When the astonishing Golden Rhinoceros was discovered on this arid hilltop in 1933, many whites in South Africa refused to believe that something so exquisite could have been crafted by a black African civilization. It must have been imported from Egypt, or somewhere else, they said.
Scientists soon confirmed that the delicate gold-foil creature, small enough to stand in the palm of your hand, was produced by an indigenous kingdom that had developed a sophisticated mining and trading culture by the 13th century, more than 400 years before Europeans arrived.
Today, although little known to the outside world (it has yet to be displayed abroad), the rhino is recognized by South Africa as its greatest icon, its crown jewel and the symbol of its glorious past. Students in Grade 6 are taught about the achievements of the ancient civilization that created golden treasures near the present-day borders of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
But when the rhino was found, the country was in the grip of a system of racial segregation – soon to evolve into apartheid. South Africans were taught that their history began when the first Dutch settler landed at what is now Cape Town in 1652. Those who existed before the Dutch were portrayed as primitives, a blank slate. There was no room in the racist narrative for a black civilization able to make art from gold. The rhino was a potent threat to the national ideology.
And so, even after archeologists had discovered nine kilograms of golden artifacts, the hill at Mapungubwe was not declared a national heritage site. The land around it was given to white farmers and the military, and any mention of the kingdom was omitted from school curriculums.
Long before apartheid, this twisted view of the past was shaped by Eurocentric colonialists, such as George McCall Theal, who, from the 1870s until his death in 1919, was the country's most prolific and influential historian. He was also an expatriate Canadian, a doctor's son from Saint John who arrived in Africa at 25 en route to Australia and stayed.
Mr. Theal came to see the story of South Africa as primarily that of the Afrikaner settlers, struggling to bring civilization and Christianity to a savage country. To him, black people were useful only as labourers. He collected their folklore and studied their languages, but still concluded that they were “fickle barbarians, prone to robbery and unscrupulous in shedding blood.”
It was unsurprising, then, that the Afrikaners who stumbled upon Mapungubwe's treasures had no appreciation of their cultural or historical value. To them, the gold was booty, something to be looted and sold.
The site was discovered in December, 1932, by five white adventurers who had heard rumours of a great treasure. They persuaded the reluctant and frightened locals to show them a secret stairway to the top of Mapungubwe's steep sandstone cliffs. Even 700 years after the kingdom's disappearance, the black residents revered the hill so much that they would not gaze directly at it. But the whites quickly climbed up and dug out the gold artifacts.
At first, they decided to split their loot, including the fabulous rhino. But one of the five – a young guilt-riddled university student – had a change of heart. He sent some of the fragments to a University of Pretoria professor, and the hill was soon purchased for archeological research.
The dramatic discovery was celebrated in the media as far away as London, but it made no dent on the racial beliefs of the white minority who controlled South Africa. The region near the hill stayed in the hands of white farmers, and when human remains were found, researchers removed them without bothering to inform their descendants.
An attempt to transform the site into a wildlife sanctuary in the 1940s – partly to preserve its scientific value – provoked huge resistance from the Afrikaners, who resented any challenge to private ownership. The proposal sparked one of the longest battles in the history of South Africa's parliament, with the farmers supported by the increasingly powerful National Party.