Retracing the history of maize in Zimbabwe


ACCORDING to Iron Age migration theories, AD 1 is the date the Bantu (Shona) people were naturalised to this country and its surrounding environs.
Over the centuries, they wrought iron implements such as hoes, spears and daggers, they cultivated crops, they threw ornate clay pottery, wove exquisite basketry, hunted, fished, cultivated pharmaceutical herbs, practiced animal husbandry and agriculture, created mystical mbira music, recited highly inventive poetry, sculpted stone and constructed their trademark signature circular dry-stone architecture of Madzimbahwe.
The Bantu were great philosophers, highly religious, musical, sociable, hospitable, scientific and intuitively perceptive of their environment.
The indigenous Shona people were master agriculturalists (hurudza), who grew a selection of crops on the plateau for nearly 2 000 years before the advent of the country’s colonisation in 1890.
Of all the crops, the grain crops were the most important; daily life revolved around their production.
Pre-colonial Zimbabwean history makes an intriguing heritage subject for research.
The non-existence of written records, the variations, permutations and inaccuracies in proven data, facts, time and place inherent in handing down traditional orature and stories, coupled with the weakness of memory in recounting a witnessed event, exaggeration, bias or detraction, depending on the narrator’s tribe, education, orientation or standpoint, the willingness to provide answers thought to be pleasing and agreeable to the European researcher are some of the factors that make indigenous oral research difficult and verification over a period of time imperative for African-centred research.
A custodial approach to Zimbabwean heritage is required.
In this article we will examine the heritage of maize in pre-colonial Zimbabwe.
The memory of our food heritage traverses an expansive landscape.
The types of pre-colonial agro-industries practiced, and our way of life, necessitated a food production culturally-specific to our biological needs, nutritional values, cultural mores and survival.
Although maize is often listed as one of the many pre-colonial cereal crops introduced in Africa by the Portuguese, how and when maize was brought to the south-central region of the continent has not yet been established with certainty from an African-centred point of view.
While early geographical accounts of the introduction and spread of maize in southern Africa was attributed to New World origins, this is a fallacy.
To establish the provenance of maize, one has to disembark the long trail of Eurocentric academic references and biased research, review the pattern of African occupation and begin to study our own material culture and heritage to ascertain the omnipresence of maize in Zimbabwe and Africa.
In early Portuguese records, there is mention of ‘milho zaburro’ as well as in a description of the indigenous cereal crops grown in the West African coast by the Portuguese writer, Valentin Fernandes in 1502.
However, due to the non-scientific description of his finds, it is not certain whether the reference is to maize, millet or sorghum.
Italian historian, Gian Battista Ramcusio refers to maize as ‘miglio zaburro’ in his epic ‘Bel Navigazione Viaggi’ in 1554.
Chibage (maize) is known in many tongues.
It is known to the settler Afrikaaners as ‘mealies’, by others as ‘Indian corn’, and by the Arab world as ‘Turkish wheat’ and by the older racist term of ‘kaffir corn’.
R. Portéres argues maize was introduced to southern Africa from the north, across the Sahara by Arab traders, while other writers hypothesise a Brazilian origin.
In Western Occidental history, many a misnomer of maize has occurred.
Linguistic evidence denotes that maize was once termed ‘Milho Basil’, a corruption of the word ‘Milho Brasil’, meaning Brazilian grain.
On the whole, however, linguistic evidence supporting the introduction of maize by the Portuguese to southern Africa is meagre.
Records from the Gambia, Sao Tome right down to Mombasa in Kenya, Dar-es-Salam in Tanzania, and the Mozambique coast, reveal a slave trade centre for the hinterland of southern and central Africa from 1505 to 1878, over 300 years.
After 1517, when the Slave Trade was at its height and the development of the New World market (Europe and the Americas) had greatly swelled, as well as had the volumes of slaves sold to them, together with the complication of considerably increased distances from the transportation of the slaves, was the issue of health and victuals.
Maize and cassava-manioc meal (madhumbe in Shona) were the more common, cheapest and most commodious diet for indigenous Africans on slave ships.
On the realisation that African people survived on the various maize varieties, the Portuguese, initially, later the British and Americans, found it necessary ‘to provide fodder for their newly-captured slave labourers’ in the form of maize.
