Emergence of Mapungubwe

In the late eleventh century, a centralized state emerged in southeastern Africa. Although other populations had long inhabited this region of Africa, no centralized, commercial, and semiurban focused towns have been uncovered except for Mapungubwe and its successor states.

Summary of Event

In the tenth century on the southern riverbank of the Limpopo bend, a political ideology emerged that was focused in the centrality of the chief or king. In southeastern Africa, this was a new political concept that utilized redistribution of wealth, which was a twofold or mutual obligation: The chief had the privilege to collect half of all of the profit made in luxury trade (valuable stones and beads, gold, ivory, and other such commodities)—which those engaged in trade were obligated to remit—but in times of economic stress or political crisis, the chief was also obliged to provide security to the population, which in turn bestowed their loyalty to the chief. [kw]Emergence of Mapungubwe (1075-c. 1220)
[kw]Mapungubwe, Emergence of (1075-c. 1220)
Africa;1075-c. 1220: Emergence of Mapungubwe[1660]
Government and politics;1075-c. 1220: Emergence of Mapungubwe[1660]

The primary basis for the chief’s power, authority, and affluence was the possession of a large quantity of cattle, because cattle could always provide food in times of economic or ecological crisis. Because the soils of Mapungubwe were not the most fertile for agricultural production, the raising of livestock had become a significant component in the Mapungubwe subsistence economy. Thus, the southeast relied on an agropastoral economy with an immense weight placed on pastoralism and particularly the accumulation of large herds.

In the late eleventh century, the new basis of power, which began to build greater wealth concentrated in the hands of the few chiefs, was the catalyst for the appearance by the twelfth century of the Mapungubwe state. By the twelfth century, the Mapungubwe state was drawing its wealth not only from cattle Cattle;trade in but also from trading gold and ivory to the international markets on Indian Ocean networks. Trade;Africa
Africa;trade The wealth of the state or the chiefs came not primarily from cattle or even gold but rather from the exploitation of ivory for export to the coast, from where Swahili merchants transported it into the wider world. Ivory was more important than gold because the Mapungubwe state could better control the hunting of elephants but did not control the mining of gold. The Mapungubwe rulers had power over taxation of the precious metal only as it passed through the region; they did not control production. While the wealth of the state was based on the exploitation of gold, cattle, copper, and ivory in international trade, the authority and power of the state were derived more directly from the king’s ability to build up wealth in political and social dependents and to acquire livestock to support them.

As Swahili trade expanded in volume, traders explored new sources for commodities farther south, on the Indian Ocean coast. Chibuene, which was just east of Mapungubwe, became a productive port of trade because of this international interest and demand for both gold and ivory. Besides the urban center of Chibuene, the southeastern interior had a town with important significance for trade. This town was the site of Mapungubwe; hence, the commercial center merged with the state as the site of kingship and the exchange of gold, copper, and ivory from three different regions of southern Africa—the regions currently known as the Zimbabwe plateau, the Transvaal, and the Limpopo River Valley—which respectively controlled each of these three commodities of exchange.

Mapungubwe was distinct from the previous political and social units that existed in this corner of southeastern Africa for several important reasons. First, it was established not on the plain, as were Leopard’s Kopje and many smaller political entities, but on a hilltop, enclosed by large stone walls around the cattle kraals, grain bins, and households. Second, Mapungubwe’s political organization was clearly an attempt to limit economic and political segmentation. Political divisions of small chiefdoms circumscribed the amount of centralization, the concentration of power, and the size or extent that the state was able to achieve. By contrast, the social hierarchy indicated in the layout of Mapungubwe demonstrates that it consisted, not in a multiplicity of chiefs ruling over various different populations and the territories they occupied, but rather in a single chief or king who ruled over subjects and delegated power to subordinate chiefs. Third, the archaeological evidence of Mapungubwe also demonstrates a more privileged elite who enjoyed a greater variety of luxury. Grave wares included gold-plated items and beads in the larger burial sites of individuals presumed to be from the elite classes. The technology of spindle whorls found in Mapungubwe sites indicates that new categories of work were developing and that cloth was being produced. In addition to cloth, pottery was significant in Mapungubwe’s archaeological record beginning in the eleventh century.

Mapungubwe not only was an important locus for orchestrated trade but also served as an important ritual site for adherents of locally based religious ideologies that emerged among the population. In other words, Mapungubwe was of spiritual importance, and even after the collapse of the site politically, it continued to serve as a religious shrine, demonstrating that the religious significance and symbolism of a location cannot always be easily erased in the same manner that its political importance can be eliminated. Religion;Africa

Mapungubwe was abandoned in the thirteenth century, most likely because the hilltop settlement became ecologically and environmentally uninhabitable as a result of the density of human and cattle populations and partially because of the economic downturn resulting from a shift in the trade patterns at the coast. In the stead of Mapungubwe, an even larger state emerged at the site of Great Zimbabwe farther to the north.


Mapungubwe presents the earliest evidence, archaeological or historical, of a centralized state in southern Africa headed by a king. Mapungubwe demonstrates the function of economic wealth in building a centralized state. In the twelfth century, the wealth produced from ivory was tremendous, while by the thirteenth century, the Mapungubwe state had shrunk considerable and virtually collapsed as ivory trade declined and as Swahili merchants abandoned Chibuene and concentrated commercial activities in ports farther north.

Mapungubwe seems to be a political precursor to Great Zimbabwe Great Zimbabwe , which emerged to the north of Mapungubwe in the thirteenth century. Much of the material culture and architecture of Great Zimbabwe demonstrates continuity in style, structure, and function with the culture and institutions that have been identified for Mapungubwe a century earlier to the south.

Further Reading

  • Huffman, Thomas N. “The Mapungubwe Period.” Snakes and Crocodiles: Power and Symbolism in Ancient Zimbabwe. Johannesburg, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press, 1996. An archaeological approach to understanding historical, political, and cultural symbols.
  • Inskeep, R. R. “South Africa.” In African Iron Age, edited by P. L. Shinnie. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971. Examines the archaeology and history of southern Africa with attention to Mapungubwe and pottery.
  • Leslie, Mary, and T. M. O’C Maggs. African Naissance: The Limpopo Valley One Thousand Years Ago. Cape Town: South African Archaeological Society, 2000. An archaeological examination of Mapungubwe and the origins of the Zimbabwe culture. Focuses particularly on Iron Age materials.
  • Voigt, Elizabeth A. Mapungubwe: An Archaeozoological Interpretation of an Iron Age Community. Pretoria, South Africa: Transvaal Museum, 1983. Examines the material culture of Mapungubwe in the Iron Age, paying particular attention to animal remains.