The discovery of the stone citadel of Thulamela, which means ‘place of birth’ in the VhaVenda language, is regarded as one of the most important archaeological sites in South Africa.
Lying west of Pafuri, Thulamela was a stone-walled city atop a plateau in the Soutpansberg, and archaeological digs there revealed a well-organised mountain kingdom, ruled by an African monarch that flourished between 1200 and 1600 AD.
Evidence of early humans is also found in the area, dating back some 1.5 million years. The San people also lived in the area as far back as 100 000 years ago. Some 2 000 year’s ago, the first Nguni speaking people, looking for more grazing land for their cattle, migrated south into the area and displaced the San.
By 800 AD, the Arabs started raiding the area for slaves, using the ports in Mozambique. A civilisation also sprang up in the northern regions of the park. They built the Thulamela Stone Citadel, which was occupied from 1250 to 1700 AD. They also extracted iron ore from up to 200 mines, converting it into iron for trade.
Archaeologists have recently excavated the tombs of an African king and queen who ruled here during the 16th century. They named her Queen Losha - because she was buried with her hands placed under her cheeks in a position of great respect known as losha, and him, King Ingwe - meaning leopard, because on the day his grave was found, a leopard was waiting as the excavating team returned to their vehicle.
The royal enclosure at Thulamela accommodated a thousand people. Beyond the walled citadel, the hillsides are dotted with collapsed walls and signs of dwellings which indicate that up to 2 000 people may have lived here. There are also signs of lively trading.
The people of Thulamela were skilled goldsmiths and their main currency was gold. This they traded, along with ivory, for glass beads and corn, with traders who came north of the Limpopo from what is today Mozambique. There is also evidence of contact with people from West Africa.
During the 18th Century, the Baphalaborwa settled in present-day Phalaborwa. It is said that they originally came from the north and settled at Bushbuck Ridge. From there they moved to between the Letaba and Olifants Rivers where they called their settlement Phalaborwa, meaning ‘better than the south’. Their main trade item was iron, which they smelted themselves.