Support Provided ByLearn More
Ancient WorldsAncient Worlds

Mysteries of Great Zimbabwe

The first whispered reports of a fabulous stone palace in the heart of southern Africa began dribbling into the coastal trading ports of Mozambique in the 16th century. In his 1552 Da Asia, the most complete chronicle of the Portuguese conquests, Joí£o de Barros wrote of "a square fortress, masonry within and without, built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them."

ByPeter TysonNova

De Barros thought the edifice, which he never saw, was Axuma, one of the cities of the Queen of Sheba. Other Portuguese chroniclers of the day linked the rumored fortress with the region's gold trade and decided it must be the biblical Ophir, from which the Queen of Sheba procured gold for the Temple of Solomon.

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

view from Great Zimbabwe
The view from Great Zimbabwe, which Europeans didn't "discover" until the 1870s
Support Provided ByLearn More
© Karen Graham/iStockphoto

A city of stone

This notion persisted for centuries, right up until the monument's 19th-century European "discovery." That distinction fell to a young German named Carl Mauch. In 1871, Mauch, eager to seek for the fabled ruins of Ophir, penetrated deep into what is today southern Zimbabwe. In August, he reached the home of a lone German trader, who told him of "quite large ruins which could never have been built by blacks." On September 5, local Karanga tribesmen led Mauch to the site.

In the midst of a wooded savanna backed by bare granite hills stood a city of stone. Its beautifully coursed walls curved and undulated sinuously over the landscape, blending into the boulder-strewn terrain as if having arisen there naturally. Bearing no mortar, as de Barros had correctly heard, the walls nevertheless reached enormous height, standing as high as 32 feet over the surrounding savanna. Of fully 100 acres of these granite enclosures, not a single one was straight.

Mauch was looking at the greatest pre-Portuguese ruins of sub-Saharan Africa.

modern hut by ancient wall
A modern-day thatch dwelling sits amid ancient walls on the site, which lies in southeastern Zimbabwe.
© Darren Patterson/iStockphoto

Dim view

Unfortunately, Mauch, for all his tenacity, was "no thinker," as Peter Garlake, author of the definitive archeological text on Great Zimbabwe, deemed him. And Mauch only boosted the Portuguese theories of three centuries before. The soapstone and iron relics he uncovered told him that a "civilized [read: white] nation must once have lived there." From a lintel, he cut some wood that he described as reddish, scented, and very like the wood of his pencil. Therefore, he concluded, the wood must be cedar from Lebanon and must have been brought by Phoenicians. And therefore, the Great Enclosure—the edifice's most impressive structure, which local Karanga called Mumbahuru, "the house of the great woman"—must have been built by the Queen of Sheba.

Mauch was looking at the greatest pre-Portuguese ruins of sub-Saharan Africa.

As it turns out, Mauch's description of the wood aptly characterizes the African sandalwood, a local hardwood that later visitors also found in the walls of the Great Enclosure. But no one would know that for years.

In the meantime, Mauch's line of reasoning, distinguished as it was by the most purblind logic, perfectly suited Cecil Rhodes, whose British South Africa Company (BSA) occupied Mashonaland in 1890. (Mashonaland lies just to the north of Great Zimbabwe.) Inextricably steeped in his native country's racist views, Rhodes bought into Mauch's take without a second thought. Indeed, on Rhodes' first visit to the site, local Karanga chiefs were told that "the Great Master" had come to see "the ancient temple which once upon a time belonged to white men."

wall height
The highest of Great Zimbabwe's walls stand three stories tall.
Cicada Films

Ignoring the obvious

Eager to nail down the edifice's exotic origins once and for all, Rhodes and his BSA quickly sponsored an investigation of Great Zimbabwe. They hired one J. Theodore Bent, whose only claim to expertise lay in an antiquarian interest born of travels through the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. Bent adhered just as tenaciously as Rhodes to the notion of the city's non-black origin, though to his credit he didn't automatically swallow the link to the Queen of Sheba. (As he set to work at Great Zimbabwe, he later recalled, "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.")

