History of South Africa podcast episode 5 – The Mapungubwe empire emerges from Indian Ocean trade networks in southern Africa

This week’s episode delves into the origin of the Mapungubwe empire which emerged from the Limpopo valley close to the Shashe River starting around 900AD and reaching its apogee around 1200AD.

First we take a look at what was happening in the West around Namaqualand and the present day Western Cape.

The distinction between the eastern and well-watered part of the country with summer rainfall and good soils, and the more arid western region with its mainly winter rainfall is critical to understanding the spread of domesticated grains and livestock. 

Pastoralists who farmed cereals are called Agro-pastoralists and these people preferred the Eastern region with its higher rainfall. 

Sheep and later cattle herding pastoralists favoured the west initially.

This is one of separation points in South African history because the western people never did manage to manufacture their own iron-implements they merely bartered these when required. 

They exchanged iron products from the Tswana and Sotho as well as the isiXhosa who were able to manufacture iron implements and weapons. 

The western peoples including the khoe and San, manufactured stone implements in the same way their ancestors had done for hundreds of thousands of years. 

Then the arrival of the first livestock, sheep, can be traced to the western reaches of South Africa around Namaqualand roughly 100BC or 2100 years before the present.

Settlements and villagers the first thousand years AD were largely self-sufficient, in the second millennium empires began to grow. 

One of the most visible empires has left its legacy on the landscape – the Mapungubwe state at the junction of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers where ancestral Shona speakers molded clans and tribes into a powerful system. 

This empire grew large because of trade with the merchants on the eastern seaboard, as well as the deepening trade with central Southern Africa. Remember we are not fixating on borders as they now exist, we must understand the region based on climate, soils, rainfall, landscape and people able to walk across thousands of miles of landscape largely unhindered. 

Mountains are rivers were boundaries, not cartesian maps. In the south, Nguni and Sotho as well as Tswana speakers expanded their power bases in the summer rainfall regions beyond the coastal areas and bushveld and finally into the highveld. 

The History of South Africa podcast is available on all main podcast platforms including iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts.

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