Forgotten Kingdoms of Southern Africa: Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe


Southern Africa’s history is massively intertwined and evidence of influential ancient kingdoms has intrigued the world because it serves as evidence of a thriving African people before colonialism. Most of these ancient kingdoms have been linked to periods between 1100 and 1600 A.D which was well before European settlers settled at any point in Southern Africa. Our focus today is Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe and Thulamela in South Africa.

Great Zimbabwe

Located about 200 miles from the second largest city, Bulawayo one finds ‘Great Zimbabwe’ in Masvingo Province. When Great Zimbabwe was first ‘discovered’ as they call it by European settlers they refused to believe that it was built by Africans. This settlemnt is believed to have accomodated the Shona for 300 years between 1100 and 1400 AD. This massive stone settlement was built by the iron age Bantus ancestors of the Shona. At the height of this settelement the population was approximately 18,000 which is the largest when compared with the other almost 200 stone structures found around Zimbabwe. The name ‘Zimbabwe’ means house of stone. The Shona who built the Great Zimbabwe are the ancestors of those who went to build Mapungubwe and Thulani in South Africa.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of Shona culture at this stone settlement, European explorers tried to dismiss the ingenuity of Native Africans by attributing the building to Arabs, Israelites and even Phoenicians. Anybody but Africans. However, they cannot explain the more than 200 other stone settlements in different areas of Zimbabwe that prove this was a way of life for the Shona. The builders of stone structures like the Great Zimbabwe used only granite stone with no mortar to erect massive stone walls around boulders that have lasted hundreds of years.

Great Zimbabwe was one of the most significant trading regions during the Medieval period. The main trading items were gold, iron, copper, tin, cattle, and also cowrie shells. Imported items included glassware from Syria, a minted coin from Kilwa, Tanzania, and Persian & Chinese ceramics from the 13-14th centuries. Great Zimbabwe was an important commercial and political center. In addition to being in the heart of an extensive commercial and trading network, the site was the center of a powerful political kingdom, which was under a central ruler for about 350 years (1100–1450 AD).  


History in Apartheid South Africa taught that when the settlers arrived in 1652 there were no blacks and that blacks only begun migrating into most areas of present day South Africa at about that time. Their explanation served to reinforce to Europeans why the Boer settlers had a right to the land as it was not previously owned. About 500 miles north of Pretoria is evidence of a settlement at Mapungubwe, close to the border with Zimbabwe. This too was built by Shona people. When it was initially discovered, the settlement was handed over to the University of Pretoria who at the time did not have a need to preserve any history that would show the brilliance and intelligence of local African people. Chances are many South Africans have never of Mapungubwe because anything that paints native blacks in good light was never encouraged in pre-Independence South Africa.

Evidence excavated at Mapungubwe shows that they built a stone around the mountain and sand had to carried to the top. Other evidence of glass beads also shows that the people who lived at Mapungubwe also traded with possibly the chinese. Mapungubwe had been previously neglected to kill any evidence showing African progress and evidence of African existence prior to colonialism.

This site was discovered in Kruger National Park, one of the largest parks in the world. Settlement at this site was believed to have occurred between 1200 and 1640 AD. Although this site was also managed by University of Pretoria it was better restored and opened to the public. They discovered the remains of a female who had on her possession many gold beads and a gold bangle. Thulamela is believed to have accomodated about 2,000 people. This too was built by the Shona people who often conducted trade all the way to the Indian ocean.