30 August 2022

Mapungubwe is a globally renowned archaeological site. It was here that southern Africa’s first state-level society appeared around AD 1220. Preceding the Mapungubwe Kingdom were several changes that took place over the course of about 300 years. These included the accumulation of wealth, growth in cattle numbers, craft specialisation, and the appearance of royal and elite groups.

While this prehistory is well known, and has been studied for nearly a decade, considerably less is known of local hunter-gatherer societies. To produce a more inclusive rendering of the Mapungubwe landscape’s past, the HARP team aims through archaeological research to recognise and acknowledge the contributions made by past hunter-gatherers to these important socio-political and economic developments.

UMPJustine van Heerden excavates while Siphesihle Kuhlase maps an excavation wall.

While conducting fieldwork in the Mapungubwe National Park the HARP team invited local stakeholders to attend a research colloquium to share their study’s findings. In attendance were members of the Mapungubwe National Park, Polokwane Museum and Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, as well as students from the Universities of Mpumalanga, Pretoria and Oxford.

UMPThe seven presenters: (from the left) Dr Tim Forssman, Ms Chanté Barnard, Siphesihle Kuhlase, Angelina Masolo, Justine van Heerden, Courtney Knell and Sylvia Ubisse.

Dr Forssman opened the colloquium by providing the context and motivation for the study and an overview of progress to date, which involves excavating a prominent hunter-gatherer site, Little Muck Shelter, and exploring the local rock art sequence.

Miss Chanté Barnard, an archaeological laboratory technician at the University of Mpumalanga and master’s student enrolled at the University of Pretoria, presented archaeological trade wealth found at Little Muck demonstrating that hunter-gatherers participated in the local market economy during state formation.

Mr Siphesihle Kuhlase, also a master’s student, took this one step further and presented evidence supporting a hunter-gatherer presence at the site into the Mapungubwe period. These studies are significant because they show that hunter-gatherers were living in the area when Mapungubwe arose, but also that they were involved in trade at a time when this wealth was assisting groups rise to royal or elite status.

UMPDr Forssman slowly, and carefully, excavates a nineteenth century grain bin that once stood inside the Mbere Shelter.

Two honours students on the project, Miss Sylvia Ubisse and Miss Courtney Knell, provided an outline of their research; to examine landscape settlement histories and stone arrowhead technologies, respectively. Their studies are on-going and will be completed by the end of the year.

Also on-going is the work of Miss Angelinah Masolo, a doctoral candidate, who discussed her study on place-making and settlement histories among hunter-gatherer groups and particularly how they organised their social landscape over the last 8000 years.

The final speaker was master’s student Miss Justine van Heerden. Her study examines engagement between the public and heritage resources and promotes a more inclusive narrative for the region. Her study uses a unique, custom-built travelling museum to display heritage items, such as stone tools, pottery or glass beads, during community engagement initiatives, talks, seminars, or stakeholder meetings.

The travelling museum is an important aspect of HARP’s engagement programme and will accompany the team on field trips and to all manner of meetings within, and beyond, the study area.

@ Story By Dr Tim Forssman, senior lecturer. Pictures supplied.