Skip to content

Mapungubwe Belief System Essay

Landing page content

This topic provides a brief introductory overview of the settlements in the Limpopo Valley before Mapungubwe, and a brief concluding overview of Great Zimbabwe, which succeeded Mapungubwe as the centre of southern African trade. Mapungubwe is a complex society of a much larger political scale than had been seen before in southern Africa. There were changes in political power, leadership and authority and in organising, managing and maintaining that political power.

This lesson also focuses on Mapungubwe as the first state in Southern Africa in 1220- 1300, as well as the underlying symbolism of various artefacts found at the ancient ruins. Trade practices across Africa and the Indian Ocean is also covered in this lesson.


The topic also includes Marco Polo’s travels, as he was a European explorer in Asia at the same time as Mapungubwe was at the height of its power. This provides a useful comparison of societies across some parts of the world in the same time period.

Focus: The main focus is on Mapungubwe, its internal structure and its trade within Africa and across the Indian Ocean. 

Where is Mapungubwe?

The city of Mapungubwe lies near where the Shase River flows into the Limpopo River, on a farm called Greefswald, in the Central Limpopo River Valley. The area around the city is Savannah bushveld. Malaria and sleeping sickness, caused by mosquitoes and tsetse flies, made it very difficult for the inhabitants of Mapungubwe to farm cattle.

Mapungubwe was declared a World Heritage Site in recognition of its value as an archaeological site that provides insight into humanity's past.

What does Mapungubwe mean?

Mapungubwe means "Hill of the Jackals and has been named MK by archaeologists studying the region. Some parts of the excavation have also been named more than once, like K2, an area close to the hill itself, which is also called Bambandyanalo.

The area that has been studied by archaeologists is made up of 3 parts called K2 or Bambandyanalo, Mapungubwe Hill or MK, and the Southern Terrace or MST.

Who lived at Mapungubwe?

The Palace living area at the top of Mapungubwe hill. Image source

The residents of Mapungubwe were, like the people of Thulamela, the ancestors of the Shona people of southern Africa. The first people in Mapungubwe were early Iron Age settlers. They lived there from about 1000 AD to 1300 AD, and around 1500 Iron Age subsistence farmers also settled there. Their existence is confirmed by the discovery by archaeologists of a few potsherds identified as Early Iron Age pottery. This means that they manufactured their own pottery and metal tools.

Like the societies of Thulamela and Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe was structured along social classes. This may be seen from the location of people's houses separating leaders and commoners. The elite lived at the top of Mapungubwe and their followers stayed at the bottom of the hill and in the surrounding area. A garbage site close to K2, where commoners lived, indicates that rich and poor ate very different foods.

Funeral traditions were also different. The rich had a graveyard at the top of the hill with a beautiful view of the region. 3 of the people found in this cemetery were buried upright, in a sitting position, indicating they were royalty. They were also buried with gold and copper ornaments and glass beads, showing the people of Mapungubwe were skilled in working with gold.

Why did they leave?


Ivory was traded with Arab merchants and contributed greatly to the wealth of the kingdom. Image source

It is difficult to find a single explanation for the desertion of Mapungubwe. Some archaeologists feel that the kingdom began to decline in the 1100's because the climate changed. The weather became colder and drier and reduced the grazing land making cattle farming difficult. Others think there was a change in trade routes. Mapungubwe relied on trade and any blow to this activity would have forced people to move away.

The Importance of gold, cattle and ivory

The people of Mapungubwe were wealthy and farmed with cattle, sheep and goats, and also kept dogs. They produced large harvests that allowed them to trade and store extra food. Archaeologists found traces of millet, sorghum and cotton in the remains of storage huts.

Riches also came from ivory, gold and the rich farmland caused by the flooding of the area. From about 1220 to 1300 Mapungubwe was an advanced trading centre and its inhabitants traded with Arabia, China and India through the East African harbours. Farm animals supplied meat and hides, but they also hunted, snared and gathered other food.

The city could trade because it was so close to the Limpopo River, which connected it with the coast. They exchanged salt, cattle, fish, gold and iron, ivory, wood, freshwater snail and mussel shells, chert and ostrich eggshell beads were used for glass beads and cloth.

Unit 1- Changes in society in the Limpopo valle

The first settlers of Mapungubwe were early iron age settlers. They lived there  from about 1000ad ton1300ad, and around 1500 iron age subsistence farming also settled there. Their existence is confirmed by the discovery by archeologist of a few potsherd identified as early iron age pottery. This means that they manufactured their own pottery and metal tools. Mapungubwe was strucutured along social classes. This may be seen from  the location of peopl’s houses sepersting leaders and commoners. The elite lived at the top of mapungbwe and their followers stayed at the bottom of the hill and in the surrounding area. A garbage site close to k2, where commoners lived, indicates that rich and poor at very different food. Funeral traditions were also different. The rich had a graveyard at the top of the hill with a beautiful view of the region. 3 of the people found in this cemetery were buried upright, in a sitting position, indicating they were royalty. They were buried with gold and copper ornaments and glass beads, showing the people of mapungubwe were skilled in working with golf

Unit 2-Mapungubwe: the first state in southern Africa 1220 – 1300

Unit 2 focus on Mapungubwe as the first state in Southern Africa, this is after Mapungubwe had discovered itself as a kingdom. The civilization that was taking place in the area, the opportunities, the rule of law, the bureaucracy was visible in the area. There was royalty with kings and queens ruling over the masses. There was also the working class and the upper class. The upper class will be the individuals that were allowed to live on top of the hills because of their social and economic status. The working class generally occupied the lower parts of the hills. The king and his advisors were the decision making body in the state.

