The largest and most well known Kingdom of the Iron Age in Africa south of the Sahara is the Great Zimbabwe from which the modern state of Zimbabwe takes its name. It is a complex of dry stone walls, remains of an ancient city that once thrived on the gold rich plateau of Zimbabwe.
The origins of these imposing ruins have been debated for from the time of contact between Europe and Africa. Some sought to see the mystery behind the existence of the ruins while others sought an exotic origin.
I will endeavour to discuss in this article the history of archaeological research or the so called discovery of the ruins, the different theories of their origins and illuminate the African origins as a contribution to the African Renaissance debate.
The Great Zimbabwe ruins are located outside the town of Masvingo that lays approximately 300 kilometres southwest of the capital city Harare. They are a testimony to the ancient Shona civilisation of the 11th to the 15th Century. The ruins cover almost 1,800 acres. This extraordinary Iron Age Kingdom consists of about 50 sites known as Madzimbahwe which means “houses of stone” in the Shona language.
However what is known as the Great Zimbabwe today is the central settlement where the King lived. The others were just regional centre that pledged allegiance to the King. The Great Zimbabwe was finished in the 14th century at which time it could have housed thousands people.
Its influence spread as far east as the Indian Ocean (Mozambique) and west to the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and south to Mapungubwe in South Africa The Great Zimbabwe economy rested mainly on livestock and agriculture with cattle in particular being used for trade purposes. In addition to livestock and crop husbandry the Great Zimbabwe population also engaged in copper and gold smithing, weaving and pottery in some cases there is evidence of specialisation in these trades.
Gold mining became an important source of wealth for the Kingdom especially with the extension of trade networks with the Indian Ocean from about 12th Century AD. The Great Zimbabwe archaeological site (the ruins) present part of the earliest evidence of social stratification in Sub-Saharan Africa. The evidence is encoded in the three main features of the ancient city; The hill complex where the King lived, the great enclosure where the royal wives lived and the buildings in the valley where the commoners lived.
The walls of the Great Zimbabwe ruins are testimony of power and a statement of nobility. They attest to the ability of this kingdom to control labour at a large scale. The Great Zimbabwe is a very powerful place spiritually and that is why the modern day state of Zimbabwe often uses it as a venue for national events such as cleansing ceremonies known as “Bira” inchiShona.
It is a place that fosters national unity as evidenced in recent years by the national galas that took place there. The place is full of symbolism such as the monoliths at the entrance that can be interpreted as “horns” which were symbols of power, justice and defence.
Another very powerful spiritual feature associated with the site is the Zimbabwe birds that are carved out of soap stone. They combine avian and human features. Many interpretations of the birds such as emblems of royal authority representing the ancestors of the Great Zimbabwe rulers have been attempted. The Zimbabwe birds are powerful symbols of rule in the modern day state and they embellish the national flag and currency.
A glance at the history of research at the Great Zimbabwe will cast some light on the misinterpretation of/ miseducation about the site. In studying history it is important to read the texts in their historical context and this could be spatial, stratigraphic or time context. It is critical that we review the time context in which the European explorers came into contact with the great Zimbabwe ruins and shouted “Eureka! I have discovered it.”
The story of discovery of the Great Zimbabwe commences with a German geologist Carl Mauch who reached the ruins in September 1871 (what is usually not told about this story is that he was shown the site by a Shona guide instead he is celebrated as the discoverer just as David Livingstone is famed for “discovering” the Victoria Falls ).
Mauch from the onset believed that the ancient City was built at the instruction of the Queen of Sheba. His based his argument on the existence of what he thought was Lebanese cedar wood that was incorporated into the building. He thought it was Lebanese cedar wood because it smelled just the same as his pencil which was made of the Lebanese cedar wood. It was later confirmed that the wood was actually sandalwood that is indigenous and common in the Great Zimbabwe vicinity.
Mauch’s conclusion that the builders were exotic is intricately connected to the world view at the time which sought for what scholars such as Martin Hall have described as “evidence of stages of barbarism and civilisation and moral justification for colonial settlement in Africa.”
