By the ninth century, Arab traders from Yemen and the Persian Gulf, as well as local Swahili coastal traders, had extended their trade networks down the east coast of Africa, as far as Chibuene on the Mozambican coast. Their presence was to have a significant impact on developments in the interior of southern Africa, prompting the growth of the first complex state in the region, a precursor to Great Zimbabwe. The most important site linked to this state has been found at Mapungubwe, on the south side of the Limpopo River (the South Africa/Zimbabwe/Botswana border) in the Limpopo River valley. However, there are a number of sites linked to this state, and their evolution reflects the growing importance of trade with the east coast.
The Limpopo valley region was inhabited from the second century, probably by ancestors of modern Shona-speakers. However, it was not settled extensively by Iron Age farmers until the eighth century, when climate changes made more extensive farming possible. When larger settlements were formed they were characteristic of the Central Cattle Pattern, with stone huts and kraals (cattle pens). One of the earliest sites excavated for this period is Schroda, close to Mapungubwe and dated to the ninth century. Archaeological deposits at Schroda contain imported glass beads and ivory, import and export goods that point to the development of a trade with the east coast, if only indirectly.
From the tenth century, sites in the region became more complex, showing evidence of larger cattle herds and a new pottery style. This is evident at Leopard’s Kopje (dated to 980), near modern Bulawayo. The site’s name is often used to refer to a Later Iron Age phase covering the period between 1000 and 1300, which includes the period when the Mapungubwe state was in its ascendancy. These shifts are taken to indicate the beginnings of more complex social structure in the area, prompted by a developing trade in gold.
Gold was present in alluvial and surface deposits on the Zimbabwean plateau. However, the local people disregarded it, until Arab traders on the East African coast expressed an interest in it, and the demand for gold became apparent. The start of this trade can be dated accurately, because it was reported by the Arabian chronicler, Al-Masudi, in 916.
By the end of the tenth century, people of the Leopard’s Kopje tradition had settled at Bambandyanalo (known in some of the literature as K2) at the base of Mapungubwe hill. The large amount of cattle bones found confirms the importance of cattle to this society. The presence of imported glass beads indicates a flourishing trade with the coast. The beads are found throughout the deposits for Bambandyanalo and Mapungubwe, attesting to the importance of trade until Mapungubwe’s decline. At Bambandyanalo there is also evidence of specialized craft working, resulting in ivory bracelets and spindle whorls.
By 1075 a small part of the settlement had relocated to the top of Mapungubwe hill. It is thought that the Mapungubwe rulers and religious elite occupied the hill as a direct result of growing hierarchical distinctions in Mapungubwe society, the literal placement of different classes at the top or bottom of the hill reflecting symbolic status. Thereafter, livestock and the majority of people lived at the bottom of the hill. Remains from the top of the hill include richly endowed burials and evidence of successive phases of building that incorporated more elaborate stone walling than at Bambandyanalo. (Mapungubwe’s famous gold rhinoceros was found here.)
Some of the information about Mapungubwe is gathered from the skeletons (over 100) buried in the complex. These skeletons comprise the largest collection of Iron Age human remains found to date in southern Africa. Most were buried in flexed positions, together with material goods such as beads, bangles, and pottery shards.
Mapungubwe has been identified as the center of a state that emerged on the southern bank of the Limpopo at the end of the tenth century, and which extended its rule over the Zimbabwean plateau and into modern Botswana. Smaller settlements, with layouts similar to Mapungubwe, are to be found around the bases and summits of hills of the surrounding region. This pattern of a hierarchy of settlements, modeled on the main settlement, is similar to that of Toutswemogala.
Shifts in the nature of power relations at Mapun-gubwe have been linked to control over external trade. The precondition for the emergence of the state would have been control of internal resources, such as cattle. Thereafter, those groups who controlled the production and distribution of trade items like gold and ivory would have been able to accumulate the resources necessary to assert power over others. This would have encouraged the emergence of a more hierarchical social system. Social stratification is necessary for the emergence of states, which are more permanent social arrangements than chiefdoms. States also rely on additional means as sources of authority. The continual rendering of tribute, necessary for the reproduction of the state, was achieved through social contract. This was achieved through the creation of a symbolic order binding the state together. This, in turn, called into existence the need for a religious elite. Analyses of the use of space at Mapungubwe indicate that its leaders combined secular leadership with sacred power. States of this kind are also characterized by a social division of labor, which was present at Mapungubwe through the evidence of specialized craft working.
By the thirteenth century, the Mapungubwe state was in decline, probably as a result of its loss of control of the gold trade. Arab traders were locating themselves further north along the east coast and trading directly with a newly emergent state on the Zimbabwean plateau. This state became known as Great Zimbabwe.
See also: Great Zimbabwe: Origins and Rise.
Hall, M. The Changing Past: Farmers, Kings, and Traders in Southern Africa 200-1860. London: James Currey, 1987.
Huffman, T. Snakes and Crocodiles: Power and Symbolism in Ancient Zimbabwe. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1996.
Iliffe, J. Africans: The History of a Continent. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Maggs, T., and G. Whitelaw. “A Review of Recent Archaeological Research on Food-Producing Communities in Southern Africa.” Journal of African History. 32 (1991): 3-24.
Maylam, P. A History of the African People of South Africa: From the Early Iron Age to the 1970s. London and Johannesburg: Croom Helm and David Philip, 1986.
Sinclair, P., and I. Pikirayi, G. Pwiti, and R. Soper. “Urban Trajectories on the Zimbabwean Plateau.” In The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns, edited by T. Shaw, P. Sinclair, B. Andah, and A. Okpoko. London: Routledge, 1993.