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Great Zimbabwe civilization

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Great Zimbabwe civilization

Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe: Tower in the Great Enclosure.
Great Zimbabwe
Shown within Zimbabwe
Location Masvingo Province, Zimbabwe

20°16′S 30°56′E / 20.267°S 30.933°E / -20.267; 30.933Coordinates: 20°16′S 30°56′E / 20.267°S 30.933°E / -20.267; 30.933

Type Settlement
Area 722 ha (1,780 acres)
Founded 11th century
Abandoned 14th century
Periods Late Iron Age
Cultures Kingdom of Zimbabwe
Official name: Great Zimbabwe National Monument
Type Cultural
Criteria i, iii, vi
Designated 1986 (10th session)
Reference No. 364
State Party Zimbabwe
Region Africa

Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo, close to the Chimanimani Mountains and the Chipinge District. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country's Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument by ancestors of the Shona people began in the 11th century and continued until the 14th century,[1][2] spanning an area of 722 hectares (1,780 acres) which, at its peak, could have housed up to 18,000 people. It is recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Great Zimbabwe served as a royal palace for the Zimbabwean monarch and would have been used as the seat of political power. One of its most prominent features were the walls, some of which were over five metres high and which were constructed without mortar. Eventually the city was abandoned and fell into ruin.

The earliest known written mention of the ruins was in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, captain of the Portuguese garrison of Sofala, who recorded it as Symbaoe. The first visits by Europeans were in the late 19th century, with investigations of the site starting in 1871.[3] Later, studies of the monument were controversial in the archaeological world, with political pressure being put upon archaeologists by the government of Rhodesia to deny its construction by black people. Great Zimbabwe has since been adopted as a national monument by the Zimbabwean government, and the modern independent state was named for it. The word "Great" distinguishes the site from the many hundreds of small ruins, now known as 'zimbabwes', spread across the Zimbabwe Highveld.[4] There are 200 such sites in southern Africa, such as Bumbusi in Zimbabwe and Manyikeni in Mozambique, with monumental, mortarless walls; Great Zimbabwe is the largest.[5]


Main article: Name of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is the Shona name of the ruins, first recorded in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, Captain of the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala. Pegado noted that "The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies 'court'".

The name contains dzimba, the Shona term for "houses". There are two theories for the etymology of the name. The first proposes that the word is derived from Dzimba-dza-mabwe, translated from the Karanga dialect of Shona as "large houses of stone" (dzimba = plural of imba, "house"; mabwe = plural of bwe, "stone").[6] A second suggests that Zimbabwe is a contracted form of dzimba-hwe, which means "venerated houses" in the Zezuru dialect of Shona, as usually applied to the houses or graves of chiefs.[7]



The majority of scholars believe that it was built by members of the Gokomere culture, who were ancestors of modern Shona in Zimbabwe. A few believe that the ancestors of the Lemba or Venda were responsible, or cooperated with the Gokomere in the construction.[8] [9]

The Great Zimbabwe area was settled by the fourth century of the common era. Between the fourth and the seventh centuries, communities of the Gokomere or Ziwa cultures farmed the valley, and mined and worked iron, but built no stone structures.[5][10] These are the earliest Iron Age settlements in the area identified from archaeological diggings.[11]

Construction and growth

Construction of the stone buildings started in the 11th century and continued for over 300 years.[2] The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are some of the oldest and largest structures located in Southern Africa, and are the second oldest after nearby Mapungubwe in South Africa. Its most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, has walls as high as 36 feet (11 m) extending approximately 820 feet (250 m), making it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. David Beach believes that the city and its state, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, flourished from 1200 to 1500,[1] although a somewhat earlier date for its demise is implied by a description transmitted in the early 1500s to João de Barros.[12] Its growth has been linked to the decline of Mapungubwe from around 1300, due to climatic change[13] or the greater availability of gold in the hinterland of Great Zimbabwe.[14] At its peak, estimates are that Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants.[15] The ruins that survive are built entirely of stone. The ruins span 1,800 acres (7.3 km2).

