The ruins of the ancient city of Thulamela provide clues to a technologically sophisticated society in the area that is now north Kruger, early in the last millennium. Its remains are found to the west of Pafuri. Guided visits take place every morning and afternoon (up to 15 in a group; book at Sirheni bushveld camp, Shingwedzi or Punda Maria restcamps, or Pafuri gate) and are arranged by some of the private concessionaires in the Makuleke contractual park.
Thulamela was a stone-walled city atop a plateau in the Soutpansberg. Archaeological digs revealed a well-organised mountain kingdom, probably ruled by a senior chief, who lived secluded on the top of the hill. There are signs of different social classes indicated by stone walls built around the royal area to give the royal family privacy and to separate them from the commoners.
At Thulamela, the royal enclosure was big enough to house 1,000 people. Collapsed walls and signs of houses on the hills around suggest that about 2,000 people lived in the city.
Carbon dating suggests that the kingdom existed between about 1240 AD to 1700 AD.
Its inhabitants were highly industrialised, and included skilled goldsmiths and iron workers. The findings at Thulamela, coupled with the discovery of numerous pre-colonial mines in the region, show that the local people extracted iron ore, converted it into iron and traded with it long before the arrival of Europeans in southern Africa.
Researchers have learnt that Arabs, Madagascans and Indonesians visited here, bearing trade goods from as far afield as China (evidenced by vase shards from the Ming dynasty), India (glass beads), and West Africa (iron gongs). In return for these status items, visiting traders departed with slaves, ivory and gold.
Research has connected it through trade to Great Zimbabwe, another city state of the time 200km away, which has striking similarities in construction.
Hunters came in for a brief respite before venturing back into the Limpopo Valley after vast herds of elephant. In fact, Thulamela overlooked an elephant highway that ran from the Indian Ocean in the east, westwards towards the Okavango.
LINKS TO MODERN SOCIETY
In the early 1990s, official excavations revealed a female skeleton who was subsequently dubbed ‘Queen Losha’. Venda women show their respect for men by placing their hands next to their left temples when they pass.
That’s exactly how ‘Queen Losha’ (in real life, probably no more than a senior wife to the chief) was found buried.
Scientists believe that the ancestors of the Shona people established Thulamela, although local Shangaan XiTsonga cultures claim links to this site as well as the Shona-speaking VhaVenda.