Not a Myth After All? The Truth Behind the Real-Life Inspiration for ‘Black Panther’s’ Wakanda

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Wakanda
The real-life inspiration for Wakanda draws from the 15th century Mutapa empire of Zimbabwe, according to Chadwick Boseman. (Images courtesy of Marvel/ NPR)

Wakanda is what’s been on everyone’s minds since the blockbuster debut of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” which continues to smash box office records as moviegoers rush to see the highly anticipated film.

From the movie’s Afro-centric theme to the actors’ beautifully unique costuming, it’s clear “Black Panther” drew much of its inspiration from a variety of cultures across the African continent. In fact, the film’s main setting, the fictitious African nation of Wakanda, may be based on a real place in the Motherland.

In a 2016 interview with The New York Times, lead actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays protagonist T-Challah “aka” Black Panther, explained that Wakanda is a fictional version of the “Mutapa empire of 15th-century Zimbabwe.”

“Wakanda is the stargazing kingdom of Dogon,” Boseman said. “There are many things you can fuse together here, many rulers and warriors throughout world history that your imagination can draw from at any given moment.”

So how does the fictional empire stack up against the real one?

The kingdom of Mutapa thrived from the early 1400s to around 1760, stretching from modern-day South Africa into Zimbabwe, Mozambique and even Zambia, NPR reported. Professor Angelo Nicolaides of the University of South Africa explained that the empire operated on three basic levels – capital city, provinces and small villages – and that a chief ruled over each. Those chiefs then ruled under the supreme authority of the king, known as the “Munhumutapa”

“The Mutapan people believed that their leaders were placed in positions of authority by the creator,” Nicolaides said. “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.”

Edward Mabaya, associate director of Cornell’s International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development, added that Mutapa stands as a symbol of economic success through regional and international trade. The kingdom established fruitful trading networks with Europe, North Africa and Asia but also traded extensively within its own borders.

But what about the sacred mineral of vibraniuim everyone tries to get their hands on  “Black Panther?” Mutapa had a real-life equivalent: gold.

“They had resources of very rich gold in the valley to the east of modern-day Harare in Zimbabwe,” Nicolaides said, adding that the king maintained exclusive control of all the mines throughout the kingdom. Mutapa was also rich in ivory, salt and cotton.

Not too shabby for a real-life version of Wakanda.

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