If you haven't heard of the Marvel superhero Black Panther, that's going to change very soon. With a reboot of the comic series just released — authored by none other than National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates — plus the character's on-screen debut in the new blockbuster Captain America: Civil War and the launch of a film franchise slated for 2018, Black Panther is on the brink of entering the collective pop culture consciousness in a big way.
For new fans, here's a quick overview of the character's backstory: Black Panther's real name is T'Challa, and he's the king of the African nation of Wakanda, a technologically advanced society enriched by "vibranium," a mineral deposited by a meteorite crash.
Black Panther's powers (enhanced senses, speed healing and infinite knowledge) are derived from his connection with ancestors and deities. When he's not assisting the Avengers in New York or completing his doctorate at Oxford (he's a busy guy), Black Panther works tirelessly to protect his kingdom of Wakanda.
There are different theories about the real-life inspiration for Wakanda. Coates explains his in this post for The Atlantic's website. But the actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays Black Panther in the upcoming Marvel movies, told The New York Times that Wakanda is a fictional version of "the Mutapa empire of 15th-century Zimbabwe."
So how does the mythical Wakanda stack up to the real-life Mutapa?
Stretching from modern-day South Africa into Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia, the kingdom of Mutapa thrived from the early 1400s to about 1760.
"Mutapa operated on three basic levels: they had a capital city, provinces and little villages," says Professor Angelo Nicolaides of the University of South Africa. Chiefs ruled at each of these levels under the supreme authority of the king, known as the Munhumutapa.
Like so many other kingdoms that believed in the divine right of kings, "the Mutapan people believed that their leaders were placed in positions of authority by the creator," says Nicolaides. "The oral tradition tells us that they were involved in ancestral worship to a large extent, and the people believed that the kings had a very good relationship with the spirit world."
If the kingdom of Mutapa had a superpower, it would be a staggeringly effective trade system.
"Most kingdoms in Southern Africa are known for their military might and great dictators," says Edward Mabaya, associate director of Cornell's International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development. "Mutapa stands as a symbol of economic success through local, regional and international trade."
Mutapa's equivalent of Black Panther's precious "vibranium"? Gold. And lots of it.
"They had resources of very rich gold in the valley to the east of modern day Harare in Zimbabwe," says Nicolaides. The king maintained ownership of all the mines in Mutapa, the exact locations of which were kept secret under penalty of death. In addition to gold, he says, Mutapa's most valuable resources were ivory, salt and cotton.
Mutapa traded extensively within its own borders, but the kingdom also established prolific trading networks with Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Archaeological excavations have uncovered Chinese porcelain, Indian beads, and Portuguese cloth in the Mutapa region. That's an especially impressive feat, explains Mabaya, when one considers the geographic limitations of the area.
"Mutapa is not on a major river or ocean that would give it natural advantage for transport infrastructure." Through bustling local bazaars and strategic partnerships with Portuguese traders along the coast, "Mutapa was able to achieve unparalleled trade against all odds for about three centuries."
During the height of its trading boom, Mutapa seemed nearly as invincible as its comic book counterpart. In the end, a combination of factors led to its downfall: infighting between provinces, overmining, religious clashes caused by village chiefs converting to Christianity, and forceful takeovers of resources and trading stations by the Portuguese — to name a few. By the mid-1700s, the Mutapa empire had crumbled amid a civil war.
According to Mabaya, another culprit behind Mutapa's downfall may have been an all-too-familiar villain: a warming climate.
"Without any big rivers nearby, just a couple of years of drought would have led to the abandonment of this kingdom," he says. "We do not need archaeology to confirm this theory. Today, this part of Zimbabwe is experiencing severe drought conditions."
And as always, history teaches many lessons. Says Mabaya: "I think the Mutapa kingdom is a great reminder of contemporary opportunities and threats facing Africa." Only in this case, there's no real-life Black Panther to save the day.