The Story of Africa


- Great Zimbabwe


- Kongo


- Trade


- Portugese intervention in the West


- Portugese intervention in the East

Great Zimbabwe


Enduring legacy

Zimbabwe ruins
The monument of Great Zimbabwe is the most famous stone building in southern Africa. Located over 150 miles from Harare, it stands 1,100 km above sea level on the Harare Plateau in the Shashe-Limpopo basin. It is thought to have been built over a long period, beginning in 1200 and ending in 1450.

Who were they?

Not everyone agrees who the rulers of Great Zimbabwe were; but there is evidence that they were the Karanga, a branch of the Shona-speaking people. The pottery the Karanga make is very similar to that found in Great Zimbabwe.

There is also a theory that the people of Great Zimbabwe may be descended from a community which lived on the site of Leopards Kopje, less than a hundred miles away from Great Zimbabwe, near present day Bulawayo. The remains of a prosperous iron age society, dependent for its wealth on cattle, have been discovered there.

African origins denied
"When African nationalists were demanding independence in the 1960s, the Smith regime actually sanctioned historians to write a fake history on the origins of Great Zimbabwe, denying its African origins.

This was not different from the accounts of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century antiquarians, which linked Great Zimbabwe with Phoenicia, with Saban Arabs, with the Egyptians and the rest of the near East. We would call that, in the scholarly world, 'antiquarian revisionism' - trying to use old values to support a wrong cause altogether."
- Dr. Innocent Pikirayi, lecturer in history and archaeology, University of Zimbabwe.



In terms of political power and cultural influence, the archaeological evidence indicates Great Zimbabwe covered a huge area between the Limpopo River and the Zambezi River, spilling out into Mozambique and Botswana, as well as the Transvaal area of northern South Africa.


The Great Zimbabwe monument is built out of granite which is the parent rock of the region - i.e. it predominates locally. The building method used was dry-stone walling, demanding a high level of masonry expertise. Some of the site is built round natural rock formations. The actual structure comprises a huge enclosing wall some 20 metres high.

Inside there are concentric passageways, along with a number of enclosures. One of these is thought to be a royal enclosure. Large quantities of gold and ceremonial battle axes, along with other objects have been found there.

There is also what is thought to be a gold workshop, and a shrine which is still regarded as sacred today.


The wealth of Great Zimbabwe lay in cattle production and gold. There are a number of mines to the west of Great Zimbabwe, about 40 kilometres away. One theory is that the rulers of Great Zimbabwe did not have direct control over the gold mines, but rather managed the trade in it, buying up huge quantities in exchange for cattle.

The evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe was at the centre of an international commercial system, which on the continent of Africa, encompassed settlements on the East African Coast such as Kilwa, Malindi and Mogadishu. But this trade network also extended to towns in the Gulf, in western parts of India, and even went as far as China.


There are several theories about the decline of Great Zimbabwe. One is environmental: that a combination of overgrazing and drought caused the soil on the Zimbabwe Plateau to become exhausted. It is estimated that between 5,000 to 30,000 people lived on and around the site. A decline in land productivity would easily have led to famine.

The other explanation is that the people of Great Zimbabwe had to move in order to maximise their exploitation of the gold trade network. By 1500 the site of Great Zimbabwe was abandoned. Its people had moved in two directions: North to establish the Mutapa state and South to establish the Torwa state.

After Great Zimbabwe

"The Mutapa rulers continued the tradition of building structures in stone, similar to Great Zimbabwe, although considerably smaller in size. The Torwa state was established in south west Zimbabwe around the same time as Mutapa. The capital of the Torwa state was Khami.

The Torwa were defeated during the 1640s in a civil war. From this period onwards we begin to hear about the Changamire Rozvi. They built their elaborate capital at Danangombe, in the middle part of Zimbabwe. This state was brought to an end by the Nguni during the 1830s, but before that the Rozvi had already broken up into several smaller groups.

The Nambya established themselves near Victoria Falls, and their capital was probably Bumbuzi. The other Rozvi groups dispersed over most of the Zimbabwe Plateau.

The most notable group of them all established its authority on the Venda people in the Zoutpansberg mountains in South Africa. Their capital was at Dzata."
- Dr. Innocent Pikarayi, lecturer at University of Zimbabwe

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