Mapungubwe is set hard against the northern border of South Africa, joining Zimbabwe and Botswana. It is an open, expansive savannah landscape at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Mapungubwe developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century. What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivalled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years.
Outstanding Universal Value
The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape demonstrates the rise and fall of the first indigenous kingdom in Southern Africa between 900 and 1,300 AD. The core area covers nearly 30,000 ha and is supported by a suggested buffer zone of around 100,000 ha. Within the collectively known Zhizo sites are the remains of three capitals - Schroda; Leopard’s Kopje; and the final one located around Mapungubwe hill - and their satellite settlements and lands around the confluence of the Limpopo and the Shashe rivers whose fertility supported a large population within the kingdom.
Mapungubwe's position at the crossing of the north/south and east/west routes in southern Africa also enabled it to control trade, through the East African ports to India and China, and throughout southern Africa. From its hinterland it harvested gold and ivory - commodities in scarce supply elsewhere – and this brought it great wealth as displayed through imports such as Chinese porcelain and Persian glass beads.
This international trade also created a society that was closely linked to ideological adjustments, and changes in architecture and settlement planning. Until its demise at the end of the 13th century AD, Mapungubwe was the most important inland settlement in the African subcontinent and the cultural landscape contains a wealth of information in archaeological sites that records its development. The evidence reveals how trade increased and developed in a pattern influenced by an elite class with a sacred leadership where the king was secluded from the commoners located in the surrounding settlements.
Mapungubwe's demise was brought about by climatic change. During its final two millennia, periods of warmer and wetter conditions suitable for agriculture in the Limpopo/Shashe valley were interspersed with cooler and drier pulses. When rainfall decreased after 1300 AD, the land could no longer sustain a high population using traditional farming methods, and the inhabitants were obliged to disperse. Mapungubwe's position as a power base shifted north to Great Zimbabwe and, later, Khami.
The remains of this famous kingdom, when viewed against the present day fauna and flora, and the geo-morphological formations of the Limpopo/Shashe confluence, create an impressive cultural landscape of universal significance.
Criterion (ii): The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape contains evidence for an important interchange of human values that led to far-reaching cultural and social changes in Southern Africa between AD 900 and 1300.
Criterion (iii): The remains in the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape are a remarkably complete testimony to the growth and subsequent decline of the Mapungubwe State which at its height was the largest kingdom in the African subcontinent.
Criterion (iv): The establishment of Mapungubwe as a powerful state trading through the East African ports with Arabia and India was a significant stage in the history of the African sub-continent.
Criterion (v): The remains in the Mapungubwe cultural landscape graphically illustrate the impact of climate change and record the growth and then decline of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe as a clear record of a culture that became vulnerable to irreversible change.
All remains of the main settlements are in the nominated property, as are all major phases of the Mapungubwe kingdoms’ development and decline. The property contains substantial areas of virtually untouched cultural landscape of very high quality but, pending their decommissioning, these are separated by some areas of modern citrus plantations and circular irrigated agricultural fields in private ownership.
The considerable agricultural enterprise of the final phase at Mapungubwe has vanished. Although much of the core landscape has returned to its unimproved state with wild grazing game animals, the recent opening up of the property to big game, especially elephants needs to be considered, and is being monitored.
The Messina area is a rich mining area and the diamond mining operations at Riedel (small scale) and Venetia (major operation) could have a potential impact on the property. There is also a possibility that deposits of other valuable minerals may yet be found. With mining rights being recently returned to the State, better future control was anticipated but the granting of a mining licence for coal 5 km from the boundary of the property, in a highly sensitive area adjacent to the Limpopo river and in the proposed buffer zone that was submitted at the time of the inscription, is a considerable threat.
The integrity of the site has been affected by the standard of the excavations in the 1930s which it could be argued led to valuable evidence being lost – and thus the completeness of the site, in both physical and intellectual terms has been compromised.
The nominated property and buffer zone have largely not been subjected to any destructive form of human intervention since the remains were abandoned, and the current agricultural activities have not had a major impact on the cultural landscape in terms of its ability to convey its value. However there is a need to ensure that old excavations are not eroded by climatic forces or by uncontrolled visitors.
Protection and management requirements
The Mapungubwe site and the buffer zone are legally protected through the National Heritage Resources Act (No 25 of 1999), the World Heritage Convention Act (No 43 of 1999) and the National Environmental Management Act (No 73 of 1989).
