Ancient African Kingdom May Anchor Cross-Border Conservation Area

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
April 11, 2005
An Iron Age archaeological site will likely form the centerpiece of a
cross-border conservation area under negotiation by three southern
African countries.

The proposed Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) will link land in South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.

Roughly 50 percent of the designated land lies in South Africa. There, the area's main attraction is Mapungubwe National Park, a 70,000-acre (28,000-hectare) preserve and UNESCO World Heritage site.

Mapungubwe, which opened in September, takes its name from a flat-topped hill that anchored Africa's largest and most powerful kingdom between A.D. 900 and A.D. 1,300.

The archaeological site contains evidence of a culture with social classes and extensive trading ties that extended into Arabia and India.

"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," UNESCO wrote in a dedication upon the area's designation as a World Heritage Site in 2003.

Ancient Culture

First discovered in 1932, the archaeological site provides a remarkably complete record of the rise and fall of the Iron Age kingdom.

Hannes Eloff, now a retired professor of archaeology at the University of Pretoria, worked in the area for many years. He said Mapungubwe was the name local communities gave the prominent hill where the archaeological site was found.

The word mapungubwe has several meanings. "The hill of the jackal" is one. Another is "the smelting place," possibly a reference to gold- and iron-smelting that occurred there. But the most widely accepted is "place of the stone of wisdom."

"The local tribespeople regarded it with awe, preferring not to go near it," Eloff said. "When my students and I went there to do excavations, we, too, treated it with respect."

"The first thing we did on our arrival, after pitching our tents, was to climb the steep cliff to the top to pay our respects. We spoke softly. It was as if we had the old king sitting before us," he said.

Archaeological remains on top of the hill provide a clear indication that a royal or similarly influential class lived there and provide evidence that a class structure existed in early African society, Eloff said.

Many glass beads were found in the area and suggest the community had extensive trade with people from the Middle East and East Asia.

Mapungubwe's most famous artifact is a golden, one-horned rhinoceros, a species found only in Asia. The object provides further proof that the Iron Age African community had contact with the East.

Evidence of an ancient African society with a class structure similar to Mapungubwe's was found at another set of ruins located about 200 miles (320 kilometers) farther north, in Zimbabwe.

Eloff said archaeologists believe that the people of Mapungubwe began to migrate north in the 14th century, for reasons that were possibly economic or climate related.

Once in Zimbabwe, the ancient people helped construct a new settlement.

Transfrontier Parks

The proposed Limpopo/Shashe TFCA would cover about 2,000 square miles (4,872 square kilometers). South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe have yet to sign a final agreement to create the transborder conservation area, and details about its management must still be resolved.

Johan Verhoef is the South African government coordinator for the Limpopo/Shashe TFCA Mapungubwe National Park. He noted the park "contains a high cultural content on a World Heritage significance level, bringing even more challenges to management, especially regarding the cultural landscape."

Several existing transfrontier conservation areas and parks cross international boundaries and are managed as one integrated unit. But there are differences between TFCAs and parks.

Transfrontier parks focus primarily on wildlife conservation, and authorities work to remove all human barriers, so that animals can move freely.

Transfrontier conservation areas, however can include national parks, private game reserves, and even areas designated for hunting. Fences, railroad tracks, major highways, and other barriers may remain standing and impede animal movement.

These conservation areas, like the proposed proposed Limpopo-Shashe TFCA, are managed for long-term sustainable use of natural resources.

The Limpopo-Shashe TFCA may ultimately encompass the Botswana Northern Tuli Game Reserve, South Africa's Mapungubwe National Park, land owned by the De Beers international diamond company, and various private ranches.

This mosaic of private land, state-owned land, and national parks creates complexities in the preservation of major cultural landmarks.

Botswana, for instance, would have to determine how to manage a large elephant population in Limpopo-Shashe. But the animals could damage lush, adjacent lands in South Africa if they are allowed free access across the Limpopo River, which divides the two countries.

In Zimbabwe the proposed conservation area includes tribal land and two farms that had been part of the country's chaotic land-redistribution process.

Despite the complex negotiations, Verhoef, the South African government coordinator, said negotiations with the communities concerned are progressing.

The "aim is to sign the memorandum of understanding by mid-2005," he said. "We are confident that this will happen, setting in motion the process of establishing the [transfrontier conservation area] as set out in the [agreement]."

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