Centre for Continuing Education

The Lost Kingdoms of Southern Africa Course

History. See the future. It’s in the past.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses both online and in-person. Please check the delivery format for each class before you enrol.

Please note that course materials for all classes (excluding prescribed textbooks) are shared electronically within 48 hours of a course starting. Printing is not available.

Archaeological research has identified important developments in the evolution of society in Southern Africa. The San Bushmen were the native hunter-gatherer peoples of the region. Subsequently, Khoi pastoralists entered the region and were followed by Bantu speaking farmers from central Africa. They created the first urban societies in the region including the Kingdom of Mapungubwe on the Limpopo River. In medieval times, the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe controlled the central plateau of Zimbabwe until the kingdom declined in the 15th Century. The Kingdom of Khami would rule over a broad territory until the Zulu and Matabele replaced it.


This course aims to equip students with a sound knowledge of the trading kingdoms which emerged in Africa in the medieval period, through analysis of the material culture and western accounts. Students will explore the interconnectivity of cultures, and assess the evidence for these being indigenous native societies, and the impact that climate change had on the rise and fall of these kingdoms.


Upon successful completion of this course, participants should be able to:

  1. Comprehend the chronology of Southern Africa.
  2. Use the material (archaeological) culture of the region to assess the rise and fall of ancient societies.
  3. Describe San rock art and its meaning.
  4. Identify why the Matabele people were unable to withstand the British invaders of the late 19th Century.


This course covers the following topics:

The San Bushmen

By 25,000 years ago, archaeological deposits contain a tool kit that includes small scrapers. Late Stone Age peoples were hunting small game with bows and poisoned arrows. Uniquely human traits such as rock art and purposeful burials with ornaments were a regular practice. In southern Africa, these people were the ancestors of the San (Bushmen). Their rock art is famous for its aesthetic appeal and symbolic complexity; it expresses beliefs about the role of shamans (medicine people) in controlling rain and game, and in healing through the famous ‘trance dance’.


Both San and Khoi pastoralists were in southern Africa when the first Bantu-speaking farmers arrived about 2000 years ago. The ancient city of Mapungubwe (‘hill of the jackal’) is an Iron Age archaeological site in the Limpopo Province on the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. One thousand years ago, Mapungubwe appears to have been the centre of the largest known kingdom in the African sub-continent. The civilization thrived as a sophisticated trading centre from around 1200 to 1300 AD, trading gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt.

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe was the cultural and political successor to Mapungubwe, taking over the long distance trade networks of the earlier kingdom. At its peak during the 14th Century, Great Zimbabwe occupied an area of 700 hectares and had a population of around 20,000. The town developed southwards and eastwards from a hill where the first stone enclosures were erected. This included the construction of the Great Enclosure and other smaller enclosures in what is now termed ‘The Valley’. These structures attest to the opulence of Great Zimbabwe as a city as well as a political power.


Around 1450, the city of Great Zimbabwe was abandoned. One of the results of the collapse of this ancient kingdom was the fragmentation of the kingdom’s former territories. With the rise of these new powers, new Zimbabwes (‘large houses of stone’ or ‘venerated houses’) on a smaller scale were built to serve as state capitals. One of these was Khami, the capital of the Kingdom of Butua. This important political centre was located to the west of Bulawayo.

Zulu and Matabele

Before the abandonment of Mapungubwe, the ancestors of Nguni-speaking people moved from East Africa into the KwaZulu-Natal region. These Late Iron Age farmers left numerous stonewalled settlements throughout South Africa. In the 19th Century, King Shaka of the Zulu created a powerful Zulu Kingdom. In 1837, the Boers farmers, pressing north, drove the Matabele (or Ndebele) out of the Transvaal across the Limpopo River. King Mzilikazi established a powerful kingdom, but in the 1880’s the Matabele were unable to resist a new onslaught from the south, this time led by the British community of South Africa.

Intended audience

This course will particularly appeal to teachers and students of archaeology, and economics and climate scientists.

Delivery style

This course is delivered as a face-to-face, interactive lecture where questions and open discussion are encouraged.

Recommended reading

Reader, J. 1998, Africa. Biography of the Continent, Penguin Books, London.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

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