By Professor Kenneth P. Vickery, North Carolina State University
Welcome to Great Zimbabwe, a site that flourished in the late Iron Age—the late 1st millennium C.E.—in the savanna grasslands of what is now western Zambia, Zimbabwe, eastern Botswana, and eastern South Africa. Investigate this fascinating culture where societal wealth, complexity, stratification, and commerce began to increase.
The hilltop settlements known as the Toutswe Tradition (the name comes from the largest excavated site in eastern Botswana) illustrate the importance of growth in the cattle population. Cattle were perhaps the supreme measure or store of wealth in this part of the world. Control of cattle was the key to power and wealth, and because cattle were held by males in general, this may have also sharpened the gender divide.
Emerging slightly later was the cultural complex called Leopard’s Kopje, after a site in southwestern Zimbabwe. The word kopje is Afrikaans for hill. Certainly, cattle in this successor cultural complex remained central.
People in this especially dry part of the southern savanna maximized the efficiency of cultivation by the use of stone terracing on hillsides. They also used stone to construct residences and cattle enclosures. The peoples of the Leopard’s Kopje culture mined not only iron but also large quantities of copper and, probably beginning in the 10th century, gold.
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Rulers were, literally, at the top of the hill, living like royalty, in structures made of stone.
At the beginning of the 2nd millennium C.E., the town of Mapungubwe, located around a hill site just south of the Limpopo River in modern-day South Africa, represented the culmination of the Leopard’s Kopje culture and could be styled as the first urban center in southern Africa. The physical evidence, extracted for decades by archaeologists from the University of Pretoria but only now showing up in museums in South Africa, suggests a sharply defined hierarchy. Rulers were, literally, at the top of the hill, living like royalty, in structures made of stone. In the flatter country or the bottom portions of the hill, lived the poorer commoners.
Mapungubwe was clearly connected with the Swahili-dominated east coast. Ivory and gold were traded eastward, and excavations uncovered many glass beads from India and fine Chinese porcelain bowls.
The full flower of these southern developments is seen at Great Zimbabwe, located in the central part of the modern-day country of Zimbabwe. The city of Great Zimbabwe represents the largest stone ruins today in Africa south of the Nile River.
Great Zimbabwe comprises two focal points. There is the so-called hill complex, located on the hill where the kings and the royals resided most of the time, and then the valley complex, which housed the citizens of this town of perhaps 20,000 people. The valley complex also included the most impressive single ruin, the high-walled Great Enclosure.
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The Great Enclosure has an outer wall that runs in an elliptical shape for approximately 700 feet. The greatest space between the edges of the walls is approximately 300 feet across. The walls themselves are 30–35 feet high and sometimes decorated at the top—or, in other cases, even midway—by coursing. Coursing is the word for the layering of stone in decorative patterns. The largest walls at the base are some 15 feet thick, solid throughout; there’s no cavity in them, although they taper upward and, therefore, narrow as they reach the top. This is the largest single structure by a considerable margin in pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.
The Great Enclosure, with its passageways, stairs, and inner chamber surrounding the so-called Conical Tower, 30 feet high and approximately 20 feet wide at its base, was likely the political and indeed the religious focal point of the nation. Archaeologists speculated that at certain moments (harvest festivals, religious rites, etc.), the kings probably descended from the hill complex and carried out these practices inside the Great Enclosure and most likely around the Conical Tower.
The Walls of Great Zimbabwe
Millions of blocks of stone went into the walls of Great Zimbabwe. It must have taken many years, certainly decades, to complete it. It was accomplished by about the year 1300 or so. The granite outcrops in this part of southern Africa have fissure lines or fracture plains—created over eons by a constant alternation of exposure to the bright and warm sun, and very cold nights, because they are situated on a plateau at an elevation of 4,000 feet or so.
The walls are dry-stacked; that is, there is no mortar used in the construction of Great Zimbabwe in these millions of blocks.
With the builders’ addition of heat to these granite outcrops, it was possible to, in a sense, peel off the granite in more or less flattish layers. At that point, the builders were able to cut and finally shape the individual granite blocks with iron tools. None of this was possible until iron became part of African life.
The walls are dry-stacked; that is, there is no mortar used in the construction of Great Zimbabwe in these millions of blocks. The fact that they are still standing predominantly 700 years or so later suggests that there was considerable skill on the part of the dry-stack masons.
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Inside the Great Enclosure
Archaeologists believe that the largest buildings here were designed primarily to convey the power and the prestige of the rulers, almost by cloaking them behind these walls and imposing or imparting an air of secrecy. When you visit this place, it certainly does emit this aura of mystery. European architecture long ago became quite concerned with the straight line, the sharp corner, and the right-angle corner. But there are no corners at Great Zimbabwe, only constant gentle curves and ellipses. Often, particularly in the hill complex, the constructions of the humans are, in essence, blended into and make use of the actual granite outcrops themselves, creating a combination of the human injection of construction with what was put there by nature.
If you go inside the Great Enclosure and down a passageway that lies between the outer wall and an immediately parallel inner one, it will lead you for 200 or 300 feet into a kind of inner sanctum of the Conical Tower. It’s quite an experience. First of all, because it’s such a narrow passage, the sun very rarely hits it. You walk in there and suddenly the temperature is about 10 degrees cooler. It begins at probably about eight feet wide, but it continually shrinks and narrows so that by the time you finally see the tower in front of you—the speculation is that this would have been the center of the religious-political life of the nation—the passageway is barely as wide as your shoulders.
Great Zimbabwe was well situated to take advantage of both the high-country pasturage and the low-country pasturage, or in southern African terminology, the high-veld and low-veld. In the much drier winter months, you could move cattle down into the lower country and take advantage of still-flowing rivers and pasturage there.
Discoveries at Great Zimbabwe
There’s no question that we see an enormous multiplication in wealth, as measured by the presence and the possession of cattle. There is some interesting evidence that comes from this of what we might call the royal, or at least the elite, lifestyle. In the 1960s and 1970s, some excavators intentionally began to collect fragments of animal bones to try to gather clues about Great Zimbabwe. They collected approximately 140,000 pieces, and they conducted a fairly detailed examination of no less than 20,000 or so of them. Of the 20,000, all but 263 of them—far more than 99 percent—were cattle bones.
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…There was a very regular slaughter of cattle to provide beef for the consumption of an elite.
But something more interesting occurred here. Eighty percent or so of these cattle had apparently been slaughtered at the ages of approximately 24–30 months. That is the prime time for beef, and it suggests that there was a very regular slaughter of cattle to provide beef for the consumption of an elite. To an ordinary African cultivator long ago or today, living cattle are too valuable for one to conduct regular slaughter. In the case of the capital of a major state and its elite, that was not necessarily the case.
Great Zimbabwe was even better placed than Mapungubwe to export gold and ivory to the east coast. The ruins have yielded many samples—by far the most of any single site—of prestige goods brought in from India, Persia, and China. There are glazed Persian bowls with inscriptions on them from the 13th and 14th centuries, as well as Chinese porcelain, celadon ware, and glass beads from India and the Near East.
There was homegrown treasure as well, perhaps above all, the carved stone birds that represented the oracle of the king. There is some evidence of divine or semidivine kingship. There were probably 8–10 of these birds, sculptures roughly six feet high. Unfortunately, most of them were looted when outsiders first reached this city about a century ago. After independence in 1980, quite a number of them were recovered and brought back to the museum by the ruins. These stone-carved birds—the so-called Shiri ya Mwari, or bird of God—have become the modern symbol of the nation of Zimbabwe and appear on their flag.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Great Zimbabwe was abandoned rather suddenly sometime around 1500.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Great Zimbabwe was abandoned rather suddenly sometime around 1500. Experts have ruled out evidence of invasion and have generally turned to ecological explanations such as exhaustion of local resources, particularly timber. There’s some speculation that perhaps a human disease epidemic or a cattle epizootic may have led to the abandonment.
However, the kingdom that Great Zimbabwe anchored was clearly the prototype for a series of successor states built by Zimbabwe’s Shona peoples, the largest single ethnic group in Zimbabwe, past and present. The last of these successor states, like Torwa or Mutapa, survived to the 19th century.
The capitals of these later states, although not as large, were constructed in stone in a similar style. In some cases, they were even more intricate. The word zimbabwe with a lowercase z represents the generic term that translates literally as “house of stone,” but generally carries the connotation of “royal court.” Sometimes it is simply translated as capital. At Naletali, there is a zimbabwe on top of a very high hill. It is beautifully decorated with several examples of the chevron styles and alternating coloration of stone at various stages in the coursing. There’s some speculation it may have been a sort of summer getaway for the old royalty because of the coolness of the very high hill.
Great Zimbabwe is not unique. It’s simply the largest of some 200 of these zimbabwe that are found today all through Zimbabwe, in the western parts of Mozambique, in the eastern parts of Botswana, and the northern parts of South Africa. In this part of the world, people built in stone whenever it was available.
Common Questions about the Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe is an important civilization. During the Iron Age, Great Zimbabwe was a major empire known for agriculture and its trade in gold.
The Shona people are the largest ethnic group in the region and are responsible for building Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe was a prototype empire and the first of many successor states the Shona would build.
Great Zimbabwe has major significance today. As an empire, Great Zimbabwe is fascinating in its own right. The archaeological records reveal a thriving civilization, yet one that is seldom learned about in world history surveys.
Great Zimbabwe’s fall is a mystery. All that is known for certain is that the kingdom was abandoned suddenly around the year 1500. Experts have suggested environmental or ecological changes in the region are the cause for the fall of Great Zimbabwe.