The Great Zimbabwe Ruins

by Prof Innocent Pikirayi

FOR many centuries, researchers have failed to agree on who built the Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo. The debate was reignited last week by the release of a confidential United States embassy cable of a January 2010 conversation between the American envoy, Charles Ray, and his Indian counterpart, Ashok Venkatesan.

According to Ray, Venkatesan told him that Zimbabweans did not know the real origins of the Great Zimbabwe ruins “which were here when the Shona entered from East Africa and settled on land that was essentially vacant”.
Archaeologist Innocent Pikirayi has arguably spent more time researching the history of Great Zimbabwe than any other living individual.

Pikirayi, who is a professor in archaeology at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, tells New today that the current debate and thinking on Great Zimbabwe is largely influenced by “the new antiquarian revisionism, based on what Ian Smith and his Rhodesian apologists thought about the place”.

He adds: “They tried to suppress mainstream academic thinking during the 1960s and 1970s, as a way of stemming growing Zimbabwean nationalism, which was inspired by Great Zimbabwe and related monuments.

“These apologists are still there, and basking in the glory of the democratic world, where they are ‘free’ to say what they want in the name of academic freedom. In my view, this is abuse of the past, as well as the people whom they are misrepresenting and misinterpreting.”
Below is Pikirayi’s previously published work on Great Zimbabwe, which delves into the history of the ruins:

Great Zimbabwe, 1250-1550 AD

THE Zimbabwe plateau lies between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, the Kalahari grassland savanna to the west and the Nyanga and Chimanimani Mountains to the east. These mountains, over 2000m above sea level, separate the plateau from the Mozambican Costal Plains.

The Zambezi, Limpopo and Save rivers carve major lowland areas generally less than 500 m above sea level. The geology, dominated by grano-diorites, gives rise to batholiths, whalebacks and conical hills. Their rock has been exploited since the early second millennium AD, as stone could easily be shaped into building materials and used in the construction of residences.

These dzimbabwe (“houses of stone”) became centers of political power and by the 16th century, whether constructed out of stone or not, had become synonymous with royalty. The vegetation is primarily miombo woodland, with Julbernardia and Brachystegia occupying moist higher altitudes, while Colophosphermum mopane grows in the lower and drier basins.

These environments provide livestock grazing and teem with wild animals such as elephant and a variety of antelopes. The soils, ranging from iron rich ferric luvisols to sandy loams, were cultivated for sorghum, finger millet, cowpeas and groundnuts. The plateau also has iron, copper and gold deposits, whose minerals were exploited and used to great advantage by traders, chiefs and kings.

Together with ivory, gold opened the Zimbabwe plateau to the commercial world of the Indian Ocean, and from the early 16th century onwards, Portuguese attempts to wrestle control of this gold trade negatively affected southern African societies.

Despite these advantages, a major constraining factor is the uneven rainfall distribution, with lower altitude regions receiving less than 400mm per annum, compared with over 1500 mm for the higher altitudes. Even so, this pattern is inconsistent, as drought is a recurring phenomenon.

Significant episodes of aridity have occurred since 1000 AD, triggering large-scale abandonment of some regions. Chiefdoms and states arose as a collective response towards these constraints, and this was achieved through control of key resources such as salt, cattle, ivory, gold and grain. Cattle played a significant role in the economy and by 1000 AD, those with the capacity to rear large herds attained social and political advantage over other people.

Their wealth, enhanced by trade, was invested in monumental and public architecture. This reflected communal participation in projects initiated at the level above the village, demonstrated artistic skill and innovation.

Religion may not have been a prime mover in state formation, but an effective instrument for binding people into an interdependent political union. Leaders exercised the role of mediators, embodying the hopes and aspirations of their followers. The carved soapstone bird effigies at Great Zimbabwe probably symbolised this role.
The rise and development of Great Zimbabwe and its culture

The story of Great Zimbabwe begins some 300km to the south, in the middle Shashe-Limpopo valley, following the demise of the state based at Mapungubwe (1220-1280). Mapungubwe, whose wealth was enhanced by trade in gold, ivory, animal skins, cloth and glass beads with the Swahili on the Indian Ocean coast, declined following the abandonment of the region due to climate change.

Iron Age farmers, akin to early Karanga speakers, then developed chiefdom-level societies at Chivowa and Gumanye hills in south-central Zimbabwe. They transformed from simple kin-warranted domestic corporations relying mainly on land and cattle, to long distance traders. With this newly acquired wealth, they financed the building of stonewalling.

By about 1270, a wealthy elite emerged at Great Zimbabwe, which laid the foundations of an elaborate urban complex and the centre of a state. From about 1300 stone buildings of a scale and magnitude unparalleled on the entire Zimbabwe plateau were constructed. For the next 150 years, Great Zimbabwe became the most dominant political authority south of the Zambezi.

Great Zimbabwe reached its peak during the 14th and 15th centuries when elaborate stonewalling was extended towards outlying areas. Stonewalls symbolised wealth, prestige and status.

With a population of about 18000, Great Zimbabwe was more than an oversised African village. At its fluorescence, it was the largest metropolis in southern Africa. Composed of elite residences, ritual centers, public forums, markets, houses of commoners and artisans, it covered more than 700 hectares.

The first stonewalls complex was raised on a whaleback hill. Here, two large enclosures and intervening smaller enclosures abut from the natural granite boulders and define the living spaces for royalty. A ritual spearhead, iron gongs and soapstone bird effigies attest to the presence of a ruling elite.

Commoner settlements within a perimeter wall at the base of the hill soon became overcrowded, triggering further expansion beyond. Royalty also moved downhill to the more elaborate elliptical enclosure. The largest single stone-built structure in southern Africa, it has a girdle wall 244m long, 5m wide and 10m high. It encloses sub-enclosures and parallel passages inside with a conical tower marking the focus of the settlement.

This massive structure represents the peak of development of Great Zimbabwe. Five enclosure complexes to the northeast and east were built in the valley this time, but rose to prominence towards the terminal phases of the settlement. A second perimeter wall attests to the continuously growing city. Stone enclosures in the periphery either housed members of the ruling family, or catered for increased administrative functions of the metropolis.

Historical process based on Karanga political succession and territorial control may explain the development of Great Zimbabwe as a city and centre of a state. It was organised around a principal lineage, associated with the city itself and sites beyond. A sacred leadership presided over a well-defined political and settlement hierarchy.

Each Dzimbabwe had impressive stone-built monumental architecture, specialised in domestic crafts, trade in gold, ivory, cloth and glass beads with the Indian Ocean coast, and attached importance to cattle and grain farming.

Great Zimbabwe rulers exercised political control as far as the Save River to the east and the Shashe-Tuli rivers in present-day Botswana to the west. Covering an area half the size of modern Zimbabwe, its influence was felt over much of the region including the Indian Ocean Swahili coast.

The state was sustained by subsistence agriculture, livestock management, and through the domination of trade networks over a large portion of the plateau as an adjunct to its connection with the Swahili towns on the Indian Ocean coast.

Dzimbabwe beyond the borders of the state in non-Karanga territory such as those located at the eastern edge of the Suwa Pan in eastern Botswana and Manyikeni on the Mozambican Coastal Plains should represent further royal expansion taking advantage of lucrative regional trade, at the expense of Great Zimbabwe itself. This commerce involved gold, copper, iron, salt, wild game cattle and grain.

Expansion into non-Karanga territory overshadowed the centre, and 16th century historical sources indicate that rival chiefdoms arose in the peripheral areas of the state following this development.
Decline, 1450-1550

The decline of Great Zimbabwe as a centre of a powerful prehistoric state remains an unresolved archaeological problem. This is largely due to the unsystematic investigations of late 19th century European antiquarians and prospectors, who destroyed its stratigraphy and looted it in search of Near-Eastern artifacts and gold.

Systematic research from the 1950s onwards has resolved its chronology and the Karanga identity of its authors. Great Zimbabwe was abandoned by the middle of the 15th century. The shift in the gold trade from the south-central regions towards the northern Zimbabwe plateau is one possibility.

The development of Ingombe Ilede, a trading emporium on the Zambezi, posed serious challenges to Great Zimbabwe, which until then controlled the hinterland gold trade channeled into the interior through Sofala. Since then, the Zambezi River became the preferred inland route. Great Zimbabwe’s expansionary thrusts to control the gold trade undermined its political control over the plateau as this spawned new states elsewhere.

With the demise of Great Zimbabwe, two competing polities emerged in the northern and western areas of the plateau. Khami, Danangombe, Zinjanja and Naletale are elaborately decorated Dzimbabwe of the Torwa-Changamire states (1450-1830) which dominated the southwestern acacia and mopane woodlands.

The Changamire dynasty successfully stemmed Portuguese advance on the plateau during the 18th century, but was subdued by the Nguni during the 1830s. The Mutapa state controlled the fertile and auriferous northern plateau margins near Mt Fura, as indicated by stonewalled Dzimbabwe at Zvongombe, Ngome, Chomagora, and Ruanga, and non-stone walled centers such as Baranda.

It lost the plateau to Portuguese conquistadores during the 17th century, but continued the stone building canon further north on the Zambezi Escarpment and adjacent basin. It was finally defeated by Portuguese prazo (estate) holders in the late 19th century.