The tragedy with history is that it offers so much yet still so little in answers to understanding the past. It’s a never ending process of probing and learning writes Lucas Ledwaba

WHY did the people of Thulamela, an off shoot of the famous Mapungubwe abandon their village those 400 years ago when they are said to have left? Who was the last person to walk down the spectacular hill now bedecked by stone walls? Why was this the last person? Which way did they go, and why?

Were they fleeing, walking, singing, or weeping for the home they were now leaving behind? Was it a man, a woman, a child perhaps? Were they fleeing, and if so, from what?

I found myself agonising over these gnawing questions one night in the soothing solitude of my lodgings at Punda Maria in the Kruger National Park after a visit to the Thulamela Ruins earlier that day. The questions raced over my mind as sleep began to caress my tired bones and muscles.

Ruins always evoke this curious probing of the past, a desire to understand the unknown, an often futile search for answers to events from decades or centuries past even. It never stops. How can it when understanding the past is the perfect foundation for the present and the future to stand on?

In the documentary Great Zimbabwe & The First Cities of Southern Africa by Magellan TV, the narrator makes the point that European settlers assumed Africa had no history when they could find no written accounts of its past.

Truth is though, that Africa’s history of civilisation and interaction with the world is written in the stone walls of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Thulamela and many other such ancient settlements.

The stone wall enclosures at Thulamela are set in the imposing shadows of babobabs. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media

I finally got to set foot at Thulamela earlier this year after many years of postponements and one attempt a few years ago which ended in disappointment when I arrived at the Punda Maria Gate to learn that access to the ruins requires pre-booking. It was a lesson well learnt…

A kudu female stopped in her tracks some 200m away from where we stood in the shade of a gigantic baobab tree to eavesdrop on our conversation about life at Thulamela some 400 years earlier.

She hung around for a couple of seconds eyeing us curiously across the spectacular stone wall formations that bedeck the hill.

When I whispered about her presence to my two hosts from the SA National Parks, guide Daniel Shibambu and ranger Phathutshedzo Maluta who had their backs to the antelope – she turned and bolted, disappearing behind one of the stone walls.

We were up on the hill at the Thulamela heritage site in the Kruger National Park, which experts link to the ancient kingdoms of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe that thrived during different periods between the years 1075 and 1650.

It felt surreal to be standing in the shade of a tree where over four centuries ago descendants of one of southern Africa’s earliest recorded civilisations had probably sat or stood just like us, discussing all kind of matters under the southern African sun.

“You are the first visitor since the lockdown,” Shibambu told me earlier when we made the 600m ascend the hill towards the ancient settlement.

Under the cool shade of the massive baobab, Shibambu passed down some of the information revealed by the excavations of the site that began in 1991. The site was discovered by a ranger on foot patrol back in 1983 – who then informed his superiors.

The Thulamela stone wall and ruins offer so much, yet so little in terms of its past. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media

Shibambu explained that Thulamela is a late Iron Age site which forms part of the Zimbabwe culture believed to have started at Mapungubwe around 1075.

It’s inhabitants, believed to be from the vhaNyai division of the Shona people who spoke a dialect known as Lembethu, were part of a trade network which extended through the interior of the continent to include Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and central Africa.

Excavations at the site revealed glass beads, cloth and glazed ceramics which point to trade relations between Muslim traders who facilitated movement of goods from the Middle East, India, South East Asia and China. Among the prized items of trade during that period was ivory and gold.

The evidence uncovered at sites like Thulamela, Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe is crucial in rewriting Africa’s history, in dispelling the long-held lie that this great continent was populated by a backward, unsophisticated people who only got woke after the arrival of European settlers in the 1600s.

It is believed that Mapungubwe’s decline coincided with the increase of Great Zimbabwe’s importance and when Great Zimbabwe itself was abandoned about 300 years later, several groups moved south across the Limpopo river into the north eastern areas of present-day South Africa and established new smaller chiefdoms such as Thulamela.

The Thulamela stone wall and ruins offer so much, yet so little in terms of its past. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media

The SA National Parks says there are about 280 archaeological sites in the Kruger National Park. But only three of these, Masorini, Joao Albasini ruins and Thulamela, are open to the public.

Spokesman Thabo Kgomommu said they are finalising plans to open a few more such sites including Mount Tshikumbu, Mopani petroglyphs and Gumbandevu Hill among others.

He warned that excavations of archaeological sites depends on researchers and the research questions they want to answer. “They then apply to SANParks and SAHRA (SA Heritage) and once the application is approved they can continue. Not all archaeological sites will be of interest to the public,” he said.

We walked among the enclosures encircled by the neatly stacked rocks which were restored after the discovery of the site. The walk revealed interesting insights into the social make-up of the community central to which was the Khosi, a mystical figure who was rarely seen by commoners.

Excavations on the site led to the discovery of two skeletons, believed to be of the royals that once reigned over the land. The neatly preserved skeletons were removed from the site for DNA sampling after getting the nod from members of the Makhahane clan believed to be descendants of the Thulamela people.

On completion of the tests, the remains were reburied after conducting of sacred spiritual rites led by the Makhahane healers and spritualists who are now scattered across villages in the Thulamela local municipality in far north eastern Limpopo.

The royal graves at Thulamela dating back over 400 years were restored after DNA sampling. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media

Kgomommu said SA National Parks has nominated Thulamela as a national heritage site and has engaged the South African Heritage Resources Agency on the matter. He explained though that Thulamela on its own will not meet the criteria of a world heritage site like Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe.

“It can stand a chance as a serial nomination in a series that can link it up to Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe and a few others. It is something that can be explored in the future,” he said.

He said they plan to introduce boardwalks, viewing decks and interpretative boards at Thulamela in the future “when resources permit.”

While tourists may certainly do with the comfort of viewing decks in future, it is clear the people of Thulamela did not require such. The hilltop offers panoramic sites of the land below, of open grasslands that point to past agricultural activity where they planted various kinds of pumpkin, millet and sorghum.

Standing atop the hill from the enclosure believed to have been occupied by the khosi, one can see to the north east, the earth brown waters of the Luvuvhu river cutting through the green vegetation like a trickle of coffee. We may never know, or understand why the people of Thulamela abandoned such soothing beauty from mother nature. – Mukurukuru Media

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