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.

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