Features of the ruins

In 1531, Vicente Pegado, Captain of the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, described Zimbabwe thus:

The ruins form three distinct architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. The Hill Complex is the oldest, and was occupied from the ninth to thirteenth centuries. The Great Enclosure was occupied from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries and the Valley Complex from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries.[5] Notable features of the Hill Complex include the Eastern Enclosure, in which it is thought the Zimbabwe Birds stood, a high balcony enclosure overlooking the Eastern Enclosure, and a huge boulder in a shape similar to that of the Zimbabwe Bird.[16] The Great Enclosure is composed of an inner wall, encircling a series of structures and a younger outer wall. The Conical Tower, 18 ft (5.5 m) in diameter and 30 ft (9.1 m) high, was constructed between the two walls.[17] The Valley Complex is divided into the Upper and Lower Valley Ruins, with different periods of occupation.[5]

There are different archaeological interpretations of these groupings. It has been suggested that the complexes represent the work of successive kings: some of the new rulers founded a new residence.[1] The focus of power moved from the Hill Complex in the twelfth century, to the Great Enclosure, the Upper Valley and finally the Lower Valley in the early sixteenth century.[5] The alternative "structuralist" interpretation holds that the different complexes had different functions: the Hill Complex as a temple, the Valley complex was for the citizens, and the Great Enclosure was used by the king. Structures that were more elaborate were probably built for the kings, although it has been argued that the dating of finds in the complexes does not support this interpretation.[18] Some researchers have presented an argument that the ruins may have housed an astronomy observatory, although the significance of the alignments upon which these claims are based is contested.[19]

Notable artefacts

The most important artefacts recovered from the Monument are the eight Zimbabwe Birds. These were carved from a micaceous schist (soapstone) on the tops of monoliths the height of a person.[20] Slots in a platform in the Eastern Enclosure of the Hill Complex appear designed to hold the monoliths with the Zimbabwe birds, but as they were not found in situ it cannot be determined which monolith and bird were where.[21] Other artefacts include soapstone figurines, pottery, iron gongs, elaborately worked ivory, iron and copper wire, iron hoes, bronze spearheads, copper ingots and crucibles, and gold beads, bracelets, pendants and sheaths.[22][23]


Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a centre for trading, with artefacts suggesting that the city formed part of a trade network linked to Kilwa[24] and extending as far as China. Copper coins found at Kilwa Kisiwani appear to be of the same pure ore found on the Swahili coast.[25] This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory; some estimates indicate that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground.[26] That international commerce was in addition to the local agricultural trade, in which cattle were especially important.[14] The large cattle herd that supplied the city moved seasonally and was managed by the court.[20] Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads and other non-local items have been excavated at Zimbabwe. Despite these strong international trade links, there is no evidence to suggest exchange of architectural concepts between Great Zimbabwe and centres such as Kilwa.[27]


Causes for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the site around 1450 A.D have been suggested as due to a decline in trade compared to sites further north, political instability and famine and water shortages induced by climatic change.[14][28] The Mutapa state arose in the fifteenth century from the northward expansion of the Great Zimbabwe tradition,[29] having been founded by Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe after he was sent to find new sources of salt in the north;[30] (this supports the belief that Great Zimbabwe's decline was due to a shortage of resources). Great Zimbabwe also predates the Khami and Nyanga cultures.[31]

History of research and origins of the ruins

From Portuguese traders to Karl Mauch

Portuguese traders heard about the remains of the ancient city in the early 16th century, and records survive of interviews and notes made by some of them, linking Great Zimbabwe to gold production and long-distance trade.[32] Two of those accounts mention an inscription above the entrance to Great Zimbabwe, written in characters not known to the Arab merchants who had seen it.[12][33]

The following description was also received and recorded by João de Barros in the early 1500s:

Symbaoe ... is guarded by a 'nobleman', who has charge of ... some of Benomotapa's wives therein... When, and by whom, these edifices were raised ... there is no record, but they say they are the work of the devil, for .... it does not seem possible to them that they should be the work of man[12]

The ruins were rediscovered during a hunting trip by Adam Renders in 1867, who then showed the ruins to Karl Mauch in 1871.