All the artifacts Bent subsequently uncovered screamed "indigenous." Pottery sherds and spindle whorls; spearheads of iron, bronze, and copper; axes, adzes, and hoes; and gold-working equipment such as tuyères and crucibles—all were very similar to household objects used by the local Karanga. Yet Bent, clearly incapable of following where the evidence might lead him, concluded ("a little lamely and nebulously," notes Garlake) that "a prehistoric race built the ruins ... a northern race coming from Arabia ... closely akin to the Phoenician and Egyptian ... and eventually developing into the more civilized races of the ancient world."

All artifacts that Bent turned up pointed to an indigenous origin of Great Zimbabwe and its builders, but he would have none of it.
Cicada Films

"Reckless blundering"

Bent was amateurish and narrow-minded but not utterly incompetent. The same could not be said of Richard Nicklin Hall, a local journalist and author of The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia. In what would prove to be one of the most sickeningly misguided assignments in the history of archeological preservation, the BSA appointed Hall Curator of Great Zimbabwe, with a mandate to undertake "not scientific research but the preservation of the building."

Instead, Hall, hell-bent on finally settling the issue of its origins, launched into a full-scale "archeological" investigation. Claiming he was removing the "filth and decadence of the Kaffir occupation," he scoured the site for signs of its white builders, discarding from three to 12 feet of stratified archeological deposits throughout Great Zimbabwe. An archeologist who visited the site shortly after Hall left deemed his fieldwork "reckless blundering ... worse than anything I have ever seen."

Great Zimbabwe was home in its heyday to some 12,000 to 20,000 people.

Word eventually got back to the BSA of Hall's desecration of southern Africa's greatest archeological treasure, and he was dismissed. But the damage had been done. "Hall's disastrous activities left only vestiges of archeological deposits within the walls," wrote Garlake in his book Great Zimbabwe, "a paucity that was to inhibit all future scientific work."

eroded wall
David Randall-MacIver, the first archeologist to study Great Zimbabwe, declared it unequivocally of African origin.
Cicada Films

Archeology begins

Contrite, the BSA hired archeologist David Randall-MacIver, protégé of the great Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, to investigate the site. Hall's polar opposite in almost every way, Randall-MacIver quickly concluded that former mud dwellings within the stone enclosures "are unquestionably African in every detail and belong to a period which is fixed by foreign imports as, in general, medieval."

While MacIver's careful work set the stage for the sound archeological inquiry of Great Zimbabwe, racial prejudice surrounded the monument until quite recently. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the edifice grew into a potent symbol of the African Nationalist movement, the white government of Rhodesia set about suppressing the findings of prehistorians who claimed that Africans had built Great Zimbabwe. (Garlake, for one, was forced out of the country.) But those problems went away when Zimbabwe, as the country is known today, achieved majority rule two decades ago, and now we can look at Great Zimbabwe free of racial overtones.

"Venerated houses"

Many believe that "Zimbabwe" is a contraction of the Shona phrase dzimba dza mabwe, "houses of stone." (The Shona are Bantu people of Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique.) Garlake, for his part, feels the word more likely derives from dzimba woye, "venerated houses," a term usually reserved for chiefs' houses or graves.

Either way, archeological investigation has shown that the edifice's monumental walls did once enclose houses. Great Zimbabwe was a city, home in its heyday to some 12,000 to 20,000 people. To this day, daga, a clayey conglomerate of gravel that is Africa's most common indigenous building material, still stains the soil within Great Zimbabwe a robust red color.

While few traces of the mud houses remain, the towering stone walls stand in mute testimony to the city's former greatness. Quarried from the nearby granite hills, the rock used in the walls' construction easily split along fracture planes, giving the stones a cuboidal shape that lent itself to stacking without need of mortar. Ranging from four to 17 feet thick, Great Zimbabwe's walls are about twice as high as they are wide. This results in a very sturdy structure, which spreads its pressure evenly over the ground and adjusts well to subsidence. When two walls meet, they abut eachother with unbroken vertical joints; there are no interlocking stones. In the finest walls, workers knapped and dressed the stones so well that the coursing is as smooth as a modern brick wall.

Whites did not build Great Zimbabwe, blacks did, and this fact only deepens the sense of mystery.