Unit 3- Golden rhinoceroses and other golden objects ‘symbols of royal power and political leadership

This unit deals with the royal power and other objects that symbolized power and political leadership. Now Mapungubwe had discovered itself as a function state that has a population, economy and law. The rise of the area from a small kingdom into a greater power in Southern Africa was visible. There was the visibility of hierarchy with leaders living on top of the hills while ordinary masses occupied the area below the hills. This was the same with burial, leaders and respected men were buried on top of the hills whilst ordinary men were buried bottom of the hills.

Unit 4- Trade across Africa and across the Indian Ocean and beyond

This unit is about the trade that Mapungubwe had not only with other African states but with Asian states such as China. This was done in the early ages. Mapungubwe had not only become a greater state in Southern Africa, but it also contributed to international trade. It was dealing with super power and civilized traders of the Asian continent. The beginning of globalisation, Mapungubwe was part of those states that were in the forefront. 

Unit 5- Today: World Heritage Site and Order of Mapungubwe

This unit places its focus on the order of Mapungbwe today and it being a heritage site. From a great state to a heritage site, what went wrong with Mapungbwe? What happened to the trade deals it had?  What happen to its leadership? This unit will help the learner have answer for the above questions.

The Order of Mapungubwe

This Order is to be awarded to South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport.


This Order can be awarded in three Categories:

Category 1 = Gold

Category 2 = Silver

Category 3 = Bronze

Symbolism / Design Elements

Central Motif / Symbolism

The Ikhamanga (Strelitzia) plant symbolises the unique beauty of achievements by men and women who carry the colourful South African aloft in the fields of creativity, arts, culture, music, journalism and sport.


Neck badge

1. Four corners of the globe - symbolise the achievements of South Africans all over the world.

2. Rising sun - the new dawn emerging from Africa.

3. Mapungubwe hill - forms the background, a sandstone hill on mudstone deposit in an arid subtropical area with erratic summer rains. Excavations showed that excellence grew out of the most difficult natural circumstances.

4. Mapungubwe rhino - the now most well-known artifact found in a grave at the excavation site, a gold-plated figurine formed around a soft core, probably sculpted wood, testimony to the excellence of human resourcefulness present in the Kingdom.

5. Mapungubwesceptre - emerging from the gold melting pot on either side; another of the artifacts found in a grave at the excavation site. 6. Decorated gold melting pot - the basic symmetric forms on the overflowing gold melting pot symbolises the abundance of excellence, science and creativity, testimony to the earliest achievements in metallurgy. 7. Furnace - the purifying and life sustaining properties of fire, employed since the Iron Age, to advance development and excellence in societies and communities.

Unit 6- Great Zimbabwe

This unit focuses on Great Zimbabwe as the predecessor of Mapungubwe. After Mapungubwe demised Great Zimbabwe rose into prominence and became the new leading trade center in Southern Africa.Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a centre for trading, with artifacts suggesting that the city formed part of a trade network linked to Kilwa and extending as far as China. Copper coins found at KilwaKisiwani appear to be of the same pure ore found on the Swahili coast.[25] This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory; some estimates indicate that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground

Unit 7- A European explorer: Marco Polo

This unit focuses on Marco Polo, the European explorer who arrived in Africa, when Mapungubwe was on the peak of its civilization. Had just discovered itself as a state that has a lot of potential as an international player in the early beginnings of globalization.

"When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -falling asleep or anything else -he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night travelers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road; if they believe that these are some of their own company and head for the noise, they find themselves in deep trouble when daylight comes and they realize their mistake. There were some who, in crossing the desert, have been a host of men coming towards them and, suspecting that they were robbers, returning, they have gone hopelessly astray....Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path."

----- Marco Polo Travels

Venda Dance and Music

Dancing is an important part of Venda culture and the frequency of performances depends to a great extent on the season and economic wealth. If the countryside resounds with music, especially at night when it is cool, it is a sign of good times. Venda music and dance is not a substitute for happiness, but an expression of it.

Dancing is sponsored by rulers, and they will send their dancers to other rulers, either to confirm their relationship or, if he is a chief and they are headmen, to exact tribute.

Venda Culture: Domba Dance

The most famous of the Venda dances is the Domba, or python dance which is held annually at one of their most sacred sites, Lake Fundudzi to secure good rains for the following season. Young maidens, as the final stage of their initiation into womanhood, line up in single file forming a chain and dance in long fluidly, winding lines, like a snake. Traditionally the dancers wear small aprons covering the back and front, with tasselled ornaments called thahu.

Another famous dance is a royal dance called the Tshikona, which can be considered as the Venda “national dance. Traditionally it is a male dance performed at funerals, wedding or religious ceremonies. Each dancer has a pipe which is made out of a special indigenous type of bamboo and has only one note and they blow it in at a specific time so as to build a melody with the other pipes.

During planting and weeding only important ritual music and work-songs are performed regularly. However, when the first green maize cobs are appearing, girls perform the festive dances, tshigombela and tshifhasi. The tshigombela is usually performed by married women whilst the tshifhasi is very similar but performed by young unmarried girls (khomba).

Circumcision schools are held during the winter, and possession dances and boys’ communal dances take place chiefly during the period of rest between harvest and planting.

Venda Culture: Drums

Drums are often given personal names and are always played by women and girls, except in possession dances, when men may play them.

Drums form an important part of Venda culture and there are legends and symbols linked to them. Most sets of drums are kept in the homes of chiefs and headmen, and comprise one ngoma, one thungwa, and 2 or 3 murumba.