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Wonders: The Shona People


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Photo: elephant sculpture The history and culture of the Shona people is contested and complex. Those who call themselves Shona and speak a Shona dialect inhabit present-day Zimbabwe, southern Zambia, and west-central Mozambique. The exact origin of the Shona is unknown: linguists generally contend that the diversity of dialects indicate a first millennium arrival, while historians usually date the arrival of Shona speakers to the Iron Age. The Shona were most likely the first Bantu-speaking people in the area, displacing the Khoikhoi and possibly some central Sudanic inhabitants. By the 10th century, Shona speakers had become the most numerous people between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, though they were by no means the only inhabitants.

The Shona comprised a mosaic of disparate chieftainships, similar in their languages and livelihoods - based on a combination of agriculture and animal husbandry - but with a diversity of religious beliefs and customs. Although all were patrilineal, their political organization and means of succession varied considerably. Familial and dynastic competition was common, though there were no standing armies and major conflicts were few.

After 1000 A.D., centralized states began to emerge among the Shona. It was not until the 14th century, however, that these empires became distinguishable, as they competed for trade in gold and ivory with Arab and, later, Portuguese merchants. Major empires include Great Zimbabwe, Changamire, Thulamela and Torwa.

In addition, the Shona, with their contested history and varied past, have also adapted to popular culture; "Shona stone sculpture" produced by contemporary Shona artists, for example, has gained international recognition as a fine art form.

Source: Microsoft Encarta Africana. ©1999 Microsoft Corporation. Used with permission.

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