1420-1650 AD - Thulamela
Thulamela is a Venda word meaning "place of birth". Archaeologists believe that people lived at Thulamela between about 1420 AD and 1650 AD. Stone ruins of a royal citadel found in the northern Kruger National Park date back to between the 15th and 17th centuries. Thulamela (the place of birth) was discovered in 1996. Unlike many other archaeological sites, Thulamela had not been plundered.
Archaeologists have excavated the tombs of an African king and queen who ruled here. They named her Queen Losha -- because she was buried with her hands placed under her cheeks in a position of great respect known as losha -- and him, King Ingwe - meaning leopard, because on the day his grave was found, a leopard was waiting as the excavating team returned to their vehicle. Radio carbon dating reveals that Queen Losha lived at Thulamela about 200 years after the death of King Ingwe. Measurements of her bones reveal that she was an exceptionally tall woman. King Ingwe was ruler of Thulamela around about 1400 AD. He holds a spear, the handle of which was originally covered in gold foil affixed to the wood underneath with minute gold nails. The blade of this spear, which was found at the grave site, was not sharpened. This suggests that it was a ceremonial spear and that it was probably a symbol of leadership.
The royal enclosure at Thulamela accommodated a thousand people. Beyond the walled citadel, the hillsides are dotted with collapsed walls and signs of dwellings which indicate that up to 2,000 people may have lived here. There are also signs of lively trading. The people of Thulamela were skilled goldsmiths and their main currency was gold. This they traded, along with ivory, for glass beads, Chinese porcelain, imported cloth, ivory bracelets, gold, bronze and other jewellery and corn, with traders who came north of the Limpopo from what is today Mozambique. There is also evidence of contact with people from West Africa.
Hundreds of animal bones were unearthed in the middens (rubbish dumps) of Thulamela. Scientific analysis reveals that although many of the bones belonged to domestic animals, the pastoral people of Thulamela also hunted wild animals such as hippo and elephant.
The walled city of Thulamela is thought to be an offshoot of the Great Zimbabwe culture. Although its existence has been known for decades, it was only in 1993 that the Gold Fields Foundation initiated a joint venture with the Kruger National Park to explore and develop the site for educational purposes. Little remained of the original city other than tumble-down stone walls. Archaeologist Sidney Miller was commissioned to head the team of five workers who spent the next 18 months painstakingly reconstructing the fallen walls of Thulamela. From the positioning of the scattered stones, the team were able to deduce the original position, height and thickness of these walls. More than 2 000 tons of rock were manually shifted in the process of restoring the site to some of its former glory.
It is not known why Thulamela was vacated. Archaeologists and social anthropologists have advanced many theories about traditions surrounding the death of a ruler, an environmental disaster or war over the control of land and resources.
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