Early Iron Age communities occupied areas in the Soutpansberg from about 200AD. These people brought with them domesticated cattle and sheep or goats as well as the knowledge enabling them to smelt and forge iron. The early Iron Age migration routes are thought to have crossed the Limpopo Valley but to date no Early Iron Age archeological remain except for potsherds that have been located in the valley.
The earliest Early Iron Age site was located at Silverleaves in the New Agatha Valley (Tzaneen) and dates 200AD. The most important Early Iron Age sites in the Soutpansberg area are at Klein Afrika/Plaas Marius, just north of the tunnels in the Wyllie’s Poort, and at Schoemansdal Environmental Education Center in the Happy Rest Nature Reserve. Current excavations at Bristol and in the Nzhelele area are contributing to new theories on the importance of this period.
Later migrations from the north brought with them a more sophisticated ideology and technology and this became known as the Late Iron Age.
The Vhembe-Dongola National Park and surroundings are rich in cultural remains of the Late Iron Age and many of the most important sites from this period can be found there.
Archeological excavation at Schroda, which forms part of the Vhembe-Dongola National Park, has revealed what is thought to be the earliest known trade site in the southern African interior and has been dated to between 800AD and 950AD. Inhabitants at Schroda traded with Arabs from the Northern Hemisphere. These Arabs obtained oriental goods and transported them by sea to the East Coast of Africa where small settlements were established. Trading excursions into the interior were launched from these settlements.
Analysis of the archeological data suggests that Schroda was the capital of a small chiefdom with a pottery tradition known as “Zhizo”. Hippopotamus and elephant ivory, skins from various carnivores, crocodile skins and probably rhinoceros horn were traded by the inhabitants of Schroda for porcelain, glass beads and cloth.
At roughly 950AD Schroda and the Zhizo pottery tradition were replaced by what is called the Leopard’s Kopje A culture. The new capital was situated at K2, a few kilometers west of Schroda on what is now the Limpopo National Park. Although certain cultural changes took place, trade with the east continued and the archeological evidence suggests that trade increased.
Another important cultural change that took place was the political restructuring of the chief’s status. It appears that by 1050AD, when the settlement was abandoned, the chief had become more and more secluded and less accessible to the populace. Leopard’s Kopje A (KZ) evolved into Leopard’s Kopje B culture and a new capital was chosen at Mapungubwe Hill, roughly 1 km from K2 and still in the Limpopo National Park. It appears that the aristocracy was living on top of the hill as various ·golden ornaments and other decorative artifacts were found amongst burial remains. There is further evidence of the beginnings of divine kingship, as evident at Great Zimbabwe, further North in Zimbabwe.
Mapungubwe Hill, with the aristocracy living on top, formed the center of the settlement with the town spread around it. Outposts where guards were placed have been discovered at various points of ascent from the hilltop, helping to prove that the ruler had higher priorities than those of solving the day-to-day problems of the residents. The king would probably have been intensely involved in controlling trade and redistributing incoming trade goods.
As a result of this increase of power and wealth the Mapungubwe kingdom expanded and eventually controlled various district centers, from the Matopos in the north to the Soutpansberg in the south. These centers had their own capitals but paid tribute to Mapungubwe. With the demise of Mapungubwe it seems as if the center of power and trade shifted to Great Zimbabwe.
By 1450AD three groups of people inhabited the Soutpansberg region: the Vhangona (possibly descendents of Mapungubwe people), early Sotho speakers (Moroko culture) and Shona speakers. These people appear to have amalgamated in the form of separate chiefdoms. Unification later took place under the Singo and this led to the formation of the vhaVenda.