In 1934, a team of archaeologists discovered the golden rhinoceros in a royal grave at the site of Mapungubwe in the northern part of South Africa close to the border of Zimbabwe. The golden rhinoceros was carved in the 13th century to give a sense of the degree of wealth of one of southern Africa’s ancient kingdoms, Mapungubwe.
From 1220 and 1290, Mapungubwe was the capital of that very kingdom and superintended over the gold trade with the coastal Swahili settlement at Kilwa Kisiwanai which is situated in present-day Tanzania, according to The Conversation.
Gold was not the only focus of the powerful kingdom. Mapungubwe was also actively involved in the trading of ivory and animal skins in exchange for glass beads from traders in Bambandyanalo which was a key trading post from 1030 to 1220.
During the 13th century, glass beads were phased out of the trading chain as a symbol of wealth and power. Gold became the means of storage of wealth and value, dominating the trade export between Mapungubwe and its neighboring ethnic states.
Historians say the golden rhinoceros was part of the artefacts used in the burial of one of the Mapungubwe royal figures, symbolizing the kingdom’s power and wealth. The golden rhinoceros was excavated by inexperienced archaeologists from the University of Pretoria at the royal gravesite on Mapungubwe Hill in the 1930s.
The archaeologists found tonnes of gold buried in three out of the 27 burial sites they explored for their archaeological works. The gold ornaments included animal figurines such as rhinoceroses, a crocodile and fragments of other unidentified creatures. The animal figurines were buried with other artefacts such as gold scepters, bracelets, beads, bangles, nails, discs and crowns.
A lot of important historical information was lost following how the inexperienced archaeologists went about the excavation. However, researchers have been able through reconstruction and re-evaluation of the relics provided insight into the culture and customs of the Mapungubwe people.
One of the deductions the researchers made was that the affluent in Mapungubwe resided on the hilly part of the land while the ordinary citizens built their settlements in the low-lying areas. The mainstay of the people of Mapungubwe was agriculture, cattle herding, hunting and gathering as well as being involved in international trade following the discovery of Chinese porcelain.
The white South African government concealed these artefacts until the 20th century because of the formal narrative built around the indigenous South Africans as an inferior and incapable group of individuals. Researchers said the artefacts originating from Mapungubwe and other sculptures were considered a threat to white rule and apartheid ideologies that grounded their authority and settlement.
One of them was that prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century South Africa was not inhabited by Africans but both Black South Africans and white settlers arrived at the same period in history. The emergence of the golden rhinoceros defeats the arguments by the white government because the creation of the sculpture means Africans were in the region thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.
It is one of the reasons the golden rhinoceros was an important symbol of power by the first post-apartheid-government formed by the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC government couched a new narrative around the golden rhinoceros as the ability of the Africans to spearhead innovations before the arrival of the Europeans.
In consolidating this new South African identity, the ANC created the Order of Mapungubwe which is the highest honor bestowed on anyone of South African origin. It is made up of four categories – platinum, gold, silver and bronze. South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, was the first to be awarded the platinum with the golden rhinoceros embedded in the award.