Theodore Bent and the Queen of Sheba

J. Theodore Bent's season at Zimbabwe, under Cecil Rhodes's patronage, resulted in publications which introduced the ruins to English readers. Bent, who had no formal archaeological training, but had travelled widely in Greece and Asia Minor, stated in The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1891) that the ruins revealed either the Phoenicians or the Arabs as builders. In contrast, Karl Mauch favoured a legend that the structures were built to replicate the palace of the Queen of Sheba in Jerusalem,[34] and claimed a wooden lintel at the site must be Lebanese cedar, brought by Phoenicians.[35] Other theories on the origin of the ruins, among both white settlers and academics, had the common view that the original buildings were probably not made by sub-Saharan Africans.[36] The Sheba legend, as promoted by Mauch, was so pervasive in the white settler community as to cause Bent to say

The names of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were on everybody's lips, and have become so distasteful to us that we never expect to hear them again without an involuntary shudder[37]

The Lemba

The construction of Great Zimbabwe is also claimed by the Lemba. This ethnic group of Zimbabwe and South Africa has a tradition of ancient Jewish or South Arabian descent through their male line,[38][39] which is supported by recent DNA studies,[40] and female ancestry derived from the Karanga subgroup of the Shona.[41] The Lemba claim was also reported by a William Bolts (in 1777, to the Austrian Habsburg authorities), and by an A.A. Anderson (writing about his travels north of the Limpopo River in the 19th century) — both of whom were told that the stone edifices and the gold mines were constructed by a people known as the BaLemba.[42] Robert Gayre strongly supported the Lemba claim to Great Zimbabwe, proposing that the Shona artefacts found in the ruins were placed there only after the Bantu conquered the area and drove out or absorbed the previous inhabitants.[26] However, Gayre's thesis is not supported by more recent scholars such as Garlake or Pikirayi.[43][44]

Tudor Parfitt described Gayre's work as intended to "show that black people had never been capable of building in stone or of governing themselves", although he adds: "The fact that Gayre... got most of his facts wrong, does not in itself vitiate the claims of the Lemba to have been involved in the Great Zimbabwe civilisation." He says that Mufuka, among others, supports the hypothesis of construction by the Lemba or Venda, a Shona-related people [45]- although Mufuka does not support some of Parfitt's findings.[46]

First scientific site excavations: evidence of Shona and Gokomere culture origin

The first scientific archaeological excavations at the site were undertaken by David Randall-MacIver in 1905–1906. In Medieval Rhodesia, he wrote of the existence in the site of objects that were of Bantu origin.[47][48] In 1929, Gertrude Caton-Thompson concluded that the site was indeed created by Bantu.[49]

Examination of all the existing evidence, gathered from every quarter, still can produce not one single item that is not in accordance with the claim of Bantu origin and medieval date[37]

Since the 1950s, there has been consensus among archaeologists as to the African origins of Great Zimbabwe.[50][51] Artefacts and radiocarbon dating indicate settlement in at least the fifth century, with continuous settlement of Great Zimbabwe between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries[52] and the bulk of the finds from the fifteenth century.[53] The radiocarbon evidence is a suite of 28 measurements, for which all but the first four, from the early days of the use of that method and now viewed as inaccurate, support the twelfth to fifteenth centuries chronology,[52][54] In the 1970s, a beam that produced some of the anomalous dates in 1952 was reanalysed and gave a fourteenth-century date,[55] as do dated finds such as Chinese, Persian and Syrian artefacts also support the twelfth and fifteenth century dates.[56]


Archaeologists generally agree that the builders probably spoke one of the Shona languages,[57][58] based upon evidence of pottery,[59][60] oral traditions[53][61] and anthropology[1] and were probably descended from the Gokomere culture.[54] The Gokomere culture, an eastern Bantu subgroup, existed in the area from around 500 AD and is believed, from archaeological evidence, to constitute an early phase of the Great Zimbabwe culture.[5][53][62] The Gokomere culture likely gave rise to both the modern Mashona people, an ethnic cluster comprising distinct sub-ethnic groups such as the local Karanga clan[63] and the Rozwi culture, which originated as several Shona states.[64] Gokomere-descended groups such as the Shona probably contributed the African component of the ancestry of the Lemba. Gokomere peoples were probably also related to certain nearby early Bantu groups like the Mapungubwe civilization of neighboring North eastern South Africa, which is believed to have been an early Venda-speaking culture.

