A team of archaeologists unearthed the golden rhinoceros in a royal cemetery at Mapungubwe in northern South Africa, near the border with Zimbabwe, in 1934. The golden rhinoceros was carved in the 13th century to represent the wealth of Mapungubwe, one of southern Africa’s ancient kingdoms.
According to The Conversation, between 1220 and 1290, Mapungubwe was the capital of that kingdom and oversaw the gold trade with the coastal Swahili settlement at Kilwa Kisiwanai, which is located in modern-day Tanzania.
The powerful kingdom’s primary priority was not gold. Mapungubwe was also busy in the sale of ivory and animal skins for glass beads from traders in Bambandyanalo, a significant trading center from 1030 to 1220.
Glass beads were phased out of the trading chain as a symbol of wealth and power during the 13th century. Gold was used to store wealth and value, and it dominated trade export between Mapungubwe and its neighboring ethnic states.
According to historians, the golden rhinoceros was among the artifacts used in the burial of a Mapungubwe royal figure, symbolizing the kingdom’s power and wealth. In the 1930s, inexperienced archaeologists from the University of Pretoria excavated the golden rhinoceros at the royal gravesite on Mapungubwe Hill.
Archaeologists discovered tonnes of gold buried in three of the 27 burial sites they investigated during their archaeological investigation. Animal figurines such as rhinoceroses, a crocodile, and fragments of other unidentified creatures were among the gold ornaments. The animal figurines were buried alongside gold scepters, bracelets, beads, bangles, nails, discs, and crowns.
A great deal of vital historical information was lost as a result of how the unskilled archaeologists conducted the excavation. However, academics have been able to gain insight into the Mapungubwe people’s culture and practices by reconstruction and re-evaluation of the artifacts.
One of the researchers’ conclusions was that the wealthy in Mapungubwe lived on the hilly part of the land, whereas ordinary citizens built their settlements in the low-lying areas. Agriculture, cattle herding, hunting and gathering, as well as international trade following the discovery of Chinese porcelain, were the mainstays of the Mapungubwe people.
Because of the formal narrative constructed around indigenous South Africans as an inferior and incapable group of individuals, the white South African government concealed these artifacts until the twentieth century. Researchers stated that the Mapungubwe artefacts and other sculptures posed a threat to white rule and apartheid ideologies that anchored their authority and settlement.
One of them was that South Africa was not inhabited by Africans prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, but both Black South Africans and white settlers arrived at the same time in history. The emergence of the golden rhinoceros negates the white government’s arguments because the creation of the sculpture indicates that Africans were in the region thousands of years before Europeans arrived.
It is one of the reasons why the golden rhinoceros became an essential emblem of authority for the African National Congress’s first post-apartheid government (ANC). The ANC government framed a new narrative around the golden rhinoceros as evidence of Africans’ abilities to pioneer inventions prior to the arrival of Europeans.
In order to solidify this new South African identity, the ANC established the Order of Mapungubwe, the highest accolade bestowed on anyone of South African descent. There are four categories: platinum, gold, silver, and bronze. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, was the first to receive the platinum award with the golden rhinoceros embedded in it.