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12.14: Great Zimbabwe

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    72291
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    Learning Objective

    • Explain the social structure, unique aspects, and decline of Great Zimbabwe

    Key Points

    • Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the southeastern hills of today’s Zimbabwe. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument began in the 11th century and continued until the 15th century.
    • David Beach believes that the city and its state, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, flourished from 1200 to 1500, although a somewhat earlier date for its demise is implied by a description transmitted in the early 1500s to João de Barros. Its growth has been linked to the decline of Mapungubwe from around 1300, due to climatic change or the greater availability of gold in the hinterland of Great Zimbabwe.
    • Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a center for trading, with a trade network linked to Kilwa Kisiwani and extending as far as China. This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory. The rulers of Zimbabwe brought artistic and stone masonry traditions from Mapungubwe. The construction of elaborate stone buildings and walls reached its apex in the kingdom.
    • Causes suggested for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the city of Great Zimbabwe have included 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.
    • In the early 11th century, people from the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in Southern Africa are believed to have settled on the Zimbabwe plateau. There, they would establish the Kingdom of Zimbabwe around 1220.
    • Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe established his dynasty at Chitakochangonya Hill, and the land he conquered would become the Kingdom of Mutapa. Within a generation, Mutapa eclipsed Great Zimbabwe. By 1450, the capital and most of the kingdom had been abandoned.

    Terms

    Kingdom of Zimbabwe

    A medieval (c. 1220–1450) kingdom located in modern-day Zimbabwe. Its capital, Great Zimbabwe, is the largest stone structure in precolonial Southern Africa.

    Great Zimbabwe

    A ruined city in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument began in the 11th century and continued until the 15th century. It is believed to have served as a royal palace for the local monarch. As such, it would have been used as the seat of political power.

    Shona

    A group of Bantu people in Zimbabwe and some neighboring countries. The main part of them is divided into five major clans and adjacent to some people of very similar culture and languages. They
    created empires and states on the Zimbabwe plateau. These states include the Kingdom of Zimbabwe (12th–16th century), the Torwa State, and the Munhumutapa states.

    Mapungubwe

    A pre-colonial state in Southern Africa located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, south of Great Zimbabwe. It was the first stage in a development that would culminate in the creation of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe in the 13th century and with gold trading links to Rhapta and Kilwa Kisiwani on the African east coast. It lasted about 80 years, and at its height its population was about 5,000 people.

    Introduction

    Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the southeastern hills of today’s Zimbabwe. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument began in the 11th century and continued until the 15th century. The exact identity of the Great Zimbabwe builders is at present unknown. Local traditions recorded in the 18th and 19th centuries assert that the stoneworks were constructed by the early Lemba. However, the most popular modern archaeological theory is that the edifices were erected by the ancestral Shona.

    Origins and Growth

    Construction of the stone buildings started in the 11th century and continued for over 300 years. The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are some of the oldest and largest structures in Southern Africa; they are the second oldest after nearby Mapungubwe in South Africa. The most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, makes it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. David Beach believes that the city and its state, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, flourished from 1200 to 1500, although a somewhat earlier date for its demise is implied by a description transmitted in the early 1500s to João de Barros. Its growth has been linked to the decline of Mapungubwe from around 1300, due to climatic change or the greater availability of gold in the hinterland of Great Zimbabwe. At its peak, estimates are that Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants. The ruins that survive are built entirely of stone, and they span 730 ha (1,800 acres).

    Economy

    Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a center for trading, with a trade network linked to Kilwa Kisiwani (the historic center of the Kilwa Sultanate; off the southern coast of present-day Tanzania in eastern Africa)and extending as far as China. This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory. Some estimates indicate that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground. That international commerce was in addition to the local agricultural trade, in which cattle were especially important. The large cattle herd that supplied the city moved seasonally and was managed by the court. Archaeological evidence also suggests a high degree of social stratification, with poorer residents living outside of the city. Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads, and other non-local items have been excavated. Despite these strong international trade links, there is no evidence to suggest exchange of architectural concepts between Great Zimbabwe and other centers such as Kilwa Kisiwani.

    image
    A tower of Great Zimbabwe Great Zimbabwe is notable for its advanced masonry techniques. The ruins form three distinct architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. The Hill Complex is the oldest, and was occupied from the 9th to 13th centuries. The Great Enclosure was occupied from the 13th to 15th centuries, and the Valley Complex from the 14th to 16th centuries.

    Kingdom of Zimbabwe

    The Kingdom of Zimbabwe, of which Great Zimbabwe was the capital, existed between circa 1220 and 1450 in modern-day Zimbabwe. Although it was formally established during the medieval period, archaeological excavations suggest that state formation here was considerably more ancient. In the early 11th century, people from the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in Southern Africa are believed to have settled on the Zimbabwe plateau. There, they would establish the Kingdom of Zimbabwe around 1220. Sixteenth-century records left by the explorer João de Barros indicate that Great Zimbabwe appears to have still been inhabited as recently as the early 1500s.

    The rulers of Zimbabwe brought artistic and stone masonry traditions from Mapungubwe. The construction of elaborate stone buildings and walls reached its apex in the kingdom. The kingdom taxed other rulers throughout the region. It was composed of over 150 tributaries headquartered in their own minor zimbabwes (stone structures). The Kingdom controlled the ivory and gold trade from the interior to the southeastern coast of Africa. Asian and Arabic goods could be found in abundance. The Great Zimbabwe people mined minerals like gold, copper, and iron. They also kept livestock.

    Decline of the State and the City

    Causes suggested for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the city of Great Zimbabwe have included 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.Around 1430, prince Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe traveled north in search of salt among the Shona-Tavara. He defeated the Tonga and Tavara with his army and established his dynasty at Chitakochangonya Hill. The land he conquered would become the Kingdom of Mutapa. Within a generation, Mutapa eclipsed Great Zimbabwe as the economic and political power in Zimbabwe. By 1450, the capital and most of the kingdom had been abandoned.

    The end of the kingdom resulted in a fragmentation of proto-Shona power. Two bases emerged along a north-south axis. In the north, the Kingdom of Mutapa carried on and even improved upon Zimbabwe’s administrative structure. It did not carry on the stone masonry tradition to the extent of its predecessor. In the south, the Kingdom of Butua was established as a smaller but nearly identical version of Zimbabwe. Both states were eventually absorbed into the largest and most powerful of the Kalanga states, the Rozwi Empire.

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