People in southern Africa have long told the tale of a sophisticated kingdom that once thrived here, but the story was ignored by a government that dismissed any sign of black ingenuity.
MAPUNGUBWE, South Africa − People in southern Africa have long told the tale of a sophisticated kingdom that once thrived here, but the story was ignored by a government that dismissed any sign of black ingenuity.
A decade after the end of white rule in South Africa, the Mapungubwe kingdom is getting its due -- as the centerpiece of a new national park aimed at highlighting a civilization that further dispels the myth that Africans were inferior to their European peers.
Officials hope the park will join the famous Kruger National Park and share in South Africa's lucrative tourism industry, which draws millions of visitors each year with its combination of five-star attractions and natural beauty.
The park will eventually become part of a "transfrontier" conservation area shared between Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, benefiting all the countries where Mapungubwe once held sway.
Mapungubwe, which reached its height between 1220-1290, was discovered by modern archeologists in the 1930s. But like other chapters in South Africa's black history it was never taught in schools for fear it would contradict the apartheid government's views of white supremacy.
"Until now this place was unknown," said Sigwavhu Limu, a member of the Vhagona cultural movement, which promotes the Vhagona and Venda cultures, seen as Mapungubwe's descendants.
"We are grateful that we can now have access to this place, the access that has been denied us by the former apartheid government," he said.
The Mapungubwe kingdom covered 7,722 square miles in what is today South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. With a capital city of some 5,000 people, Mapungubwe was recognized as an economic, political and cultural center for the region before its society disintegrated, probably because of a dramatic change in climate.
Charred remains of sorghum, millet and well-preserved ceramic spindle whorls used to spin cotton were found in the area, suggesting a booming agricultural lifestyle, courtesy of fertile soil deposits on the banks of the nearby Limpopo River.
Although its inhabitants were not the first to exploit gold in the region, experts say their delicately carved artifacts betray a unique skill for manipulating the metal.
The artifacts, all bearing the trademark incisions, include the royal household symbols -- a palm-sized golden rhino, possibly belonging to the king and buried with him, and a sceptre, probably his adviser's.
The discovery of foreign beads, pottery, ivory, bone, ostrich eggshells and the shells of snails and freshwater mussels indicates a trade network stretching as far away as East Africa, Persia, Egypt, India and China.
The kingdom, whose name means "the place of the jackal" in the local Venda language, is also believed to have been the first in the region with a complex social structure built around a king, who would have enjoyed a demigod-like status.
In southern Africa, it was rivaled only by neighboring Great Zimbabwe, a sprawling city of stone buildings that sprang up around the 14th century just as the Mapungubwe kingdom was nearing its end.
"Contrary to the belief that Africa was primitive and isolated, Mapungubwe shows us that already nearly 1,000 years ago Africa was an important part of the global community," said Nikki Haw, Cultural Affairs Assistant at the University of Pretoria, which has led the excavations since the 1930s.
"These people were skilled artisans, agriculturalists and traders and their legacy has an important role to play in the African Renaissance," she said.
A lot is riding on the legend of Mapungubwe. Officials hope it will spur much-needed jobs and economic growth in Limpopo, one of South Africa's poorest and most neglected provinces.
Little remains of the settlement but there is still enough for visitors to get a glimpse into its residents' daily lives.
Attractions include Mapungbwe Hill where -- in keeping with his stature -- the king and his royal household lived, looking down upon his subjects in the valley 30 yards below.
A 13-foot-deep excavation gives an idea of how humans would have lived around 1,000 years ago.
(additional reporting by Spokes Mashiyane and Joseph Oesi)