Nineteenth Century view of African history is loaded with evolutionary views of Darwinism. This is not surprising at all if one takes cognisance of the fact that it was consistent with the political and economy of the period.
Africanist historians argue that the colonial expansion of the late Nineteenth Century was closely connected to the theory of social evolution, thus, the colonised people were supposedly a lower branch of the evolutionary tree that needed the help of the “civilised” colonisers.
From the onset of colonial conquest under Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company Great Zimbabwe was perceived as having been built by Phoenicians. Some of the earliest misinterpretations by RN Hall contended that before the Shona people finally occupied the ancient city there were other people of a civilised background. He suggests that it was built by Sabeans and Phoenicians.
In an entirely different context in Namibia the most well known piece of San art was once attributed to the Phoenicians by the Abbé Breuil in the 1940’s. He even called the frieze “the White Lady of the Brandberg”. This myth like that of the Great Zimbabwe was disputed later through a close and thorough scientific study of its features.
Such a settler paradigm attempts to argue that Africa had a glorious past that was characterised by an ancient civilisation that cannot be attributed to the Africans! It provided justification for colonialism.
Margarita Diaz- Andreu once stated that “archaeology is notoriously vulnerable to the ideological pressures of authoritarian regimes.” This is true not only at the time of the advent of colonialism in African but Europe experienced the abuse of archaeology for propagandistic purposes.
A case in point is the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, which witnessed a change in archaeological approach. Data such as spatial distribution of sites that yielded artefacts that were considered to be of German culture automatically became convincing evidence for expansionist aims. If any finds were designated as Germanic, then the land on which they were found was declared German territory –at least an ancient territory.
The same happened in Spain in the 1930’s as well. In the case of the Great Zimbabwe evidence of an earlier European settlement was necessary for justifying colonialism.
Elsewhere in Southern Africa where such tangible evidence was not easily available theories of Bantu migration that suggested that Africans arrived in South Africa at the same time with Jan van Riebeck were used to emphasise that no one had greater claim to land than the other. It was vacant when both groups arrived. It seems that San were not visible enough!
The myth that the Great Zimbabwe was built by non Africans was first dispelled by McCalver who was commissioned by the British Association of the Advancement of Science to excavate the site in 1905. However it was the careful observation of archaeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson in 1929 that finally confirmed MaCalver’s earlier conclusion that it was of an African origin.
Caton Thompson used a classification of pottery found in her excavation pits to show that the builders of the Great Zimbabwe had left pottery that was of African technique and style. Despite the conclusive evidence that Caton Thompson and that a new breed of indigenous Archaeologists (after Independence in 1980) there are still some controversies concerning the origins of the ruins. More recently, Cyril Hronik has argued that there is evidence of Indo-African origins of the Great Zimbabwe.
It appears that despite compelling evidence from the artefacts found at Great Zimbabwe, ethnographic evidence and settlement pattern that point to the Iron Age African origins, the racial prejudice of European explorers continues to capture the imagination of many author’s of tourist guide books.
Evidence for an African origin of the Great Zimbabwe ruins is overwhelming and like the country named after this archaeological site, the evidence is resilient.
Theories against the African origins were manufactured at the advent of colonialism of the territory under Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. In some cases archaeologists were commissioned to produce data that suggested that a “more civilised race” (read European) was responsible for the establishment of the Madzimbahwe.
In at least one case archaeological evidence that suggested to the contrary was destroyed. Any information proving African roots was deliberately suppressed during the Ian Smith Regime (1964-1979).
Today the Great Zimbabwe represents fine evidence of a Bantu civilisation and a Middle Ages centre for trade in Southern and Central Africa and by no means the Capital of the Queen of Sheba. The Great Zimbabwe is not just an archaeological relic that is interesting to foreign tourists. It is a cultural landscape that is replete with cultural, economic and spiritual values on which the local and national community of Zimbabwe survives. It was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1986.