"After nearly a century of research, we've learned quite a lot about this ancient kingdom and how it arose among early farmer society and its involvement in global trade networks. However, before farmers settled in the region, this terrain was the home of hunter-gatherer groups who have hardly been acknowledged despite, as it seems, their involvement in the rise of Mapungubwe," writes Dr Tim Forssman, Senior Lecturer for Cultural and Heritage Studies at the University of Mpumalanga.
Where the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers meet, forming the modern border between Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, lies a hill that hardly stands out from the rest. One could easily pass it without realizing its historical significance. It was on and around this hill that what appears to be Southern Africa's earliest state-level society and urban city, Mapungubwe, appeared around 800 years ago.
My team and I have been working in northern South Africa at sites that we believe will help us recognize the roles played by hunter-gatherers during the development of the Mapungubwe state in a bid to generate a more inclusive representation of the region's past.
Our primary study site is called Little Muck Shelter. It is in the Mapungubwe National Park and about 4km south of the Limpopo River. The shelter is large with a protected area under a high ceiling and a large open space in front.
It also has many paintings on its walls, including elephants, kudu, felines, people, and a stunning set of giraffes. This art was produced by hunter-gatherers, and it is generally considered to refer to the spirit-world and the activities of shamans therein.
Two beautifully painted giraffes are at the centre of the site in orange and red. These have been traced using digital software to limit contact with the art, which may lead to damage.
The results from our research show two things. First, hunter-gatherers lived in the area while the Mapungubwe Kingdom arose.
Second, during this time, they were part of the economy that assisted with the appearance of elite groups in society, and they had access to this wealth. When combined, this tells us that we cannot think about Mapungubwe's history without including hunter-gatherer societies. They were present and a part of these significant developments.
Two beautifully painted giraffes are at the centre of the site in orange and red. These have been traced using digital software to limit contact with the art which may lead to damage.
Why is this important? One of the foundational developments that took place that led to the rise of the Mapungubwe Kingdom was the accumulation of wealth. It drove the appearance of hierarchies in society and marked prestige. These trade goods were valuable items usually possessed by elite groups.
And yet, hunter-gatherers, through exploiting their own skills, were able to obtain related goods at a time when these items were contributing to significant transformations in society. That they had access to wealth during this period likely shows us that their role in local society was valued, and they were entrenched in the local economy in a way that we've not previously recognized.
Unearthing evidence of trade
We were attracted to Little Muck Shelter due to previous work carried out at the site in the late 1990s, which showed intense trade between hunter-gatherers and farmers had taken place from the shelter. To better understand this, we required a larger archaeological assemblage to verify or refine our theories.
We also wanted to examine the depths that dated between AD 900 and 1300, during which the processes leading to Mapungubwe began and concluded, to demonstrate a hunter-gatherer presence during this period as well as their participation in local economic networks.
Field team member, Siphesihle Kuhlase, shows a broken bangle while others remove deposits in search of artefacts.
To achieve this, we needed to conduct archaeological excavations, which are a methodical and gradual process involving the careful removal of layers of artefact-bearing deposits, with rigorous control of depth and location within an excavation trench.
Following this, an extensive analysis is carried out, adhering to strict protocols to ensure consistency in identifying artefact types, production techniques or methods, usage, and materials used.
All this evidence is then pieced together to understand past ways of living. From our findings, we were able to trace a hunter-gatherer history that intertwined with the rise of Mapungubwe.
Our first and essential task was to demonstrate that hunter-gatherers were still present when Mapungubwe emerged. So far, we have examined approximately 15,000 stone tools from our excavations and identified a set of finished tools that are like those made by hunter-gatherers for millennia before the arrival of farmer groups. We believe that this consistency in cultural material over such an extended period proves that hunter-gatherers were living in the shelter when farmers were in the area.
We then wanted to focus on the trading economy. From the moment farmer groups arrived in the region, during the early first millennium AD, hunter-gatherers altered their craft activities. Instead of mainly producing goods made from hide, wood, and shell, they began producing mostly bone implements, which continued until the end of the Mapungubwe Kingdom in AD 1300.
This suggests that the interactions between hunter-gatherers and farmers from the time they first arrived stimulated a change in their crafted wares.
Why did they change their crafting activities? While these shifts took place, we recorded the appearance of trade wealth in the form of ceramics and glass beads, initially, and then metal. These goods were never produced by hunter-gatherers and are common at farmer settlements, indicating exchange between these two communities. It shows that hunter-gatherers responded to new market opportunities by emphasizing their own skill sets.
Our efforts to identify more evidence of hunter-gatherer involvement in these processes continue. We are trying to find out in what other ways they were involved and whether they themselves developed a more complex society.
@ Article is republished from The Conversation. Pictures supplied.