Thulamela – 1240-1640 AD

‘Place of Birth’

(Accessible only through guided tours out of Punda Maria Camp, northern Kruger; call 013-735-6873 to book and for more information.)

The citadel of Thulamela sits high above the floodplains of Pafuri, Kruger National Park’s northernmost region. Visitors can stare north towards 
the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers into Zimbabwe and Mozambique just as the Khosi, Thulamela’s sacred leader, may have done centuries ago. To walk amidst the bleached, fallen walls and stones is to follow in the ancestors’ footsteps.

The place seemed untouched for more than three centuries, until former Pafuri Section Ranger Philip Nel ‘discovered’ the site in 1983, and excavations began in 1991.

“People outside knew the ruins were here,” said guide Eric Maluleke, settling 
us on some stones under a massive, 
4,000-year-old baobab and near the 500-year-old crumbling stone walls. “But they were afraid to come. It was overgrown, it felt like trespassing. But the Makahane royal family has filed a claim to get it back. They come once a year and put snuff and African beer here for their ancestors.”

The stones of Thulamela tell a story of a once-prosperous, hierarchical community with a population of roughly 2,000 people and where everything had its place. Only 500 royals lived on top of the citadel, Maluleke said. Commoners, under the watchful eye of the Khosi, lived down below, where they farmed sorghum and millet in the fertile soil, mined iron ore from 200 local mines, and traded with Arab traders from the 1500s onward, as well as with the Portuguese. Local ivory, gold and animal skins were traded for goods from as far away as India and China. Slaves were sadly also part of the local trade, raided by Arab traders and brought to the coast of what is now Mozambique.

“Here we found gold amulets, foil and beads,” said Maluleke, stepping nimbly
 over loose stones, remarking that a number of Thulamelans were goldsmiths. “We also found a lot of copper – the women used to wear up to five kilos of copper. We found hunting spears, ostrich egg beads, glass beads from India, porcelain from China and a double iron gong, possibly from Central or West Africa, the chief’s musical instrument.”

The most exciting finds, however, were two human skeletons uncovered in July-September 1996, exhumed and since reburied on the site.

“One was a woman, a queen, 45-55 years old and buried in the fetal position inside a hut,” Maluleke said, showing us her resting place. “Queen Losha – they named her that because of the position of her hands, palms together under her left temple, a sign of respect. They did DNA testing, and figured she was buried about 1600 AD, along with 291 gold beads, a gold bracelet on her left arm and copper wire on her legs.

“After they’d finished the research on her,” he added, “they reburied her. Eight hundred people attended a ceremony and slaughtered a goat to bring her spirit back here.”

The second skeleton was that of a male buried roughly 170 years earlier than the Queen. “He was a chief but not from here,” Maluleke said. “He was speared through the spinal cord and buried in a packed position with 73 gold beads and 990 ostrich egg beads. The day we found him there was a leopard lurking nearby. So we named him ‘King Ingwe’.”

We walked past a granary with grinding stones; several tall stone monoliths, ‘mafaro’ stones to protect the community; an enclosure where the Domba or python dance was once performed; a workshop with sharpening stones to hone spears, another where the women made clay pots; and the ancient maternity ward.

On top of the plateau, surrounded by the silent, vast plains below, Ingwe and Losha’s graves looked tiny, almost insignificant. But their power was strong, their spirits presiding.