Mystery of Great Zimbabwe
Randall-MacIver, the first archeologist to study Great Zimbabwe, declared it
unequivocably of African origin, with its heyday in medieval times.
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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
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 at 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
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 "almost certainly a royal residence."
Archeologists have determined that the Conical Tower
is completely solid; its purpose remains unknown.
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
great increase 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.
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
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 Tudor Parfitt. "They claim
that one of their clans, the Tovakare, were the actual builders of Zimbabwe,"
he 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 Lemba, including Professor Mathiva, the
tribe's spiritual leader (above), believe that their ancestors built Great
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 Journey).
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 João 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.
Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.
Photos: Cicada Films
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