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.
The preservationists finally won the battle, but then the National Party won the 1948 election and immediately imposed apartheid, its formal system of racial separation. The new government swiftly dismantled the wildlife sanctuary, returning the land to the farmers. Meanwhile, archeologists were finding evidence that Mapungubwe was the centre of a complex class-based society with significant cultural achievements. With a population of about 5,000, it was the first major urban community in southern African history.
About 50 members of the royal family lived on top of the hill, while the commoners lived below, growing crops and raising cattle. They developed elaborate commercial networks, trading gold, ivory and leopard skins for Egyptian and Asian goods brought from the coast. And they learned how to mine gold and transform it into sceptres, jewellery and sculptures of wildlife.
All of this flourished more than two centuries before Columbus landed in the New World, and more than six centuries before white miners discovered gold in Johannesburg – the pillar of the South African economy.
In about 1290, the settlement at Mapungubwe was abandoned, apparently because of drought and shifting trade patterns. But the civilization re-emerged not far to the north at Great Zimbabwe, an even larger city whose vast stone walls can still be seen.
Under apartheid, the rhino was sometimes put on exhibit, but never given a permanent display and often labelled solely in Afrikaans. The regime's indifference was similar to its neglect of the ancient art of the San people, the "Bushmen" whose rock drawings were found across South Africa – one site a few kilometres from Mapungubwe.
For centuries, South Africans paid little attention to the San rock paintings, assuming them to be merely a conventional record of the animals that the San hunted in the thousands of years before the white settlers arrived. Only in the 1980s did researchers uncover the truth: The rock paintings were not just a "menu" of San food. They were a complex portrait of spiritual beliefs, involving transformed shamans, trance dances, healing rituals and hallucinations.
When apartheid ended in 1994, the rhino finally began to be celebrated. The Order of Mapungubwe was created as the country's highest honour, with Nelson Mandela its first recipient. His successor as president, Thabo Mbeki, lauded the ancient kingdom in his speeches on the "African Renaissance" as proof of African civilization's deep roots.
And in 2007, the ancient human remains that had been excavated were at last returned to the locals, who gave them a respectful reburial on top of Mapungubwe Hill.
To reach the royal hilltop requires climbing a narrow passage in a crevice in the rock, amid the squeaks of the bats that live there. The view today is much the same as what the 13th-century kings would have seen – a vast landscape of baobab trees, acacias, giraffes and antelopes – as well as the remnants of those who came much later: windmills, electrical poles and water lines.
On top of a sandstone cliff, in the shade of a mopane tree, are the remains of the three graves that astonished the archeologists of the 1930s. Two of the skeletons in the graves were seated – proof of their regal status.
The royals were buried facing west, toward the African sunset. And they went to the afterlife with a vast hoard of gold: a headdress, a sceptre, more than 100 anklets, about 12,000 beads – and one small golden rhino.
THE CUSTODY BATTLE
The crown jewel of southern Africa's early civilization has become the target of a political tug-of-war that symbolizes the divisions of the new South Africa.
Should the prized golden rhino remain in a small one-room museum at the University of Pretoria, where security and conservation are top priorities, but the museum is so underfunded that it closes on weekends?
Or should it be moved back to its original site in the magnificent landscape that has become a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Most people who live near Mapungubwe are convinced that the rhino should come home. "This is where it belongs," says Cedric Sethlako, a guide who helps tourists climb to the top of Mapungubwe Hill to see the place where the ancient work of art was discovered.
Mr. Sethlako, from the nearby city of Musina, says he hopes that the homecoming takes place very soon. Artifacts found with the rhino are already on display in an interpretive centre that opened quietly in December, but the rhino with them is only a replica.
In an echo of battles over other historic treasures, such as Greece's ancient Elgin Marbles, the rhino's current guardians are reluctant to let it out of their grasp. Concerned about crime, corruption, poor climate control and even pollution from coal mining, they do not want the tiny treasure kept in a vulnerable building in a region where temperatures can soar above 50 degrees.
"Everyone wants the rhino," says Sian Tiley-Nel, chief curator of the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria. "But my biggest worry is security. What happens if there's an armed robbery? If the air conditioning breaks down, do they have backup? You can't afford that room to get hot."
For years, Ms. Tiley-Nel has been peppered with requests from politicians in Limpopo, the province in which Mapungubwe is located and where the ancient kingdom's treasures are revered.
So far, the university has resisted. "It would be premature at this point," says Ms. Tiley-Nel, who points out that Mapungubwe's interpretive centre is administered by the national parks agency, which has little experience with museum conservation.
"I know they would like it, but they need to demonstrate a capacity to look after it," she says. "I think for now a replica is adequate. We cannot allow the collection to be influenced by politics."
The park is also remote – a six-hour drive from Johannesburg – whereas the university is much closer to major population centres, and attracted about 28,000 visitors last year.
Although hard to reach, the interpretive centre at Mapungubwe is spectacular – a domed and vaulted structure that was built with locally quarried stone and declared the building of the year at the 2009 World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, beating out hundreds of contenders from 67 countries.
Completed in 2008, the centre sat empty for three years as officials struggled with climate control and other issues. Even now, it has opened unofficially with no publicity, and so far had only a few hundred visitors.
Although it has resisted with the rhino, the university has agreed to lend the centre some of te other artifacts to put on display – including a stunning group of golden necklaces, bracelets, bangles and beads.
The one-year deal is renewable, but was carefully negotiated, allowing university officials to inspect the artifacts four times a year, once every season, to ensure that they are preserved properly.
Meanwhile, most of the Mapungubwe collection – an astounding nine kilograms of virtually pure gold – remains under tight security in Pretoria, where only a few objects are displayed at any one time.
Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.