K2 People of Mapungubwe

K2 – No, Not the Mountain (1000 AD – 1220 AD)

The Zhizo presence at Schroda, a well studied archeological site in Limpopo Province, lasted from 900 to 1000 AD. Then, a new group of people entered the valley, and this caused the Zhizo to leave the region rather abruptly. 

©Roger de la Harpe

These new arrivals brought with them a different kind of pottery with distinctive decorations, which show that they were affiliated to the Leopard’s Kopje culture which was present in Zimbabwe and the northern parts of South Africa. They established their capital at a site which is unimaginatively called K2, on the southern side of Bambandyanalo Hill.

They proceeded to dominate the area for the next 200 years. K2, by the way, should not be confused with the Himalayan peak of the same name, which is the second-highest mountain on Earth after Everest. This K2 is named after a system for numbering successive settlements, known as Koms.

It is reasonable to assume that these settlers were initially drawn into the Limpopo basin by the same promise of elephants and ivory that had attracted the Zhizo. And archaeological evidence has also shown that rainfall increased during this period, making agriculture more viable.

Evidence of Agriculture

©David Fleminger

All in all, the K2 culture was a more substantial affair than the humble Zhizo. At its peak, K2 was home to around 1500 people, and was probably divided into several ‘suburbs’ arranged around a central homestead. A powerful chief probably ruled the settlement, with subservient chiefs and headmen serving under him.

The K2 capital extended over an area of roughly 5 hectares, and a number of smaller homesteads were also established throughout the area. Unlike the Zhizo, however, these outlying villages were often located on the fertile floodplains of the Limpopo. There is evidence that the K2 people practised mixed-subsistence agriculture.

They grew millet, sorghum, beans, pumpkin and melons, and they kept sheep, goats and cattle. They probably also hunted to supplement their diet. It is thought that the settlements of K2 were organised around the Central Cattle Pattern that characterised iron-age Bantu settlements across the subcontinent. Simply put, this spatial arrangement usually consisted of a central cattle kraal with huts arranged around the circumference.

Putting cattle in the centre of the village was both practical and symbolic; a physical manifestation of the political and social importance of cattle to this kind of society. Cattle were used to pay fines, secure marriages (lobola), settle disputes and show fealty to the chief. In fact, a man’s power was directly proportional to the number of cows he owned.

K2 Burials

©David Fleminger

At K2, the central cattle kraal is evidenced by substantial deposits of dung, with the remains of huts arranged around the periphery. The houses at K2 are thought to have been circular, with walls made of daga (a mixture of mud and dung). The floors were gravel or clay and the roof was thatched with local grasses.

This was the woman’s domain, and over 90 graves have been excavated around this ‘female’ zone. Men, for their part, would have been buried in or near the cattle kraal. The burials at K2 usually follow a reasonably consistent form. The bodies were buried in a sleeping position with their heads facing west, where the sun sets. Women were found resting on their left side, while men were resting on their right (the senior side).

A number of strange ‘beast burials’ containing shattered animal bones and broken pottery were also found, and they are thought to have spiritual significance.

Accommodation at K2 would have been divided up according to social status. Single people lived together in the front of the settlement and more powerful leaders were housed at the head of the kraal, away from the commoners. As the settlement grew, this social hierarchy would become more pronounced.

By David Fleminger