Climatic Change

, Volume 66, Issue 1–2, pp 49–66 | Cite as

Collapse of the Mapungubwe Society: Vulnerability of Pastoralism to Increasing Aridity

  • T. G. O'connor
  • G. A. Kiker


The Mapungubwe agro-pastoral society in the Limpopo valley, South Africa, persisted for 300 yrs before disappearing in about 1290 as a result of a decrease in mean annual rainfall (MAR) from about 500 mm to the current 340 mm. The influence of rainfall changes and competition from wildlife on cattle and small stock populations was investigated (agriculture was not) using the SAVANNA model. Six scenarios were compared for a 350 km2 area (Venetia-Limpopo Nature Reserve) for a 280 yrs simulation period: livestock only, wildlife only, and wildlife plus livestock, for a climate of ‘low’ (MAR 340 mm) versus ‘high’ (MAR 480 mm) rainfall. High inter-annual variability in rainfall resulted in highly variable grass production, but production of woody plants was more stable. Extreme drought events of one or more years duration resulted in marked population declines of the grazers, cattle and zebra. Populations of mixed feeders or browsers, including kudu, small stock and impala, were comparatively stable, the latter two mentioned were in part stabilised by offtake. Cattle populations persisted under a high rainfall climate irrespective of wildlife, but became extinct within 120 yrs under a low rainfall climate when competing with wildlife, in particular zebra. The size of the persisting populations of cattle or small stock under low rainfall was about half that for the corresponding high rainfall scenario. Pastoralism based on cattle was apparently unviable once climate started changing, and small stock were probably insufficient for meeting societal needs. Although crop failure is a sufficient explanation for the disappearance of the Mapungubwe settlement, destabilization of pastoralism would have compounded food security. The recorded rapid onset of a dry climate is of portent for current-day pastoral societies in marginal environments.


Drought Event Extreme Drought Mixed Feeder Rainfall Change Small Stock 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abel, N. and Blaickie, P.: 1986, 'Elephants, people, parks and development: the case of the Luangwa Valley, Zambia', Env. Manage. 10, 755-751.Google Scholar
  2. Acocks, J. P. H.: 1988, 'Veld Types of South Africa' (3rd. edn.), Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa, No. 57, Botanical Research Institute, Pretoria, South Africa.Google Scholar
  3. Behnke, R. H., Scoones, I., and Kerven, C.: 1993, Range Ecology at Disequilibrium,Overseas De-velopment Institute, London.Google Scholar
  4. Boone, R. B., Coughenour, M. B., Galvin, K. A., and Ellis, J. A.: 2002, 'Addressing Management Questions for Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, using the SAVANNAmodelling system', Afr. J. Ecol. 40, 138-150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Breebaart, L., Bhikraj, R., and O'Connor, T. G.: 2002, 'Dietary Overlap Between Boer Goats and Indigenous Browsers in a South African savanna', Afr. J. Range and Forage Sci. 19, 13-20.Google Scholar
  6. Campbell, B. M., Doré, D., Luckert, M., Mukamuri, B., and Gambiza, J.: 2000, 'Economic compar-isons of livestock production in communal grazing lands in Zimbabwe', Ecol. Econ. 33, 413-438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Coughenour, M. B.: 1984, 'A Mechanistic Simulation Analysis of Water Use, Leaf Angles, and Grazing in East African Graminoids', Ecol. Mod. 26, 203-230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Coughenour, M. B.: 1992, 'Spatial Modelling and Landscape Characterization of an African Pastoral Ecosystem: APrototype Model and its Potential use for Monitoring Drought', in McKenzie, D. H., Hyatt, D. E., and McDonald, V. J. (eds.), Ecological Indicators,vol. 1, Elsevier Applied Science, New York, pp. 787-810.Google Scholar
  9. Coughenour, M. B.: 1993, Savanna-Landscape and Regional Ecosystem Model. Documentation, Colorado State University, Fort Collins.Google Scholar
  10. Coughenour, M. B., McNaughton, S. J., and Wallace, L. L.: 1984a, 'Modelling Primary Production of Perennial Graminoids-Uniting Physiological Processes and Morphometric Traits', Ecol. Mod. 23, 101-134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Coughenour, M. B., McNaughton, S. J., and Wallace, L. L.: 1984b, 'Simulation Study of East-African Perennial Graminoid Responses to Defoliation', Ecol. Mod. 26, 177-201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Coughenour, M. B., Ellis, J. E., Swift, D. M., Coppock, D. L., Galvin, K., McCabe, J. T., and Hart, T. C.: 1985a, 'Energy Extraction and Uuse in a Nomadic Pastoral Ecosystem', Science 230, 619-625.Google Scholar
  13. Coughenour, M. B., McNaughton, S. J., and Wallace, L. L.: 1985b, 'Responses of an African Tall-Grass (Hyparrhenia filipendula Stapf.) to Defoliation and Limitations of Water and Nitrogen', Oecologia 68, 80-86.Google Scholar
  14. Coughenour, M. B., McNaughton, S. J., and Wallace, L. L.: 1985c, 'Responses of an African Graminoid (Themeda Triandra Forsk.) to Frequent Defoliation, Nitrogen and Water: A Limit of Adaptation to Herbivory', Oecologia 68, 105-110.Google Scholar
  15. Coughenour, M. B., McNaughton, S. J., and Wallace, L. L.: 1985d, 'Shoot Growth and Morphometric Analyses of Serengeti Graminoids', Afr. J. Ecol. 23, 179-194.Google Scholar
  16. Delegorgue, A.: 1990, Travels in Southern Africa,Vol. I, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.Google Scholar
  17. Donkin, E. F. and Boyazoglu, P. A.: 2002, 'Milk Production from Goats for Households and Small-Scale Farmers in South Africa', in Proceedings of the VII International Conference on Goats, Tours, pp. 324-326.Google Scholar
  18. Ellis, J. E. and Swift, D. M.: 1988, 'Stability of African Pastoral Ecosystems: Alternate Paradigms and Implications for Development', J. Range Manage. 41, 450-459.Google Scholar
  19. Gertenbach, W. P D.: 1983, 'Landscapes of the Kruger National Park', Koedoe 26, 9-121.Google Scholar
  20. Holmgren, K., Karlén, W., Lauritzen, S. E., Lee-Thorp, J. A., Partridge, T. C., Piketh, S., Repinski, P., Stevenson, C., Svanered, O., and Tyson, P. D.: 1999, 'A 3000-yr High-Resolution Stalagmite-Based Record of Palaeoclimate for Northeastern South Africa', The Holocene 9, 295-309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Huffman, T. N.: 1996, 'Archaeological Evidence for Climatic Change During the Last 2000 yrs in Southern Africa', Quatern. Int. 33, 55-60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Huffman, T. N.: 2000, 'Mapungubwe and the Origins of the Zimbabwe Culture', S. Afr. Arch. Soc. Goodwin Ser. 8, 14-29.Google Scholar
  23. Illius, A. W. and O'Connor, T. G.: 1999, 'On the Relevance of Nonequilibrium Concepts to Arid and Semiarid Grazing Systems', Ecol. Appl. 9, 798-813.Google Scholar
  24. Illius, A. W. and O'Connor, T. G.: 2000, 'Resource Heterogeneity and Ungulate Population Dynamics', Oikos 89, 283-294.Google Scholar
  25. Kelly, R. D. and Walker, B. H.: 1976, 'The Effects of Different Forms of Land Use on the Ecology of a Semi-Arid Region in South Eastern Rhodesia', J. Ecol. 64, 553-576.Google Scholar
  26. Kiker, G. A.: 1998, 'Development and Comparison of Savanna Ecosystem Models to Explore the Concept of Carrying Capacity', Ph.D. Dissertation, Cornell University, Ithica, New York.Google Scholar
  27. Laws, R. M., Parker, I. S. C., and Johnstone, R. C. B.: 1975, 'Elephants and their Habitats', Clarendon Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  28. MacGregor, S. D. and O'Connor, T. G.: 2002, 'Patch Dieback of Colophospermum mopane in a Dysfunctional Semi-Arid Savanna', Austral Ecol. 27, 385-395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mansvelt, P. R. and Skinner, J. D.: 1962, 'The Cattle of the Bavenda', Dept. Agricultural and Technical Services, Pretoria.Google Scholar
  30. McNaughton, S. J.: 1990, 'Mineral Nutrition and Seasonal Movements of African Ungulates', Nature 345, 613-615.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Midgley, D. C., Pitman, W. V., and Middleton, B. J.: 1994, 'Surface Water Resources of South Africa 1990', Vol. 1, Water Research Commission, Pretoria.Google Scholar
  32. O'Connor, T. G.: 1983, 'An Ecological Reconnaissance of Venetia 103 MS, Krone 104 MS and Surrounding Farms', De Beers Consolidated Mines (Pty.) Ltd., Kimberley.Google Scholar
  33. O'Connor, T. G.: 1992, 'Woody Vegetation-Environment Relations in a Semi-Arid Savanna in the Northern Transvaal', S. Afr. J. Bot. 58, 268-274.Google Scholar
  34. O'Connor, T. G.: 1999, 'Impact of Sustained Drought on a Semi-Arid Colophospermum mopane Savanna', Afr. J. Range and Forage Sci. 15, 83-91.Google Scholar
  35. O'Connor, T. G.: 2001, 'Effect of Small Catchment Dams on Downstream Vegetation of a Seasonal River in a Semi-Arid African Savanna', J. Appl. Ecol. 38, 1314-1325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Owen-Smith, N. and Cooper, S. M.: 1985, 'Comparative Consumption of Vegetative Components by Kudus, Impalas and Goats in Relation to Their Commercial Potential as Browsers in Savanna Regions', S. Afr. J. Sci. 81, 72-76.Google Scholar
  37. Owen-Smith, N. and Copper, S. M.: 1987, 'Assessing Food Preferences of Ungulates by Acceptability Indices', J. Wildl. Manage. 51, 372-378.Google Scholar
  38. Owen-Smith, N.: 1990, 'Demography of a Large Herbivore, the Greater Kudu Tragelaphus strep-siceros, inRelation to Rainfall', J. Anim. Ecol. 59, 893-913.Google Scholar
  39. Prins, H. H. T.: 2000, 'Competition Between Wildlife and Livestock in Africa', in Prins, H. H. T., Grootenhuis, J. G. and Dolan, T. T. (eds.), 'Wildlife Conservation by Sustainable Use', Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp. 51-80.Google Scholar
  40. Scoones, I.: 1993, 'Why are There so Many Animals? Cattle Population Dynamics in the Communal Areas of Zimbabwe', in Behnke, R. H., Coones, I., and Kerven, C. (eds.), 'Range Ecology at Disequilibrium', Overseas Development Institute, London.Google Scholar
  41. Sinclair, A. R. E.: 1979, 'Dynamics of the Serengeti Ecosystem: Process and Pattern', in Sinclair, A. R. E. and Norton-Griffiths, M. (eds.), Serengeti. Dynamics of an Ecosystem, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 1-30.Google Scholar
  42. Sinclair, A. R. E.: 1985, 'Does Interspecific Competition or Predation Shape the African Ungulate Community?', J. Anim. Ecol. 54, 899-918.Google Scholar
  43. Smithers, R. H. N.: 1983, 'The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion', University of Pretoria, Pretoria.Google Scholar
  44. Timberlake, J. K.: 1995, 'Colophospermum Mopane. Annotated Bibliography and Review', 'The Zimbabwe Bulletin of Forestry Research No. 11', Forestry Commission, Harare.Google Scholar
  45. Tyson, P. D. and Lindesay, J. A.: 1992, 'The Climate of the Last 2000 yrs in Southern Africa', The Holocene 2, 271-278.Google Scholar
  46. Tyson, P. D. and Preston-Whyte, R. A.: 2000, 'The Weather and Climate of Southern Africa', Oxford University Press, Cape Town.Google Scholar
  47. Voeten, M.M.and Prins, H. H. T.: 1999, 'Resource Partitioning Between Sympatric Wild and Domestic Herbivores in the Tarangire Region of Tanzania', Oecologia 120, 287-294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Voigt, E. A.: 1983, 'Mapungubwe: An Archaeological Interpretation of an Iron Age Community', Transvaal Museum Monograph No. 1,Transvaal Museum, Pretoria.Google Scholar
  49. Walker, B. H.: 1987, 'Determinants of Tropical Savannas', IUBS Monograph Series No. 3.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • T. G. O'connor
    • 1
  • G. A. Kiker
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for African Ecology, School of A.P.E.S.University of the WitwatersrandSouth Africa
  2. 2.Plant Processes and Effects Team, Environmental LaboratoryCEERD-EP-R, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development CenterVicksburgU.S.A

Personalised recommendations