We have previously mentioned that our earliest ancestors buried their dead. Sometimes they also placed special objects in the graves.
Why did even our very early ancestors develop rituals? Do we still conduct rituals in our own lives? Do we need them and if so, why? Think about these questions as you read the next few pages, and later we will discuss them.
Mapungubwe Hill is in the far north of the country, rising dramatically 30 metres above the Limpopo River. Hard to access with its steep sides, it is like a 300-metre long natural fortress. And indeed it was a stronghold in which a kingdom of great wealth and cultural richness lived for a thousand years, until the 13th century.
Archaeologists have found evidence that this kingdom traded their gold and ivory in exchange for precious materials from Egypt, India, Persia and China. Seven or eight centuries ago, highly valued objects such as these would have been carried back and forth by merchants who travelled extraordinary distances, across the oceans and across the continent of Africa itself.
For the hundreds of years that they inhabited the area, this community developed methods of mining for gold, producing beautiful and extraordinarily refined gold objects. They made gold beads (from the minutest size to the largest); utensils, wire, ornaments, and jewellery. They thus had a currency they could trade with Arab and Indian traders who came down the coast of Africa, bringing the colourful glass beads that they did not have the technology to produce. Mapungubwe’s people bought these
in huge quantities (but also learnt how to melt and re-form the glass into larger shapes for themselves).
But, mysteriously, seven centuries ago, the kingdom of Mapungubwe disappeared. Whether the people left because of changing climate (the “Little Ice Age”), drought, or disease, or some other reason, we do not know.
We know that this hill has been frequently plundered since then, and only a fraction of its treasures remain. But these that we have are astonishing. It was here that the renowned gold foil rhino, scepter, and bowls were found. Many beautifully decorated clay pots, bowls and jars – sometimes still intact – have also been found in the area around the mountain.
These treasures lay unknown and forgotten until 1932. Many of the local people who knew about the hill regarded it with dread, superstition and fear. But eventually a few explorers, and later archaeologists, were led by a local man to find – behind a giant wild ficus tree – its hidden entrance. Since then, hard work and research have revealed twenty-three graves. In most of these, the bodies lay in a foetal position, adorned with copper, iron, ivory and bone bracelets, and pottery ornaments. But in three of those graves, the bodies were buried in a seated position, thought to indicate that they were royalty. They had been buried with gold jewellery, gold and copper objects embossed with patterns, and the most beautiful of the glass beads and small sculptures.
Included among them was the now famous little rhinoceros. It was made of two separate thin sheets of gold (beaten to less than half a millimetre thick) tacked with tiny gold pins onto a wooden core. Even its ears are perfectly shaped, with tiny gold nails deep inside of them, pinning them to the core.