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Great Zimbabwe

The purpose of this project is to outline the background of the ruins and recorded theories related to their origins. Projects on the people of Zimbabwe are in the pipeline

UNESCO World Heritage Site- adopted as a national monument by the Zimbabwean government, and the old country of Rhodesia/Southern Rhodesia adopted the name Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is the Shona name of the ruins.

Soapstone Birds


Great Zimbabwe's most famous works of art are the eight birds carved of soapstone that were found in its ruins. The birds surmount columns more than a yard tall and are on average sixteen inches tall. The sculptures combine both human and avian elements, substituting human features like lips for a beak and five-toed feet for claws. Excavated at the turn of the century, it is known that six of the sculptures came from the Eastern Enclosure of the Hill complex, but unfortunately their precise arrangement is unknown. Scholars have suggested that the birds served as emblems of royal authority, perhaps representing the ancestors of Great Zimbabwe's rulers. Although their precise significance is still unknown, these sculptures remain powerful symbols of rule in the modern era, adorning the flag of Zimbabwe as national emblems.

Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo. It is believed that building started in the 11th Century and continued over a period of 300 years. Its growth has been linked to the decline of Mapungubwe from around 1300.

It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument by ancestors of the Shona people began in the 11th century and continued until the 14th century. It covers an area of 722 hectares (1,780 acres) which possibly housed up to 18,000 people.

Great Zimbabwe also predates the Khami and Nyanga cultures.

Great Zimbabwe served as a royal palace for the Zimbabwean monarch and would have been the seat of political power.

Some of the walls were over five metres high, constructed without mortar. The city was abandoned around 1450 A.D and fell into ruin, probably due to a decline in trade compared to sites further north, the exhaustion of the gold mines, political instability and famine and water shortages induced by climatic change.

The earliest known written mention of the ruins was in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, captain of the Portuguese garrison of Sofala, who recorded it as Symbaoe. Portuguese traders heard about the remains of the ancient city in the early 16th century, and records survive of interviews and notes made by some of them, linking Great Zimbabwe to gold production and long-distance trade. Two of those accounts mention an inscription above the entrance to Great Zimbabwe, written in characters not known to the Arab merchants who had seen it.

The following description was also received and recorded by João de Barros in the early 1500s:

Symbaoe ... is guarded by a 'nobleman', who has charge of ... some of Benomotapa's wives therein... When, and by whom, these edifices were raised ... there is no record, but they say they are the work of the devil, for .... it does not seem possible to them that they should be the work of man [McCall-Theal, G. (1900). Records of South-eastern Africa. VI (book 10). Capetown: Cape Colony Printers. pp. 264–273.]

The ruins were rediscovered by Adam Render a German-American hunter, prospector and trader during a hunting trip in 1867. In 1871 he showed the ruins to Karl Mauch, a German explorer and geographer of Africa. Carl Mauch recorded the ruins 3 September 1871, and immediately speculated about a possible Biblical association with King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, an explanation which had been suggested by earlier writers such as the Portuguese João dos Santos.

Mauch went so far as to favour a legend that the structures were built to replicate the palace of the Queen of Sheba in Jerusalem, and claimed a wooden lintel at the site must be Lebanese cedar, brought by Phoenicians. The Sheba legend, as promoted by Mauch, became so pervasive in the white settler community as to cause the later scholar J. Theodore Bent to say

The names of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were on everybody's lips, and have become so distasteful to us that we never expect to hear them again without an involuntary shudder [Peter Tyson. "Mystery of Great Zimbabwe". Nova Online. Retrieved 12 January 2010.]

James Theodore Bent (1852-1897) was the first serious researcher of the ruins with Cecil Rhodes's patronage and funding from the Royal Geographical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This, and other excavations undertaken for Rhodes, resulted in a book publication that introduced the ruins to English readers. Bent was assisted by the cartographer and surveyor E. W. M. Swan, who also visited and surveyed many nearby stone ruins. Bent stated in the first edition of his book The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892) that the ruins revealed either the Phoenicians or the Arabs as builders, and he favoured the possibility of great antiquity for the fortress. By the third edition of his book (1902) he was more specific, with his primary theory being "a Semitic race and of Arabian origin" of "strongly commercial" traders living within a client African city.

Other theories on the origin of the ruins, among both white settlers and academics, took a common view that the original buildings were probably not made by sub-Saharan Africans. Bent indulged these theories alongside his Arab theory, to the point where his more tenuous theories had become somewhat discredited by the 1910s.

