Let’s get this out of the way first, Africa is a continent, not a country. There is an incredible amount of biodiversity among the animals on the continent, and there is at least as much diversity among the human cultures on the continent of Africa. There are flourishing beautiful cities, and there are impoverished rural farms. African history is an area in which American schooling lags behind. We study and teach our own history, we teach European history, and then we teach “world history” which so often ends up meaning Ancient European history.
Today’s post is a bit of background on Great Zimbabwe. I first learned about Great Zimbabwe as a sophomore in an archaeology class. But I think it should be just as famous as Stonehenge. Let me tell you why.
Great Zimbabwe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Zimbabwe, and it dates to the eleventh century. The nation of Zimbabwe also considers it a National Monument, and a source of national pride. In fact, the nation’s name is derived from that of the monument.
There are actually two possible etymologies for “Zimbabwe”, both from the Shona word for houses, dzimba. One possibility is “Dzimba-dza-mabwe” which translates as “large houses of stone” in the Karanga dialect of Shona. The other possibility is “Dzimba-hwe” which translates to “venerated houses” in the Zezuru dialect of Shona, and was usually reserved for the homes or gravesites of kings and rules. Shona is a subgroup of Bantu, and it refers to both a cultural group and the language they speak.
The first European record of Great Zimbabwe was recorded by Vicente Pegado, a Portuguese captain, in 1531. But he recorded it as Simbaoe. This spelling carried on among Europeans for a century or more, and it was recorded on a 1570 map.
Radiocarbon dating puts the construction of the structures at Great Zimbabwe in the eleventh century CE. There is, however, archaeological evidence of a settlement on the same location as far back as the fifth century CE. Who exactly built Great Zimbabwe has been a source of contention for centuries. Most scholars agree that the Gokomere people, an ancestral group of the Shona people, built and inhabited Great Zimbabwe, but there is a cohesive dissent in favor of the Lemba people. The Lemba people, a fascinating group themselves, assert that their ancestors built the structures at Great Zimbabwe. Some scholars support this origin, including Ken Mufuka. As we’ll discuss later, there have been a lot of theories surrounding the origin of Great Zimbabwe.
This site is actually three groupings of structures. Great Zimbabwe covers 7.3 square kilometers, approximately 1,800 acres. For reference Central Park is 843 square acres. Within the overall title “Great Zimbabwe” there is the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Complex. Within the Hill Complex is the Eastern Enclosure, and this is where the Zimbabwe Bird sculptures were found. The Great Enclosure encompasses two sets of walls and a series of structures inside of the inner walls. The Valley Complex is actually two complexes: Upper Valley, and Lower Valley, which were occupied at different times, and seem to have housed more people. As to the purposes of each complex, there are two competing theories. The first theory is a chronological explanation, wherein the Hill Complex was occupied in the eleventh to twelfth centuries, and then the inhabitants moved to the Great Enclosure, then the Upper Valley complex, and finally to the Lower Valley complex in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There have been even more modern structures found in the Valley Complex, dating to the nineteenth century. Some scholars also say that the structures and complexes were the work of different successive rulers.
The other theory of occupation is a structuralist idea. According to structuralists, the Hill Complex was likely a temple, the Valley Complex the home of citizens, and the Great Enclosure the home of rulers. In support of this, many scholars have said that the walls of the Great Enclosure were symbolic of power. Possibly in opposition to this theory, there is evidence of multiple dwellings within the Great Enclosure¹.
Two early accounts from Arab merchants indicate that there was, at least at that time, writing above the entrance to Great Zimbabwe, which they could not read.
Within the Hill Complex archaeologists found sculptures in the shape of a bird seeming to sit on a throne. These sculptures have been referred to as the Zimbabwe Birds, and are now a symbol of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwean people.
Archaeological evidence during the time of occupation suggests that, at its height, Great Zimbabwe housed upwards of 10,000 people, perhaps even up to 20,000. Most of those likely lived in the valley, though, as scholars believe that only 200-300 lived in the actual stone buildings.
The residents of Great Zimbabwe were part of a huge network of trade, from the Swahili Coast to India and on to China. Archaeologists have found potsherds that originate in China, as well as thousands of glass beads, copper coins from the Swahili Coast and the Arabian peninsula, and dishes from Persia². While there are other structures in Southern Africa that have similar architecture, especially the mortarless construction, there doesn’t seem to be any architectural exchange between Great Zimbabwe and the other cultures with whom they traded. The hills surrounding Great Zimbabwe produced enormous amounts of gold, which was the main item of trade for the residents.
Great Zimbabwe is surrounded by land, but it is not highly arable land. Instead, scholars think that most of the farming in the valley consisted of raising cattle, and growing cereal crops². The residents likely imported most of their other food from other locales, trading for the cattle, cereal grains, or even the gold that was plentiful in the area.
In the fifteenth century, probably between 1450 and 1500 CE, the population of Great Zimbabwe began to decline. By the sixteenth century it was abandoned. Most scholars agree that the decline was due to a lack of resources. The hills had been mined to exhaustion, the land was running out of nutrients for farming, and the trade world had moved north. Great Zimbabweans had founded two new settlements: Mutapa in the north, and Torwa in the south. The founder of Mutapa, Nyatsimba Mutota, had been sent north to find a new source of salt, which supports the theory that the resources were drying up. There is also a theory that the region was experiencing political instability and warfare, but that is far less supported than the resource explanation.
The history of Great Zimbabwe was only beginning when the population dissipated. With the arrival of European colonialists in the nineteenth century, the speculation about Great Zimbabwe’s origins and use began.
Cecil Rhodes funded a handful of archaeologists and scholars to find non-black origins for Great Zimbabwe. The first was J. Theodore Bent. He had no training in archaeology, although to be fair at the time training was always ad hoc, and he determined that the structures were ancient rather than medieval. Bent also determined that the builders were not black Africans, but rather Phoenicians, Egyptians, ancient Semitic groups, or ancient Arabian groups. Later, he clarified his findings, and claimed only that it was an ancient Semitic or Arabian group.
After Bent finished his time at Great Zimbabwe, Rhodes hired another man with no archaeological training to be the Curator of Great Zimbabwe. This man was Nicklin Hall, who was charged not with research or study, but only with preservation. During his tenure at Great Zimbabwe he overstepped his job description and instigated archaeological digs that destroyed several layers of earth and all the artefacts contained therein.
This is also where the Lemba claims get interesting. The Lemba people have always claimed ancestry from a Jewish group, and much of their culture is similar to practices found in Judaism. Just as an example, they observe Shabbat, identify themselves as a chosen people, refrain from eating pork, practice male circumcision, and have recently placed stars of David on their gravestones. A recent DNA study has supported this claim, finding that Lemba men share 50% of their Y-chromosome specific genes with people of Semitic ancestry – Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs³. What’s interesting about the Lemba claim is not that it exists, it’s possible, as I mentioned above. What’s interesting is the reason that many non-Lemba supported it. They supported the Lemba claim because the Lemba had an ancestry that was not all black African. Those in charge at the time were white colonists, and part of keeping citizens in a colony under control is often about denigrating their abilities. By clearly saying that Great Zimbabwe was not created by black Africans, the colonial oppressors squashed their citizens’ pride.
The tide began to turn in the mid-twentieth century, though. David Randall McIver studied the ruins and proposed a medieval construction date. Gertrude Caton-Thompson studied them and determined that yes, they were created by Africans, not by a people who came from elsewhere4. Although she is to be taken with a grain of salt because she also said that Great Zimbabwe was the product of an “infantile mind.” All scholarship on the site since the 1950s has supported African origins and construction.
But of course, there’s more to the story. During the 1960s and 1970s, the government of Rhodesia (the state before Zimbabwe became independent) held the position that Great Zimbabwe was built by non-blacks, and they took a hard line to enforcing it. Any archaeologists or scholars who dissented were censored. Paul Sinclair, an archaeologist at the site during this time, stated in an interview “Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programmes, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Zimbabwe.”5
This covering up and denial of the African origins and construction of Great Zimbabwe went on for decades. Professor Innocent Pikirayi, a lecturer at the University of South Africa, called it “antiquarian revisionism” in a BBC project6. The truth finally came to light as Rhodesia was speeding along the road to revolution. After the 1979 revolution the country became known as Zimbabwe, taking its name from the archaeological site. The national symbol is the Zimbabwe Bird, the sculpture found at Great Zimbabwe.
Now, Great Zimbabwe is a symbol of accomplishment in Zimbabwe and outside of it. It shows the world that it is not only Europeans who are capable of creating big things and complex societies.
Go forth with your new knowledge and defeat ignorance. I’d like to make a series about underrecognized historical and archaeological sites, so consider this part one. When’s part two coming? No idea. For more historical content, check out my history category, and my history playlist on YouTube.
1. UNESCO http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/364
2. South African History Online http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/great-zimbabwe-case-study
3. The origins of the Lemba “Black Jews” of southern Africa: evidence from p12F2 and other Y-chromosome markers. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1914832/
4. Ascribes Zimbabwe to African Bantus http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9505E6DB133AEE32A25753C2A9669D946895D6CF
5. None But Ourselves by Julie Frederikse http://www.bookdepository.com/None-But-Ourselves-Julie-Frederikse/9780852553299/?a_aid=JFloyd&a_bid=ba35a05b
6. BBC “The Story of Africa” http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/10chapter1.shtml