Great Zimbabwe: A case study

What have archaeologists found out about Great Zimbabwe?

The sculpted bust of Cecil J Rhodes, located at the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. Picture source:

Great Zimbabwe is an archaeological site which is a very important heritage resource in southern Africa. The name of the country of Zimbabwe is even based on the Shona term dzimba dzembabwe, meaning 'house of stone'. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe provide evidence of an early and sophisticated civilisation.

In 1888, Cecil John Rhodes occupied the area of present-day Zimbabwe and it became a British colony. For nearly 100 years, until independence in 1980, the area was known as Rhodesia. During this period of colonial rule, the African people of the area were dispossessed of their land, their rights and their heritage. Although the evidence clearly showed that Great Zimbabwe had been built by Africans, the Rhodesian government did everything in its power to suppress this knowledge.

Cecil John Rhodes and other white settlers refused to believe that Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans. Rhodes employed a miner called Theodore Bent to dig up bits of Great Zimbabwe in order to prove that it had been built by either Arabs or Phoenicians.

Despite colonial attempts to suppress the heritage of the African people of the area, Great Zimbabwe became a potent symbol of African achievement and resistance. During the war years of the 1960s and 1970s, the African people held up Great Zimbabwe as a symbol of the African nationalist struggle for freedom.

However, it was only after independence that Zimbabwe was able to reclaim its history and heritage. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe have become a symbol of the new state and its freedom from colonial rule. Symbols of the ruins are used on Zimbabwe's banknotes, coat of arms and flag.

Evidence was deliberately suppressed in order to promote the policies and belief systems of the white colonial government in what was then known as Rhodesia.

Source A

The conclusions of Theodore Bent after excavating the ruins of Great Zimbabwe:

"A prehistoric race built the ruins ... a northern race coming from Arabia ... closely akin to the Phoenician and Egyptian ... and eventually developing into the more civilised races of the ancient world." - P Tyson, The Mystery of Great-Zimbabwe

Source B

The conclusion of Randall MacIver, an early archaeologist working on Great Zimbabwe:

The former mud dwellings within the stone enclosures "are unquestionably African in every detail and belong to a period which is fixed by foreign imports as, in general, medieval." - P Tyson, The Mystery of Great-Zimbabwe

Source C

Paul Sinclair, Curator of Archaeology at Great Zimbabwe, wrote:

"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 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 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".

The origins of Great Zimbabwe

Map showing location of the 'Great Zimbabwe' Ruins. Picture source:

Much of what we know about the history of Great Zimbabwe has been reconstructed by archaeologists and anthropologists working with non-written sources like the landscape, the buildings and artefacts excavated from the site.

The land itself can provide many clues about life in the past. Great Zimbabwe is situated on the edge of the Zimbabwe plateau just as it starts its descent to the lowlands in the East. Historians are able to provide a number of reasons that explain why Great Zimbabwe was established in that exact spot by examining the landscape:

  • Tsetse flies, which cause a fatal disease called sleeping sickness, are not found on the highlands of the plateau.

  • The settlement is on the south-eastern edge of the plateau where good rains and rivers meant the land was able to support the cattle and produce the large amounts of grain, sorghum and millet needed to sustain a large population.

  • It was a trading centre. Gold was mined to the west of Great Zimbabwe and ivory passed through Zimbabwe on the way to Sofala on the Mozambique coast. From here, goods from India like cloth, jewellery and iron implements (hoes, axes and chisels) found their way back to Zimbabwe.

  • The rounded granite hills that are within walking distance of the site provided the granite blocks that the settlement was built from.

The early occupants of Great Zimbabwe were cattle farmers, but they also grew crops like sorghum and millet. The evidence suggests that the early Shona were 'carnivorous pastoralists', which means that they kept cattle to eat rather than for their milk. Generally, carnivorous pastoralism takes place where the grazing is excellent and human populations are increasing. Milk pastoralism takes place where grazing is not so good and cannot sustain a growing population. Archaeologists found about 140 000 pieces of animal bones on the lower slopes around Great Zimbabwe. Almost all of these were cattle bones. Significantly, about 80 per cent of the bones of slaughtered cattle dug up in the Great Zimbabwe site came from animals between 24 and 36 months old - the age when beef cattle are in their prime. This tells us that they used cattle mostly as a source of beef rather than as a source of milk. It also suggests that Great Zimbabwe was a stable settlement. The people living there did not move around looking for grazing. They were able to stay in one area for centuries and become a wealthy community.

The buildings of Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe is one of the largest old stone-walled settlements ever found in southern Africa. Building started around the year AD 1280. At its height, it is believed that 18 000 people lived at Great Zimbabwe. The stone walls vary in height and size and create different spaces called enclosures. Each enclosure was home to people of a certain social status.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have used a number of sources in trying to reconstruct the systems of power and status that existed in Great Zimbabwe.