The first scientific archaeological excavations at the site were undertaken by David Randall-MacIver (1873-1945) for the British Association in 1905–1906. In Medieval Rhodesia, he wrote of the existence in the site of objects that were of Bantu origin. He suggested a wholly medieval date for the walled fortifications and temple. This claim was not immediately accepted, partly due to the relatively short and undermanned period of excavation he was able to undertake.

Studies of the monument were controversial in the archaeological world, with political pressure being put upon archaeologists by the government of Rhodesia to deny its construction by black people.

In mid 1929 Gertrude Caton-Thompson made a twelve day visit with a three-person team. She concluded that the site was indeed created by Bantu. Test pits on the upper terraces of the hill produced a mix of unremarkable pottery and ironwork. Some further test trenches were then put down outside the lower Great Enclosure and in the Valley Ruins, which unearthed domestic ironwork, glass beads, and a gold bracelet.

None of existing evidence is not in accordance with the claim of Bantu origin and medieval date.

Her claim had strong support among some scientific archaeologists due to her modern methods. Her most important contribution was in helping to confirm the theory of a medieval origin for the masonry work of circa the 14th-15th century. By 1931 she had modified her Bantu theory somewhat, allowing for a possible Arabian influence for the towers through the imitation of buildings or art seen at the coastal Arabian trading cities.

Since the 1950s, there has been consensus among archaeologists as to the African origins of Great Zimbabwe. Artefacts and radiocarbon dating indicate settlement in at least the fifth century, with continuous settlement of Great Zimbabwe between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries and the bulk of the finds from the fifteenth century.

Note - projects on Shona and other tribes are to follow.


Archaeologists generally agree that the builders probably spoke one of the Shona languages who were probably descended from the Gokomere culture. The Gokomere culture, an eastern Bantu subgroup, existed in the area from around 500 AD and is believed, from archaeological evidence, to constitute an early phase of the Great Zimbabwe culture. The Gokomere culture likely gave rise to both the modern Mashona people, an ethnic cluster comprising distinct sub-ethnic groups such as the local Karanga clan and the Rozwi culture, which originated as several Shona states. Gokomere-descended groups such as the Shona probably contributed the African component of the ancestry of the Lemba. Gokomere peoples were probably also related to certain nearby early Bantu groups like the Mapungubwe civilisation of neighbouring North eastern South Africa, which is believed to have been an early Venda-speaking culture.

The Lemba

The construction of Great Zimbabwe is also claimed by the Lemba. This ethnic group of Zimbabwe and South Africa has a tradition of ancient Jewish or South Arabian descent through their male line, which is supported by recent DNA studies, [Spurdle AB; Jenkins T. (1996). "The origins of the Lemba "Black Jews" of southern Africa: evidence from p12F2 and other Y-chromosome markers". Am J Hum Genet 59 (5): 1126–33. PMC 1914832. PMID 8900243.] and female ancestry derived from the Karanga subgroup of the Shona. [Hammond Tooke, W.D. (1974 (originally 1937)). The Bantu-speaking peoples of southern Africa. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. pp. 81–84, 115–116. ISBN 0-7100-7748-3.] The Lemba claim was also reported by a William Bolts (in 1777, to the Austrian Habsburg authorities), and by an A.A. Anderson (writing about his travels north of the Limpopo River in the 19th century) — both of whom were told that the stone edifices and the gold mines were constructed by a people known as the BaLemba. [le Roux, Magdel (2003). The Lemba – A Lost Tribe of Israel in Southern Africa?. Pretoria: University of South Africa. pp. 46–47.] Robert Gayre strongly supported the Lemba claim to Great Zimbabwe, proposing that the Shona artefacts found in the ruins were placed there only after the Bantu conquered the area and drove out or absorbed the previous inhabitants. Gayre's thesis is not supported by more recent scholars such as Garlake or Pikirayi.

Tudor Parfitt described Gayre's work as intended to "show that black people had never been capable of building in stone or of governing themselves", although he adds: "The fact that Gayre... got most of his facts wrong, does not in itself vitiate the claims of the Lemba to have been involved in the Great Zimbabwe civilisation." He says that Mufuka, among others, supports the hypothesis of construction by the Lemba or the Venda. [Parfitt, Tudor; Emanuela Trevisan Semi (2002). Judaising movements: studies in the margins of Judaism. Routledge. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-7007-1515-2.]

More recent archaeological work has been carried out by Peter Garlake, who has produced the comprehensive descriptions of the site, David Beach and Thomas Huffman, who have worked on the chronology and development of Great Zimbabwe and Gilbert Pwiti, who has published extensively on trade links. Today, the most recent consensus appears to attribute the construction of Great Zimbabwe to the Shona people. Some evidence also suggests an early influence from the probably Venda speaking peoples of Mapungubwe. //

References and Sources