Year inscribed: 2003
Location: Limpopo province, 22º 11′ 33″ S 29º 14′ 20″ E
Type: Cultural heritage
Mapungubwe – “place of the stone of wisdom” – was South Africa’s first kingdom, and developed into the subcontinent’s largest realm, lasting for 400 years before it was abandoned in the 14th century. Its highly sophisticated people traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt.
The site lies on the open savannah of the Mapungubwe National Park, at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers in the province of Limpopo.
It abuts the northern border of South Africa and the borders of Zimbabwe and Botswana, a crossroads location that helps explain its prosperous past as an important trading centre, particularly at the height of its powers between about 1220 and 1300 AD.
A free-standing structure rising 30 metres above the surrounding grasslands, Mapungubwe is topped by impregnable cliffs all around.
Since its discovery in 1932 this Iron Age site has been excavated by the University of Pretoria. However, the findings were kept from public attention until 1993, just prior to South Africa’s first democratic elections, because evidence of a highly advanced indigenous society existing centuries before European colonialism spread across Africa ran contrary to the racist ideology of apartheid.
“The remains in the Mapungubwe cultural landscape are a remarkably complete testimony to the growth and subsequent decline of the Mapungubwe state,” the World Heritage Committee says in its assessment.
“What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivalled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years.”