Mapungubwe is located on the farm Greefswald at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers in the Messina district, where the borders of three countries meet: Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Mapungubwe Hill was first "discovered" in 1932 by a farmer named van Graan. He found the summit of the Mapungubwe to be littered in archaeological findings such as gold, pottery, beads and other ornaments. Archaeological excavations indicated that Bantu speaking peoples of the region had a highly civilized existence that flourished for hundreds of years before the first Europeans arrived. They traded in gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt. The findings not only provided evidence for early gold smelting in southern Africa, but of the extensive wealth and social differentiation of the people of Mapungubwe. For political reasons, the existence of the site was kept secret, as well as the archaeological excavations undertaken on it by the University of Pretoria from the same year it was found. The findings were contrary to the policies and ideology of the racially biased government of the day which considered Africans to be inferior amongst other racial groups. Mapungubwe was declared a World Heritage Site in July 2003 after having been nominated as a National Monument in the 1980s.
Since the mid-1990's, there have been several claims made by various indigenous groups for the "human remains" which had been "unlawfully" excavated from Mapungubwe from 1933 to be returned to their original place of origin. The South African government later established an inclusive Steering Committee consisting of various role-players, amongst them the institutions holding the human remains [Universities of Pretoria and Witwatersrand], indigenous communities claiming the "human remains" and relevant government institutions. The consultation led to the final repatriation of all Mapungubwe human remains from the holding institutions in 2007. This process involved sealing containers filled with "human remains" in graves in the hope that they would still be available in the future for further research, in consultation with the communities.