Recent research

More recent archaeological work has been carried out by Peter Garlake, who has produced the comprehensive descriptions of the site,[65][66][67] David Beach[1][68][69] and Thomas Huffman,[53][70] who have worked on the chronology and development of Great Zimbabwe and Gilbert Pwiti, who has published extensively on trade links.[14][29][71] Today, the most recent consensus appears to attribute the construction of Great Zimbabwe to the Shona people.[72][73] Some evidence also suggests an early influence from the probably Venda speaking peoples of Mapungubwe.[54]

Damage to the ruins

Damage to the ruins has taken place throughout the last century. The removal of gold and artefacts in amateurist diggings by early colonial antiquarians caused widespread damage,[32] notably diggings by Richard Nicklin Hall[37] More extensive damage was caused by the mining of some of the ruins for gold.[32] Reconstruction attempts since 1980 caused further damage, leading to alienation of the local communities from the site.[74][75]

Political implications

Martin Hall writes that the history of Iron Age research south of the Zambezi shows the prevalent influence of colonial ideologies, both in the earliest speculations about the nature of the African past and in the adaptations that have been made to contemporary archaeological methodologies.[76] Preben Kaarsholm writes that both colonial and black nationalist groups invoked Great Zimbabwe's past to support their vision of the country's present, through the media of popular history and of fiction. Examples of such popular history include Alexander Wilmot's Monomotapa (Rhodesia) and Ken Mufuka's Dzimbahwe: Life and Politics in the Golden Age; examples from fiction include Wilbur Smith's The Sunbird and Stanlake Samkange's Year of the Uprising.[32]

When European colonialists like Cecil Rhodes first saw the ruins, they saw them as a sign of the great riches that the area would yield to its new masters.[32] Gertrude Caton-Thompson recognised that the builders were indigenous Africans, but she characterised the site as the "product of an infantile mind" built by a subjugated society.[77][78][79] Pikirayi and Kaarsholm suggest that this presentation of Great Zimbabwe was partly intended to encourage settlement and investment in the area.[80][32] The official line in Rhodesia during the 1960s and 1970s was that the structures were built by non-blacks and the government censored archaeologists who disputed this.[81] According to Paul Sinclair, interviewed for None But Ourselves:[82]

I was the archaeologist stationed at Great Zimbabwe. I was told by the then-director of the Museums and Monuments organisation to be extremely careful about talking to the press about the origins of the [Great] Zimbabwe state. I was told that the museum service was in a difficult situation, that the government was pressurising them to withhold the correct information. 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. He said it was okay to say the yellow people had built it, but I wasn't allowed to mention radio carbon dates... It was the first time since Germany in the thirties that archaeology has been so directly censored.

This suppression of archaeology culminated in the departure from the country of prominent archaeologists of Great Zimbabwe, including Peter Garlake, Senior Inspector of Monuments for Rhodesia, and Roger Summers of the National Museum.[83]

To black nationalist groups, Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol of achievement by black Africans: reclaiming its history was a major aim for those seeking majority rule. In 1980 the new internationally recognised independent country was renamed for the site, and its famous soapstone bird carvings was retained from the Rhodesian flag and Coat of Arms as a national symbol and depicted in the new Zimbabwean flag. After the creation of the modern state of Zimbabwe in 1980, Great Zimbabwe has been employed to mirror and legimitise shifting policies of the ruling regime. At first it was argued that it represented a form of pre-colonial "African socialism" and later the focus shifted to stressing the natural evolution of an accumulation of wealth and power within a ruling elite.[84] An example of the former is Ken Mufuka's booklet,[85] although the work has been heavily criticised.[86][32]

Some of the carvings had been taken from Great Zimbabwe around 1890 and sold to Cecil Rhodes, who was intrigued and had copies made which he gave to friends. Most of the carvings have now been returned to Zimbabwe, but one remains at Rhodes' old home, Groote Schuur, in Cape Town.

Image gallery

See also

  • Other ruins in Zimbabwe
  • Related ruins outside Zimbabwe
    • Manyikeni – a Mozambiquean archaeological site believed to be part of the Great Zimbabwe tradition of architecture



External links

  • Great Zimbabwe site page from the Alaku Digital Library
  • Great Zimbabwe site page in JSTOR's African Cultural Heritage Sites and Landscapes database"
  • Great Zimbabwe entry on the UNESCO World Heritage site

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