This week ‘Inside Africa’ reports from Mapungubwe in South Africa, where CNN International examines why a kingdom that was home to an ancient society 800 years ago suddenly vanished without a trace. The programme follows archaeologists on their quest to uncover what happened to this civilisation and how the lessons learnt can translate to modern South Africa. Seen as a cradle for tribal kingdoms before Europeans set foot on the continent, the Mapungubwe Hill is famed for being where the borders of Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa meet, and is now commemorated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Inside Africa learns that the location has hosted several civilisations from 900 AD to the beginning of 1300 AD. Thomas Huffman, an archeologist, outlines the importance of the Mapungubwe Hill and the archeological digs that have taken place to CNN: “Mapungubwe's the first for a bunch of things. It's the first town, the first place that shows class distinction, between royals and commoners, the first place to separate a leader on the hill with the people down below, and the first place to have a stone wall palace providing ritual seclusion for the sacred leader.”
What remains a mystery to experts today is why a settlement of 5,000 people suddenly disappeared, with the settlement being rediscovered in the mind-1970s by archeologist Edwin Hanisch. Hanisch outlines some of the factors he believes may have contributed to this diaspora: “There are so many factors that can influence the end of a village… In African culture quite often you will have the situation that if the chief dies, then the village moves… We know earthquakes take place, we've had examples in the last few years of several earthquakes in Botswana, Mozambique and so on.”
Prized for its archeological finds and evidence of an advanced society, Mapungubwe has attracted attention as one of the best-preserved sites in Africa with numerous gold artifacts being uncovered. Many of these have been found at the top of the hill where the royal family resided, with the location being used to project their power and influence, whilst suggesting it was a stable and wealthy community.
CNN hears how these circumstances only adds to the mystery of the disappearance, with Professor Thomas Huffman, a specialist in this field for 35 years suggesting a new line of examination to the programme. Huffman explains: “Somewhere around 1300, for 10 years or so, between 1300 to 1320, an amazing drought affected the whole of southern Africa. Anybody can recover from a one-year drought, but a seven-year or a ten-year drought, that's really a problem.”
Inside Africa follows museum researcher Myra Gohodzi as she looks to use the landscape of the Mapungubwe to understand whether drought was the true cause for the disappearance of the civilisation. Gohodzi meets Dr. Stephan Woodborne, a senior scientist as iThemba LABS, who outlines the climate record of Mapungubwe through analysis of Baobab trees from the region:
Although the Mapungubwe was eventually abandoned, the culture that was developed there still continues today through the Venda Village of Mukumbani, which is situated 200km east of Mapungubwe.
Inside Africa accompanies Gohodzi to Mukumbani, and she reflects on what lessons can be learnt from the study of the Mapungubwe: “It was for me even slightly emotional… You're walking in space that's been used for so many years, so many people have lived there, so many people have had full lifetimes there… We can avoid making some mistakes from studying past civilisations, where did they go wrong, how did they handle certain situations, for example, when the climate changed, how would people react to that? And I think we can use that in modern days… Some of those practices during Mapungubwe times can still be used today and I think that's something we can all learn from.”
‘Inside Africa’ airs Friday 6th October at 18:30 SAST on CNN International.