The Great Enclosure is the largest single prehistoric structure south of the Sahara. Looking from the air like a giant gray bracelet, its elliptical Outer Wall is more than 800 feet long and contains an estimated 182,000 cubic feet of stone, more than in all the site's other ruins combined. Garlake believes the Great Enclosure, which encircles a series of smaller stone walls and a Conical Tower shaped like a stone beehive, was likely a royal residence.

Conical Tower
Archeologists have determined that the Conical Tower is completely solid. Its original purpose remains unknown.
Cicada Films

Rise and fall

While the site was occupied in ancient times—iron was in use there by the third century A.D.—its rise to prominence, and the advent of the finest walls, occurred in the 14th and 15th centuries during a florescence in trade. Great Zimbabwe happened to lie right on the route between the region's gold-producing regions and ports such as Sofala on the Mozambique coast, where merchants traded African gold and ivory for beads, cloth, and other goods from Arabia and farther east. The site may also have been a religious center, as evidenced by stone monoliths and "altars" found throughout the site, along with enigmatic soapstone birds and figures that, says Garlake, "point to the important role of ritual and symbol in the art and architecture of Great Zimbabwe."

By the mid-15th century, however, the balance of trade had shifted to the north. Local resources had also apparently dwindled to dangerously low levels from overuse, and salt was scarce. Whatever the cause, Great Zimbabwe's people abandoned their once-glorious stone city, leaving the site a ruin that Mauch found 400 years later inhabited by local Karanga people who had no idea of its history.

Professor Mathiva
The Lemba, including their spiritual leader Professor Matshaya Mathiva (seen here), believe their ancestors erected Great Zimbabwe.
Cicada Films

Unsolved mysteries

Despite decades of study, mysteries still cling to Great Zimbabwe like ivy. How did its residents manage to monopolize trade in the area? To what degree was it a religious center? Why was it abandoned? Even the question that, as Garlake said about the site itself, "has given rise to such strong, widespread, and often bizarre emotional responses"—who built it?—has been only partly answered.

To wit: Which Africans built it? Many tribes, including the Shona and Venda, maintain that their ancestors were responsible for Great Zimbabwe, but the Lemba are "particularly insistent," says University of London scholar Tudor Parfitt. "They claim that one of their clans, the Tovakare, were the actual builders of Zimbabwe," Parfitt says. "They even call them Tovakare Muzimbabwe, which means 'the ones that built Zimbabwe.'"

Certain evidence appears to support the Lemba claim. For instance, unlike other Bantu tribes, who bury their dead in a crouched posture, the Lemba bury theirs in an extended position, as did the ancient Zimbabweans. One of the strongest pieces of evidence concerns trade, Parfitt says. "Great Zimbabwe was a civilization that was constructed very largely on wealth generated from cattle and trade. And given that for hundreds of years we know the Lemba were the great traders of southern Africa, it seems almost certain that their ancestors would have been involved in this trading nexus between Great Zimbabwe and the Indian Ocean."

"The mystery of Zimbabwe is the mystery which lies in the still pulsating heart of native Africa."

If the Lemba contention is true, does this mean that outsiders—that is, not native Africans—built Great Zimbabwe? After all, the Lemba have Semitic origins (see Tudor Parfitt's Remarkable Quest). The answer is no, because by the time Great Zimbabwe was built in medieval times, the Lemba had become decidedly African, having so thoroughly intermixed with Bantu Africans over many hundreds of years that today, among other African traits, the Lemba have dark skin and speak a Bantu language.

Indeed, the more contentious part of that question "who built it?" has finally been put to rest almost 450 years after Joí£o de Barros and others first propounded it. Whites did not build Great Zimbabwe, blacks did, and this fact only deepens the sense of mystery enveloping the site. As archeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson declared back in 1931:

Examination of all the existing evidence, gathered from every quarter, still can produce not one single item that is not in accordance with the claim of Bantu origin and medieval date. The interest in Zimbabwe and the allied ruins should, on this account, to all educated people be enhanced a hundred-fold; it enriches, not impoverishes, our wonderment at their remarkable achievement ... for the mystery of Zimbabwe is the mystery which lies in the still pulsating heart of native Africa.

Editor's Notes

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Lost Tribes of Israel.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the NOVA Science Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers.