How was Zimbabwe colonized

On the southern edge of the Zimbabwe Plateau, on the watershed of the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, lies the largest and most beautiful ruin that sub-Saharan Africa has to offer (Fig. 1). A distinctive cone-shaped tower, elongated curved stone walls and artifacts of diverse origins bear witness to a once prosperous city, which between the 12th and 17th centuries was likely to have decisively shaped trade and cultural development in this part of Africa. Unique buildings and sculptures - especially enigmatic bird figures made of soapstone - tell of a rich past that still puzzles archaeologists. The state, which was called Rhodesia until its independence from Great Britain, has been named after this historic place since 1980.

Like many ancient cities, Greater Zimbabwe is also shrouded in legend. When Portuguese traders colonized Angola and Mozambique in the 16th century, they heard of a kingdom in the interior of the continent. Their reports aroused covetous dreams in many Europeans of the discovery of the mines of Solomon, because according to the Bible the king had his gold brought from Ophir. The English poet John Milton (1608 to 1674) moved the place in his epic "Paradise Lost" somewhere between the Congo and Angola. The persistent myth of a city populated by Semitic tribes shaped the cultural and historical interpretations of Greater Zimbabwe much later. Above all, he is also responsible for the numerous archaeological ambiguities; Colonialism and sloppy, politically motivated archeology have distorted the true story of this spectacular relic of the early Shona culture and the African Iron Age almost beyond recognition.

An important metropolis

The city originated between 1100 and 1600 AD. Apparently it was not based on a central plan; Rather, it has been repeatedly adapted to its changing importance and population structure over the years. Since similar other plants in this part of the continent - for example Danamombe, Khami, Naletale, Domboshava (in northern Botswana), Manikweni (in Mozambique) and Thulamela (in northern South Africa) - are much smaller, Greater Zimbabwe was probably the most economical one political center of the entire region. It was also on the shortest route between the inland rivers in the north, where gold panning was carried out, and the Indian Ocean; thus its rulers most likely controlled the lively medieval gold trade (Fig. 3).

The property covers a total of 720 acres and comprises three main groups of buildings: the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Minor Valley Ruins. The hill complex - called the Acropolis by Europeans after the Temple Mount of ancient Athens - is the oldest. There is evidence that ranchers or hunters set up camp here as early as the fifth century. On the rocky, 80-meter-high elevation, there is an oval-shaped fortification in a favorable position, which measures around 100 and 45 meters lengthways and across; From here the residents could see early on who was approaching from a distance. In addition, the outer wall, which is almost 11 meters high in some places, offered good protection. Inside - as in the other fences - once stood so-called daga houses, round huts made of the most common building material in Africa: dried earth, clay and gravel.

The most imposing structure of the old city extends below the hill complex: the large enclosure with an elliptical ground plan; it must have been established when Greater Zimbabwe was at the height of its power. The people who lived in this region in the 19th century and spoke Karanga (this most common Shona dialect is still widespread in the southern interior of Zimbabwe) called them Imbahuru, which means "the house of the great woman" or "the great one." House". The surrounding wall is almost 250 meters long and in some places rises almost 10 meters high; an estimated one million stone blocks were needed to build it (Fig. 5). An inner wall runs partially along the outer one and creates a narrow corridor around 55 meters long (Fig. 2e).

The purpose of the great enclosure is unknown; it is believed to have served as a royal palace. Due to phallic structures and notches in the walls, which are supposed to symbolize male or female genitals, some historians believe that the facility was used for initiation rites or other important ceremonies. It is possible that the ruler's numerous wives were also housed here. The large conical tower - over 9 meters high and with a base diameter of 5.5 meters - apparently served no special purpose, but rather had a purely symbolic meaning (Fig. 2a).

In the depression between the hill complex and the large enclosure are the smaller valley ruins. Your walls seem to be the youngest. From this it can be concluded that they only emerged when the population grew and needed more settlement space.

Masterful masonry

Not only is the size of the ruins extraordinary, but also the craftsmanship of the construction. Many of the walls are built from evenly crafted blocks that come from nearby granite rocks. The city's name is derived from the Shona word dzimbahwe, which means "houses made of stone". The granite blocks were joined in layers without mortar to form free-standing curved walls, which are often more than twice as high as they are wide. The round protrusions at the foot of many walls resemble pillars, but have no static function. Its real purpose - obstacles to approach, privacy protection or access control, for example - can only be speculated.

In certain places, the masonry is amazingly sophisticated: rounded steps adorn some entrances, and some wall crowns have been decorated with zigzag patterns (Fig. 2b to d). In addition, the walls are pierced near the ground by holes for drainage and occasionally by a meter wide passages, some of which were once closed at the top with wooden crossbars.

An enigmatic culture

Although we hardly know anything about the inhabitants of this strange city, something can be deduced from the older settlements, which should have been the center of the Shona civilization around the year 1000. The largest of these archaeological sites - they belong to the Mapungubwe culture and are located in the area where the wadi of the mostly dry Shashi flows into the Limpopo - are very similar to Greater Zimbabwe. The former prosperity was apparently based on cattle breeding and the trade in ivory and gold. The Mapungubwe culture apparently extended to the western part of the country, because there, too, one finds a form of pottery that is typical for it, named after the main place of discovery, Leopard's Kopje. With the rise of Greater Zimbabwe, the focus of trade seems to have shifted there, making Mapungubwe less important and eventually abandoned when the younger competitor flourished.

The excavation finds in Greater Zimbabwe did not provide any information about the socio-cultural organization at the time, but they do set the site apart from others in the Iron Age (Fig. 2f). Above all, a group of soapstone birds - many of them a good 35 centimeters high and depicted crouching on one meter high pillars - are stylistically unlike any other sculpture found. Each bird is individually designed and none resembles a living example from this region. (One of them shows the national coat of arms of Zimbabwe.) Because of the veneration of the dead common among today's Shona, in which some tribes use iron bars as symbols of their deceased, some archaeologists suspect that the bird portraits symbolized a gathering of ancestors and served ritual purposes (Fig. 4) .

The fact that Greater Zimbabwe had firmly established itself as a trading metropolis around the 14th century is borne out by goods from all over the world: Syrian glass, pale green plates from China - mostly from the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) - Persian faience bowls, corals , Bronze goblets and an iron spoon (a utility object that the Shona did not use themselves). Blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, which was then widespread from the middle of the 15th century, is completely absent - an indication that the city had lost its economic importance by then. In fact, it finally appears to have been largely empty around 1700.

There are several reasons for this. Towards the end of the 17th century, the sands of the rivers in the north no longer produced gold, and trade in the precious metal shifted to the west. As a result, the city lost its central location; it was no longer a profitable transshipment point. It is also conceivable that the population could no longer be fed. According to some estimates, Great Zimbabwe had between 10,000 and 17,000 inhabitants in its heyday - as many as London in the Middle Ages. (Other estimates are of course more cautious and speak of a maximum of 2000.) Perhaps the area was deserted because of excessive agriculture or huge herds of cattle grazed the land. According to recent environmental studies, a series of drought disasters forced people to flee.

There may also have been other causes, such as wars; however, apart from a few weapons found, there is no evidence of this. Further archaeological excavations in Greater Zimbabwe and other Iron Age sites would be necessary to clarify the question of the causes of the decline.

The abandoned settlement stood empty for around two centuries and was only used for religious ceremonies now and then - as it is nowadays. The first Europeans arrived towards the end of the 19th century, attracted by the vision of King Solomon's gold mines. Unfortunately, this started such a thorough destruction of the archaeological sources that they can hardly be deciphered today.

Looting and Colonial Blindness

The German explorer Karl Gottlieb Mauch (1837 to 1875) was the first to reach the ruined city in 1871. A compatriot, Adam Render, who lived in the tribe of a Karanga chief named Pika, showed him the way. (Render had married two women of the tribe and felt at home among the locals; if he had been aware of the consequences of his actions, he would probably have misled the Swabians.) At the sight of the huge ruins, Mauch knew straight away that Groß -Simbabwe, whether it was Ophir or not, could in no way be the work of Africans: the masonry seemed far too artful for it, the culture too advanced. He saw in it the work of Phoenician or Israelite settlers. Mauch felt that his hasty conclusion was confirmed by the splinters of a wooden door lintel: They smelled like his pencil, so they had to be cedar wood and come from Lebanon.

He was followed by the looter Willy Posselt; he abducted a bird sculpture and hid more to pick it up later. Several "visitors" came to Posselt; some worked for W.G. Neal of the Ancient Ruins Company, founded in 1895. The British colonial politician Cecil Rhodes (1853 to 1902) - founder of the British South Africa Company, influential owner of South African diamond mines and buyer of the Rhodesia named after him - had given Neal the power to exploit all the ruins of the country. So he and his gang plundered Greater Zimbabwe and other Iron Age sites; They gathered up gold and everything else that they hoped to profit from, tore down buildings and threw away what they considered worthless: ceramic shards, vessels, clay figures.

The first official archaeologist in Greater Zimbabwe, the British James Theodore Bent (1852-1897), had added to the mess in 1891 by digging around the conical tower in the great enclosure. In doing so, he completely destroyed the chronological sequence of layers and made any dating impossible for later archaeologists. Bent also threw away clay and metal artefacts, including Persian and Arabic trade pearls, because he considered them insignificant. He concluded that Greater Zimbabwe was built by a local mixed race whose fathers were white conquerors from the north. Like Rhodes and most European settlers, he considered it unthinkable that native Africans had built the city.

