paid taxes to the king and the ruling elite, who lived in the capital. This gave them a huge amount of power over these people, and led to a strict social order developing in the kingdom, comprising mainly of 3 classes. These classes were the royalty and the elite merchants at the top, commoner, like farmers and masons etc., and slaves at the very bottom. This social structure was so successful that it was adopted by many future kingdoms.

In the layout of Mapungubwe the royalty and ruling elite were spatially separated from the commoners and were given a separate walled off section of the city to reside in.

The king was considered to be holy and to have been given the right to rule by the gods themselves, which led to an undying loyalty from all the subjects.

Housing and Architecture

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was the first in Southern Africa to rely completely on stone architecture for their housing and structures. They were the first ones in Southern Africa to invent and improve on the technique of cutting and shaping stone in such a way, that it would lie completely bound to each other without the need for mortar.

Their mastery over stone was very heavily evident in their housing, as for each city, almost all of it was built out of shaped stone with flat roofs.

The main cities were usually subdivided into two major sections, one for the ruling class and elite, and one for the commoners. The cities were also walled off from intruders, as the kingdom lacked a strong military.



Cultural Impact

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe, while short lived, had a huge cultural impact on its neighbours and successors. The Kingdom of Zimbabwe, for example, was heavily influenced by them. Its social structure, architecture and art were direct imitations of Mapungubwe. The 3 tiered social structure was also adopted by other African kingdoms, and is believed to have been an influencing factor in certain European kingdoms as well, who observed the influenced kingdoms before reaching their colonization peak.



The art of Mapungubwe had a unique look to it, because of the age-old techniques of its metal workers. This style of art was very influential as well, and imitations of Mapungubwe art have been found in the 16th century in Southern Africa.

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was very supportive and appreciative of art, and as a result produced a stunning variety of sculptures and models depicting various animals and deities. The major art form in the kingdom was sculpting and gold working. The areas around the kingdom were very rich in gold and hence it was a very big part of the art of the kingdom. The most famous art piece from this kingdom was a gold foil rhinoceros with little pins, around a wooden core, which was recovered from the site of the capital city. It has come to represent go-to example of art by the Mapungubwe civilisation and is believed to have been made as a decorative piece for the royalty.


Other articles recovered from this kingdom include many golden objects: bangles, beads, nails, miniature buffalo, and gold anklets. In total about 2.2 kg of gold and many other clay and glass artefacts were recovered; and studied, which gave a very clear picture of the art of the kingdom.


The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was a very powerful trading centre and had vast trade routes from Egypt, all the way to China and India. They traded mainly in gold, ivory and copper, with finished articles of iron and gold working as well. This position of trade prowess was achieved by the kingdom mainly due to its location. It was located at the crossroads between the North-South and the East-West Africa trade routes, which enabled them to reap heavy benefits from almost all cross Africa trade.


The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was a short lived one. It reached the height of its prosperity in around 1220 and by 1300 it was already almost completely overshadowed by rivals like the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. By 1320 the 3 major cities were almost completely abandoned, with only minor settlements staying in place.

Historians have conflicting views when it comes to the reason for this decline and abandonment of the cities. Some believe it was due to the changing climate of the area. For the first few centuries of the settlement and the establishment of the kingdom, the weather was very warm and humid, allowing for a lot of agriculture to feed the populace. But towards the end of the 13th century, the climate had changes to cooler and drier weather, which reduced the output of agriculture to the point where it could no longer feed the large populace of the kingdom.

Other historian believe it was simply due to the emergence of better equipped kingdoms in the same area, which led to the people moving to these kingdoms in search for a better fortune. Changing trade routes could also have been a factor in the migration of people.

Whatever the cause, by 1330 the city and kingdom of Mapungubwe was no more, having lost most of its inhabitants to migration, its territories were mainly taken over by The Kingdom of Zimbabwe and other kingdoms around the area.


Apley, Alice. “Mapungubwe (ca. 1050–1270).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Walton, J. (1956). “Mapungubwe and Bambandyanalo”. South African Archeological Journal

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The First Kingdom in Southern Africa: Mapungubwe

by Editorial Team time to read: 5 min