The Ancient City of Mapungubwe:

Extract from Beyond Belief: Murders and Mysteries of Southern Africa.

Sian Hall and Rob Marsh:

Its sheer 50m high sandstone cliffs rise abruptly from the stark and arid, unbroken bush veld close to the point where the Shashe River flows into the Limpopo and where the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet.

Mapungubwe hill is 300 m long, broad at one end, tapering at the other. It is only accessible by means of two very steep and narrow paths which twist their way to the summit, and yet 2 000 tons of soil had been artificially transported to the very top by a prehistoric people of unknown identity. The hill is surrounded by mystery and legend. Local African legends hold the hill taboo and regard it with so much awe that they turn their backs to it at the mere mention of the name, and they believe that those who climb the hill place their lives in jeopardy.

Rediscovered: heard of rumours of priceless treasure

On New year’s Eve 1932, ESJ van Graan together with his son, three friends and a young African man, whom they had persuaded with much difficulty to guide them, ventured to the summit of the hill. Here they found the remnants of a lost and once powerful civilization. The hill was covered in ash and soil deposits among which they found iron tools, pots, copper beads and even heaps of boulders positioned so that, at a moments notice, they may be rolled down upon the heads of enemies who dared to climb the cliffs. Where the ground cover had been eroded, they found richly adorned graves ... and gold. Fortunately, Van Graan’s son had studied ethnology at the University of Pretoria and, recognizing the academic value of the site, he contacted Professor Leo Fouche and so began the biggest Iron Age archaeological project ever undertaken by any southern African university, and remains an ongoing project today.

The search for the truth:

Archaeological enquiry uncovered the remnants of numerous dwellings which had been built on the ruins of predecessors over many generations, resulting in a series of habitation phases. Radiocarbon dates show that the first buildings were erected below the hill at the beginning of the 11th century AD. But adjacent to Mapungubwe is the sister site of Bambadyanalo which was settled even earlier. It seemed that the centre of the state shifted from Bambandyanalo to Mapungubwe hill in about AD 1045, when the town most probably became overcrowded. It was also at about this time that hills and mountains became associated with royalty and the noble classes began to build their structure on high ground.

(The van Graan party discovered a grave site, later named M1, rich with gold ornaments. A large quantity of gold wire adorned the neck and arms of the skeleton, and about 130 of these were still in relatively good condition. All in all, the amount of gold from this burial amounted to 7 503 ounces).

Although Mapungubwe has been scientifically investigated since the early 1930's, many of its mysteries lie unanswered. We are still unsure of the exact identity of the Mapungubwe builders, and we do not know for certain its true name. Where did the gold come from? And why was the once-prosperous settlement finally abandoned? Its secrets remain secrets, discovered and unearthed only to tantalize....