The property is also recognized as a protected area in terms of the National Environmental Management Protected Areas, 2003 (Act 57 of 2003). This legislation implies that mining or prospecting will be completely prohibited from taking placing within the property and the buffer zone. Furthermore, any development with a potential impact on the property will be subjected to an environmental impact assessment.
SANParks is the management authority for the property and provides overall management involving coordinating government and local community efforts to conserve the site. SANParks is currently updating the Integrated Management Plan. Regular consultative meetings with stakeholders and local communities take place on the site through the park forum and by other means of engagement.
A Trilateral Memorandum of Understanding is also being drawn up with the objective of establishing the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA). This very extensive area of 5,040 km² will, when established, constitute an effective buffer zone. It is intended that each participating country will concentrate on one facet of protection: cultural heritage in South Africa; wildlife in Botswana; and living cultures in Zimbabwe.
To help guarantee long-term protection for the property there is a need to complete the Integrated Management Plan and to submit the buffer zone for approval by the World Heritage Committee.
There is also a need to ensure that any consideration of mining licenses is in line with the recommendations of the Technical Workshop on World Heritage and Mining adopted at the 24th session of the World Heritage Committee, to ensure that mining does not constitute a threat to the property, its buffer zone or its wider setting.
The Mapungubwe landscape contains evidence for an important interchange of human values that led to far-reaching cultural and social changes in Southern Africa between AD 900 and 1300. The establishment of Mapungubwe as a powerful state trading through the East African ports with Arabia and India was a significant stage in the history of the African subcontinent. The remains in the Mapungubwe area are a remarkably complete testimony to the growth and its subsequent decline of a state of which at its height was the largest kingdom in the southern African subcontinent. They also graphically illustrate the impact of climate change and record the growth and the decline of the kingdom of Mapungubwe: a record of a culture that became vulnerable to irreversible change.
The Mapungubwe kingdom had largely faded out of history by the mid-16th century. At the height of its powers, the centralized and hierarchical society encompassed at least 9,000 people and had huge wealth and influence gained from harvesting rich natural resource and trading these, via Indian Ocean ports, with Arabia, India and China. Sited at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, which flooded to provide fertile alluvial soils, and with almost ideal climatic conditions, Mapungubwe had attracted Iron Age agriculturalists from the mid-1st millennium AD, and before that there is much evidence of hunter-gatherers. What transformed Mapungubwe from a small-scale, rural society into an influential city-state was the development of a social structure that encouraged population growth through comparatively intensive agriculture, and of a hierarchical system that produced specialization and a trading economy (ivory and gold). Mapungubwe's wealth and social structures are evident in the three palaces built during the three phases of its growth between 900 and its demise, brought on by a rapid change in the climate, a sort of mini Ice Age. The southern African power base shifted north to Great Zimbabwe. The overall site thus illustrates successive stages in the creation of the first indigenous kingdom in Southern Africa and its ultimate decline. The Mapungubwe is magnificent in landscape terms, with superb views in all directions, but the excavated remains are not very impressive. Specifically the site contains:
- Remains of palaces, 1220-90 (Mapungubwe period): these reflect not only Mapungubwe's great wealth but also the social, religious and political hierarchy that developed as a result of population expansion based on successful intensive agriculture and international trade through East African coastal ports with India and China of gold and ivory in return for ceramics, glass beads and other luxury goods
- Archaeological remains testifying to Mapungubwe's growth, 900-1200: Zhizo sites represent the first pioneer farmers to settle near the rivers. The largest is Schroda on a plateau overlooking the Limpopo valley. A degree of hierarchy was emerging, but the settlements still reflected a very typical southern African pattern - houses encircling a large cattle enclosure. Large quantities of clay figurines of people and animals (domesticated sheep, goats, cattle and dogs) suggest some sort of centralised ritual ceremonies. After a century Schroda was abandoned and a new capital established by incoming people: Leopard's Kopje. There is also evidence of iron and copper working. After another century came the final phase of Mapungubwe with, it seems, the population moving to the bottom of the hill below the newly built palace.
- Remains of early settlement: Stone Age and Iron Age, and rock art: the combination of a riverine environment and sandstone hills seems to have provided a focus for human settlement whenever climatic conditions have been favourable. Ancestors of the San Bushmen lived in the area for many millennia; Stone Age occupation is evident from 26 sites. Between AD 250 and 900, these hunter-gathers were gradually replaced or absorbed by Iron Age agriculturalists who, after 900, begun to form the foundations of the Mapungubwe state.