These include:

  • the physical remains of the site

  • Portuguese documents: The Portuguese established a number of trading stations in the area in the 1560s. Although their observations about Great Zimbabwe refer to a later period, archaeologists believe that there is little difference between earlier settlement patterns and usage of space and the later descriptions of the Portuguese.

  • Shona customs and oral tradition

  • Venda customs and oral tradition: The Venda of South Africa were part of the Zimbabwe culture and had Shona origins.

Aerial view of 'Great Zimbabwe'. Picture source:

The Hill Complex was probably the palace of the king or mambo. It is the highest and most decorated structure and had spaces for religious ceremonies. In Shona and Venda culture, mountains are symbols of political authority. The mambo was supposed to be aloof and live separately from the rest of the people.

Archaeologists found objects like gold and bronze spearheads, which were all symbols of leadership, in the Hill Complex. The soapstone statues of birds were probably carved as a tribute to the ancestors of past kings.

According to Shona custom, all settlements had a meeting place or dare where people met to discuss political matters and resolve disputes through discussion and negotiation.

The dare at Great Zimbabwe was large, which means the mambo had a lot of political power. No objects that are used in everyday life were found at this site.

The lower homesteads probably belonged to the wives of the mambo. The Shona king had a number of wives, who lived in one area of the settlement under the control of the first wife or vahozi. It was her right and duty to keep the king's possessions.

The biggest collection of valuable items was found in the lower homestead including Persian bowls, Chinese dishes, ivory and gold beads. A number of the king's spears and axes were also found here, as well as a monolith with a soapstone bird. According to Shona custom, the bird was a symbol of protection during the birth of royal children.

The Great Enclosure is about 600 metres away from the hill. Some think this was the home of the vahozi. Others think that it was an initiation school known as a domba where initiates were taught about the rules and customs of the community.

No everyday utensils were found in the Enclosure but there is a speaker's platform. It also has a number of private and public spaces, which is consistent with other domba enclosures elsewhere. It contains a number of symbols which mean 'young man' and 'young woman' according to Shona custom.

The remains at Great Zimbabwe suggest that it was a highly stratified society in which there were sharp divisions between the rich and poor. The king or mambo lived in some luxury, as did the nobles. Food was plentiful but there appears to have been a big difference between the rich and the poor.

It is believed that the nobles lived in the terraces. The houses here were much larger than anywhere else, and were built with the best quality stonework. It is believed that the ordinary people, the commoners, lived in the hut mounds. They lived in fairly close proximity to each other in small huts around the inside and outer wall. These huts have broken down and all that exists today are the mounds.

Trade at Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe was a wealthy centre of cattle and cereal farming and a major link in the trade between the people inland and the Swahili kingdom at Sofala on the coast of Mozambique. Sofala had traded with much of East Africa as well as with India and China. Archaeologists have found a number of artefacts which show that Great Zimbabwe was a trading centre, including a glazed bowl from Persia (present-day Iran) with 13th century inscriptions, dishes from China, thousands of glass beads, coral and cowrie shells and a Portuguese coin that probably came from the trading city of Kilwa on the East African coast.

The Shona at Great Zimbabwe bought gold from people further inland and sold it to traders on the East coast. Gold mining was very widespread in traditional Shona society. It was estimated that by the time the industrial production of gold began in the area (1890), more than 1 200 reefs had been mined in the central plateau. Unlike the Egyptians, there is evidence to suggest that the Great Zimbabweans used gold more for trade than for ceremonies or ornaments.

Ivory from elephants also made its way from the interior to the coast via Great Zimbabwe. Cotton was grown widely in the region and weaving of local cloth took place. Finer cloth was imported by the wealthy via the East coast traders.

The kingdom of Zimbabwe came to an end in about 1450 AD and the settlement was deserted. No one is quite sure why this happened, but a possible explanation is that the resources of the area were exhausted as the population increased in size. With more and more people living in the area, there was not enough clean water and, as the trees were cut down, the daily journey for firewood became longer and longer. Most importantly, the grazing lands were used up. People were probably forced to move to other areas in search of fresh grazing.

Great Zimbabwe was declared a World Heritage Site in 1986. This means that it is now a protected area and the site may not be disturbed or damaged in any way.

Paul Sinclair, Curator of Archaeology at Great Zimbabwe, wrote:

"My favourite discovery was a piece of Ming china from Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa, when I was the resident archaeologist there in 1986. It was fabulous working at Great Zimbabwe. We excavated through a layer of ash, ... and [found] a little stone-lined tunnel ... Jammed inside this tunnel was a broken piece of Ming china. It was the most staggering thing I have ever come across ... It was dated to the very end of the 15th or early 16th century, showing that [Great Zimbabwe had] survived at least 50 years longer than was previously thought".

Last updated : 12-Apr-2012

This article was produced by South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011

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