In a report published in 1902, Neal and the journalist Richard N. Hall (1853-1941) once again supported Bent's conclusion that the architecture was by no means African, but Phoenician or Arabic. This attitude was symptomatic of colonialism: the continent was regarded as unhistorical and primitive, its natives as immobile, incapable of development and culturally sterile.

Archaeologists who disagreed met with disapproval. In 1905 the Briton David Randall-MacIver (1873-1945) - an Egyptologist and student of the famous William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) - led new excavations in Greater Zimbabwe and discovered objects very similar to those living nearby Tribes of the Karanga speaking Shona used them. By turning to the locals for information about their culture, instead of just using them as cheap labor, Randall-MacIver was doing something unheard of for the time. If other researchers had consulted the oral history of the local population at the time, many of the riddles about Greater Zimbabwe might have been solved.

From the continuity of the artifacts, Randall-MacIver concluded that the settlement was built by people of a similar culture. He also proved that the Arabic and Persian pearls came from the 14th or 15th centuries and thus certainly not from the biblical times of King Solomon. The style of the masonry - curved and not arranged according to geometric or symmetrical patterns - could in no way be Arabic. According to Randall-MacIver, after all that, native Africans must have built Greater Zimbabwe.

Two later researchers - J.F. Schofield in 1926 and Gertrude Caton-Thompson (1888-1985) three years later - agreed. The archaeologist relied on excavations at the intact Maund ruin, which lies opposite the large enclosure at the other end of the valley; through detailed drawings and careful stratigraphy, Gertrude Caton-Thompson laid the foundation for the modest knowledge we have about Greater Zimbabwe.

But in Rhodesia most European settlers did not want to hear of such clues and archaeological evidence. From 1965 until independence in 1980, the Rhodesian Front subjected all information about Greater Zimbabwe to strict censorship; this party, founded by then Prime Minister Ian Smith, sought to prevent Africans from taking power through racial discrimination (apartheid). When archaeologists like the respected expert Peter S. Garlake openly advocated Greater Zimbabwe's native origins, they were arrested and eventually deported. Africans who accepted this view lost their jobs. Even the notice boards at the site itself have been censored; that was hardly of any consequence, because they were written in English and the locals were not allowed to use the area for ceremonies.

Today the old ruined city is a symbol of Africa's cultural independence. Popular science books have made the monument a little more accessible to the people of Zimbabwe. Yet it remains largely inaccessible. Much of its history cannot be reconstructed due to previous archaeological errors. Given the current state of archeology in southern Africa, there is little prospect of change for the better.

Reclaiming the past

The two experts who are currently responsible for the site not only have to look after the preservation of the decaying monument, but also look after the groups of visitors - and on top of that a further 5000 sites (of a total of 35000 registered in Zimbabwe). The ruins are under the protection of the national museums and monuments of Zimbabwe and have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (Spectrum of Science, November 1995, page 38). Yet there are only two conservators in the whole of Zimbabwe and not even ten archaeologists for all of the country's sites.

In other countries in sub-Saharan Africa the situation is no better. According to Pierre de Maret of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, ten sub-Saharan countries spend less than $ 150,000 annually on archeology and there are only twenty trained professionals doing it. On the other hand, African objects are sold abroad for millions of dollars annually.

Inevitably, cultural heritage is lost when monuments decay and artifacts from their countries of origin disappear. The culture of Africa has been fragmented and torn apart during the centuries of colonialism; if the link to the past is to be made and the fragments put together, archeology must occupy a more prominent place in African society in the future. Greater Zimbabwe is not only so important because of its ornate masonry, but because as a symbol of African culture it belongs to those whose ancestors built it. Now it has to be interpreted comprehensively and placed in the broader context of the - still hardly understood - history of Black Africa.


- Zimbabwe: the gold country of the Bible or symbol of African freedom. By Peter S. Garlake. Lübbe publishing house. Bergisch-Gladbach, 1975.
- Zimbabwe. Voyages of discovery into the past. By Heinrich Pleticha. Thienemann, Stuttgart 1985.
- Zimbabwe: A Rhodesian Mystery. By Roger Summers. Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1963.
- The Shona and Zimbabwe, 900-1850. From D.N. Beach. Africana, 1980.
- Dzimbahwe: Life and Politics in the Golden Age, 1100-1500 A.D. By Ken Mufika. Harare Publishing House, 1983.
- Culture and Development in Africa. Edited by Ismail Serageldin and June Taboroff. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / World Bank, 1994.
- Uncovering the Past: A History of Archeology. By William H. Stiebing Jr. Oxford University Press, 1994.

From: Spektrum der Wissenschaft 10/1998, page 74
© Spektrum der Wissenschaft Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

This article is included in Spectrum of Science 10/1998