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Mapungubwe: the first state in Southern Africa?
Located south of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, the ruins of Mapumgubwe constitute a rich and important archaeological site (Fig 1). Its wealth of finely crafted physical artefacts attest to highly skilled pre-Shona craftsmen and implicates a society rich both in its culture and complexity. Of the graves excavated at the site three were found to contain bodies buried in the sitting position, indicating their royal status (www.metmuseum.org). Huffman (2008 a) suggests that the evidence at Mapungubwe indicates what would be the earliest known state in Southern Africa. Mapumgubwe enjoyed a short and difficult existence, flourishing briefly before being abandoned (ca. 1050-1270). Years of drought during the period in question proved itself to be a catalyst for social reorganisation, and tested the resilience and ingenuity of those at Mapungubwe. The environment had changed, pushing humans to their creative edge, where intelligence seeks new solutions to old problems. It is suggested that the society itself had to become complex in order to survive, exploiting an ancient trade economy to sustain itself. In this instance there is no definitive prime mover to describe the shift in cultures. Rather several critical factors such as long-distance trade, accumulation of wealth, ideological exchange and climatic change will be shown to influence cultural discourse in the region (Huffman 2008 b). In essence the spark of social complexity was born from a willingness to survive adversity, to engage with new solutions and behaviors, for mans intelligence to save his mortal self.
It will be shown that Mapungubwe is as of yet, the oldest known state in Southern Africa. In order to justify this argument several factors will be stressed. Firstly pre Mapungubwe societies will be examined in terms of their social organisation to establish the absence of a nation state. Primarily the case of K2 shall be used as a reference point to contrast against Mapungubwe, in terms of social ordering, political organisation and overall complexity. It is important to remember that this comparision will be used to illustrate the transition between the two cases, K2 being Mapungubwe's predecessor. This will demonstrate the evident cultural shift that qualifies Mapungubwe as the first known state in Southern Africa. Secondly the criteria of social complexity will be examined. This will be done to establish guidelines to describe conditions of social complexity, providing a checklist with which we may examine Mapungubwe as a state. Mapungubwe will be shown to be the earliest known state in Southern Africa, validating the most current archaeological research.
Iron Age archaeologists use trends in pottery to establish a chronological relationship between sites in terms of styles and cultural trends as expressed in ceramic design. This has been of particular use in identifying iron age Bantu migrations in the African interior (Huffman 1989: 1-10). The site known as K2 serves as a comparative predecessor to Mapungubwe, and is a convenient reference to contrast their respective belief systems and social organisation. Of all the Bantu language groups in Southern Africa Shona was the only language to have grown out of the middle Iron Age, whilst others were introduced from West Africa (Huffman 2007).
Like other southern African settlements of the early and middle Iron Age, the structures at K2 were organised in what is referred to as the Central Cattle Pattern (CCP), prevalent among the early Sotho and Tswana peoples of the Middle Iron Age. The cattle enclosure or kraal at the center of these settlements alludes to the importance of livestock as a measure of wealth. Indeed ethnographic evidence both antiquated and current suggests the importance of livestock as a medium of exchange, famously demonstrated in practices such as lobola (Morris 2005: 3- 4). This central area was seen as a mens area, where male activities concerning livestock and meat were centralised, influencing social interactions around this measure of power. This land was considered to be ancestral, acting as a focal point of material wealth represented by cattle and grain bins. However it was also an area where power could be exercised through the courts (Huffman 2007). This would be done to settle disputes and maintain social order within the society. The area around the cattle kraal was considered to represent the female, containing walled kitchens belonging to the women.
These social relationships reflected in structural orientation thus formalise interactions between genders and provides physical evidence of social roles and gender relations in the Middle Iron Age (Whitehouse 1998: 223-224). The arrangement of structures around the enclosure were planned in accordance with cosmological beliefs. Such organisation stresses the relationship between cosmological forces, social relationships and cultural behaviour. The front area of the settlement represented the public, open and common area of the settlement. Conversely the back of the settlement represented the private, secluded, sacred and authority. The administration of such CCP societies were conducted by a head chief. The System of social organisation was patrilinial, implying that ones position in society was determined by their blood relation to the ruling chief (Shaw and Jameson 2002: 27-28). As such ones social position or importance in such a society was not a fixed 'state' but rather in flux, and could change with the appointment of a new chief. In order to fully understand the magnitude of the shift between K2 and Mapungubwe one must also engage with the tradition of rain making and its relationship to the arid conditions that ushered in the transitional period (Huffman 2008b).
Traditionally rainmaking had been a professional vocation which required specialised training. famously the indigenous San or Bushman culture made use of arcane rain making techniques preceding the introduction of Bantu pastoralists into the South African interior. The piecing together of San beliefs and cultural practices has been limited to physical evidence -paintings in secluded rock shelters and outcrops- and contemporary ethnographic literature on surviving San groups in the Kalahari and Botswana (Lewis Williams 1978: 124-128). The importance of rainmaking for the middle Iron Age communities became important with the introduction of grain foods such as sorghum and millet. The practices of rain making were effectively outsourced to specially trained mystics and shaman who would be mediated by the chief. The introduction of grains such as Millet and Sorghum heralded an agricultural revolution among the iron age Bantu speaking people. The years of drought during the transitional period can be seen as a turning point both for social organisation and accounts for differences in rain making which later manifested itself at Mapungubwe. Hills, koppies and rocky outcrops had long since been used as special sites to conduct rain making rituals (Chippindale and Tacon 1998: 73-75). But it is the migration from K2 to a permanent rain making site (Mapungubwe) that indicates a radical shift in human behaviours, organisation and beliefs which gave rise to the first southern African state (Fig 2).
SOCIETY, COMPLEXITY AND MAPUNGUBWE
Complexity is a relative term, but definitions and distinctions between levels of complexity are based upon solid conditions. Primarily a key condition for the establishment of a complex society is the accumulation of a food surplus (Johnson and Earle 2000: 225). Because of this, agriculture is seen as a necessary precondition for the establishment of a city state. Karl Whittfogel famously drew the correlation between surplus and the control of water, defining the concept of 'Hydraulic Civilisations' (www.riseofthewest.com). He would of perhaps marveled at the at how Mapungubwe sought to secure its access to water; through divination. Realistically Mapungubwe's proximity to the Shashe and Limpopo rivers fits a well known trend for complex societies the world over -proximity to clean, flowing water, usually rivers. Physical evidence at the site also supports the presence of a food producing populous who would live separately from the elite and royalty who lived at Mapungubwe's apex.
The word state implies a fixedness or stability in political and social organisation, and ideology. The presence of a priestly class, and the legitimation of rule by hierarchy are seen to create solid social stratification, separating an elite superstructure from its base of subservient commoners and food producers. The presence of surplus allows for non-food producing citizens to become skilled artisans, craftsmen, metallurgists, specialists and merchants (Johnson and Earle 2000: 254-258).
“Anthropologist Robert Carneiro (1970) defines the state as an autonomous political unit, encompassing many communities within its territory and having a centralized government with the power to collect taxes, draft men for work or war, and decree and enforce laws... it is the notion of a centralized government that distinguishes the state from the decentralized type political organization. States represent highly complex organizational structures that function to control large societies... States represent a major departure from earlier kin-based societies” (www.mc.maricopa.edu).
In contrast to the patrilinial leadership at K2, Mapungubwe's social stratification is echoed in its architecture. The presence of decorative patterning and walls at Mapungubwe's rise indicate a section reserved for royalty and the elite(Fig 3). Given the dire circumstances posed by climate change the king took on a divine role as intermediary between the physical and the spirit. Among his duties as a messenger to Mwari (God) and the Ancestors, the King was also charged with rain making, his palace itself was built upon a rainmaking site at the hills rise (Mitchell 2002: 319-320). This constitutes sacred leadership, adding further evidence for Mapumgubwe adhering to factors necessary for a state to arise (hdl.handle.net).
The artefacts found at Mapungubwe contrast with those found at other middle Iron Age sites, testifying to the presence of skilled artisans. Most famous of these is the iconic golden Rhino recovered at the site (Fig 4). Both settlements had been involved with the ancient trade networks that crossed the south east of the continent and the Indian ocean (Grigorova et al. 1998: 99-100). But it is suggested that the commodities in which they traded were vastly different. Its forerunners would have relied heavily on trading unworked natural resources, such as iron, gold, hides and ivory. Mapungubwe would produce high quality aesthetic products in addition to basic commodities, demonstrating the presence of artisans. The presence of glass beads at both sites indicate a rare and auspicious form of commodity introduced through trade that had grown popular due to its novelty. Trading with far flung places such as Egypt, India, China and Indonesia opened new possibilities for the exchange of technology, beliefs and commodities. The contents of the royal graves found at Mapungubwe contained a wealth of grave goods, including ornate figurines and thousands of imported glass beads (Fig 5). This indicates a manifestation of class, political power and disproportionate allocation of wealth as a result of trade and tribute. The centralisation of goods, food and power under the ruling elite allowed for greater levels of complexity to be achieved.
Based on the physical evidence recovered from the site one may acknowledge that Mapungubwe is the oldest known state in Southern Africa. Its complex political organisation as reflected in its architecture surpasses that of previous kinship based chiefdoms and qualifies it as a state. Agriculture, food surplus and tribute allowed for a complex society to emerge. The presence of class divisions and hierarchical rule under kings and a royal elite further substantiates its apparent complexity. The physical evidence of the site itself and the artefacts recovered further attest to its grandeur and its importance as an economic trade hub. The presence of such finely crafted goods that originated at Mapungubwe indicate the presence of artisans and specialists. There is no doubt that Mapungubwe may be accurately qualified as the earliest known state in southern Africa. Although the city did not last long due to harsh droughts it remains important as a find and its influence on subsequent complex societies in the region, such as Great Zimbabwe. Years of drought during the period in question proved itself to be a catalyst for social reorganisation, and tested the resilience and ingenuity of those at Mapungubwe. The environment had changed, pushing humans to their creative edge. It is suggested that the society itself had to become complex in order to survive, exploiting an ancient trade economy to sustain itself.
Submitted by steved on 25 June 2009 - 11:05am. categories [ ]