Organisation of African societies

Kingdoms of southern Africa: Great Zimbabwe

Image: An aerial picture of the Great Enclosure where royalty and their advisers lived at Great Zimbabwe. Source: campus.northpark.edu

Where is Great Zimbabwe?

The Great Zimbabwe ruins date from the Iron Age and lie between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers in the Limpopo Province east of the Kalahari Desert. It is far bigger than similar sites in the area (See Mapungubwe map).

What does its name mean?

The name "Zimbabwe" comes from the Shona term "dzimba dzamabwe", which means "stone buildings" and refers to the stone walls used to separate and surround houses and kraals in ancient Shona settlements, like Great Zimbabwe. The name may also come from the word "imbabwe", which is the Shona word for "house of rock or stone" or "venerated house", which is associated with rulership.

Who lived at Great Zimbabwe?

The first people to live at Great Zimbabwe were Bantu-speaking. and the ancestors of the Shona people. They arrived around 400 AD and only started to build the city seen today during the 1100s.

It is difficult to accurately describe how the Great Zimbabweans lived because there are no records of their society other than the ruins of their city. But, like Mapungubwe and Thulamela, Great Zimbabwe had a ruling class. They seemed to have controlled their wealth through the management of cattle, which was the staple food.

At its largest Great Zimbabwe had a population of between 10 000 and 20 000 people. Most of them lived far away from the main stone buildings, with only 200 to 300 royals and advisers living inside the main city, which was the centre of their society. The royal area, or Great Enclosure, is surrounded by great walls that researchers think represented authority and may have been designed to keep the royal families private and apart from commoners.

Why did they leave?

The kingdom of Great Zimbabwe disappeared in the 1600s and as with Thulamela and Mapungubwe there are different theories about the reasons for this event. Some researchers think the environment changed and that the gold trade in the region declined, but it could also be that gold resources, water and usable land became scarce and that local trade was disrupted by Portuguese merchants.

The importance of gold, cattle and ivory

The area around Great Zimbabwe is perfect for grazing cattle because it is open grassland. The city is nowhere near a river and some archaeologists believe that it was built over a gold mine, and that the city itself was a religious centre where the Shona people worshipped their main god, Mwari.

Some researchers even believe that the kingdom existed because of riches gathered from the East African gold trade. The area was very rich in gold and the inhabitants of the kingdom imported cloth, glass beads and ceramics and exported gold along the Limpopo River, while farming provided for their basic needs.

Trade with the Middle and Far East definitely took place because Chinese pottery and stoneware and a Persian bowl have been found at the ruins. An Arabic inscribed coin from Kilwa, a Swahili trade city on the coast of East Africa, also confirm Great Zimbabwe's trade with the East.