- 'Natural' landscape surrounding the built remains: this extensive landscape is today a backdrop for the site. The huge agricultural enterprise of the final phase at Mapungubwe has vanished and much of the core of the landscape has now been returned largely to its unimproved state with wild grazing game animals. Some farms still remain, growing citrus in irrigated fields. In the valley irrigation allows large-scale commercial farming and game ranching but some of this has been cleared and it is planned more will follow.
Mapungubwe was the largest settlement in the subcontinent in the 13th century AD before it was abandoned. Various communities settled in the vicinity over the next 600 years. Legends and rumours about the place were passed on from generation to generation. Karel Moerschell, a local German farmer, knew about the gold by 1911, but it was not until the 1930s that the significance of Mapungubwe became more widely known.
On 31 December 1932, a local informant, Mowena, led E.S.J. van Graan, and four others to Greefswald farm on Mapungubwe Hill where they saw stone walls and recovered gold and iron artefacts, pottery and glass beads. The finds, which received wide publicity in the media, were reported to the head of the Department of History at the University of Pretoria, Professor Leo Fouché. As a result of his intervention, the University negotiated with the owner of the property, E.E. Collins.
In a legal agreement the University took ownership of the gold and other artefacts and secured an option and contract for excavation rights. The University also successfully requested a postponement of prospecting, mining and related activities on Greefswald. In June 1933, Greefswald was bought by the Government and excavation rights were granted to the University of Pretoria.
The University established an Archaeological Committee, which from 1933 to 1947 oversaw research and excavations. Rev. Neville Jones from Zimbabwe and J.F. Schofield were appointed to undertake the first fieldwork in 1934 and 1935 and they were advised by Professor C van Riet Lowe, Director of the Bureau of Archaeology. Their work focused on Mapungubwe Hill, the southern terrace and the midden there. They briefly surveyed other similar sites in the vicinity.
From 1935-1940 six excavation seasons at K2 and Mapungubwe Hill were directed by Guy A. Gardner. The results of his work were published nearly 25 years later.
Meyer (1998) describes the excavations on Greefswald between 1933 and 1940 as ‘rapid, large scale excavations resulting in the recovery of valuable artefacts'. Research was hampered by ‘the lack of professional archaeologists in South Africa, the lack of full-time supervision of the excavations by efficient, trained staff, the fact that adequate scientific methods for Iron Age research had not yet been developed and that the Iron Age in South Africa was virtually unknown to archaeologists. Consequently, many of the deposits on the sites were removed without the meticulous excavation and recording required. These problems inevitably resulted in a loss of irreplaceable deposits and eventually also of excavated materials [and] a lack of scientific data.'
The next phase of archaeological investigation, in 1953- 1954 and in 1968-1970, under the direction initially of the Department of Anthropology, and then of Professor J F Eloff who was appointed as Head of the newly-formed Department of Archaeology at the University of Pretoria in 1970, was more systematic and focused mainly on the southern terrace.
Over the next 25 years from 1970 to 1995, the Department of Archaeology at the University of Pretoria recognised that their first priority was to establish a firm data base by testing, correcting and supplementing the earlier research, and concentrating on reconstructing the way of life of the site inhabitants. Between 1979 and 2002 reports have been published on the human and faunal remains, Chinese porcelain, gold objects, glass beads and radiocarbon dating.
In addition, sites on neighbouring farms have been investigated by students of the University of Pretoria during the 1970s and 1980s.
Greefswald has remained the property of the State since the 1930s. Management of the farm was taken over by the provincial Department of Nature Conservation in 1992, and control was transferred to SANParks in 1999.
The proposed boundaries of the world heritage site coincide with the boundaries of the proposed Vhembe- Dongala National Park - which is still in the process of formation. It is being inscribed sequentially - with three areas properties already gazetted. These are Den Staat, Geefswald and Reidal which are areas of ‘natural' landscape in which are many of the principal archaeological sites.
The aim is for SANParks eventually to acquire all the land within the proposed park or to have contractual agreement with the owners. This will allow the land to be taken out of agriculture and revert to ‘natural' landscape. A chart of the current progress with land negotiations is included in the nomination. Currently there are ‘in principle' agreements for 11 of the remaining 29 land units, but the timetable is missing. These are currently used for different purposes: some are being cultivated using irrigation agricultural techniques based on water extracted from the Limpopo river, some are managed as game reserves, and others are owned by the De Beers Corporation and are used to ensure water extraction, storage, and provision for that organization's diamond mining activities, which are estimated to have a maximum working life of twenty years. Source: Advisory Body Evaluation