The advent of pottery came about with the necessity for the transportation and the storage of the grain, food and liquids, much before the slave trade in southern and eastern Africa.
The creation of the sifting and winnowing basket (rusero) designed to allow the maize weevil and chaff to fall out is a pre-colonial industrial design implement, which came about as a result of the cultivation of maize as a culture.
There are numerous examples of Zimbabwean indigenous artefacts designed specifically for the processing of maize.
One of the most common archaeological finds is what is called the guyo.
The guyo is a domestic innovation that came about due to the availability of abrasive stone suitable for grinding and processing fairly large maize grain kernels produced on the maize cob.
The indigenous food processing, milling or grinding of the maize kernels is known as kugaya.
Samples of what is known as the huyo/chibvokodza (the upper grinding stone) and the guyo (the nether grinding stone) have been found at many, if not all the ancient sites and monuments of Zimbabwe.
In pottery, specially designed pots which were particularly cured and fired to withstand the consistency and heat required to cook sadza or maize-meal porridge were produced throughout Zimbabwe known in Shona as shambakodzi and mvuve.
This pottery was specifically created with thicker coils of quarry clay known as munyakwe/munyaka that could withstand high temperatures; several of which have been found around the hearths of ancient Zimbabwean archaeological workings.
Hence it is through material culture that we are able to resuscitate and identify our cultural diet, ways of life and our indigenous crops, of which maize is integral.
Grain sediment on pottery found at Leopard’s Kopje, Chishawasha, Makumbe Mission, Zvimba, Guruve, Murehwa, Mazowe and Kadoma as well as in the numerous rain shrines, pre-historic cave sites and ancient sites testify to the presence of maize in Zimbabwe prior to colonial white incursions.
Radio carbon-dating of pottery shows maize grain dating back to Munhumutapa’s Zunde raMambo era, roughly dating from the 10th to 15th Century Zimbabwe.
This was a sophisticated centrally-organised granary system, where every household in the Shona dukedoms contributed to a sovereign state granary.
Such a system could not have been created to serve the harvest of small grains as is often alluded to in historical accounts of Zimbabwe’s pre-colonial agriculture.
A series of shallow grooves in rocks, known as cairns, have been found around almost every ancient ruins sites.
Additionally, Dolly holes in granite outcrops and numerous grinding stones (makuyo) have been found during archaeological excavations in the early 1970s, when Rhodesian and British scientists were at their curious best.
On some of these cairns and granite slabs, ground maize sediment has been identified.
It is through the land that we are able to trace the genealogy and history of our people.
In other words, the soil contains the history of our land.
The latter statement alludes to the fact that indigenous archaeology in a Shona
context, informed later generations about the activities of their predecessors.
The pre-colonial paramount chiefs designated areas for maize production which were suitable, and still are suitable, for modern maize production – these are Mazowe, Marondera, central, northern and western Mashonaland; the very places where the Rhodesian farmers were growing maize had been studied by our predecessors, the traditional Shona agronomists.
Linguistic archaeology also reveals that indigenous pre-colonial production of maize is often erroneously attributed to Portuguese settlers who came to live among the Shona, and were said to have introduced the maize crop from about the 16th Century to, “save the ‘new caught, sullen peoples’ of Africa who were ‘half devil and half child’ from starvation and imminent destruction…”
In fact, the Shona words for maize occur in many dialects in Zimbabwe.
The words chibarwe, chibage, chibagwe, miguri and magwere refer to corn-on-the-cob.
These words are as old as the stones of the country.
Linguistic archaeology also reveals the words ‘guri’ meaning cob, and ‘gura’ meaning to divide or break; as one would a cob of maize.
The dried shelled cob is also referred to as ‘guri’ after one has eaten or scraped off the maize kernels.
The construction of the dura in all pre-historic stone ruins testify to the fact that maize was grown at the time when the ruins were built; even today, a barn (hozi) or silo is referred to as ‘dura re chibage’.
Establishing the provenance of Shona maize will require scholars to look at the archaemetry, the establishment of time by means of radio carbon dating that can prove a historically accurate chronological background in pre-colonial Zimbabwe.
Radio carbon dating has been used on various artefacts in the past, mainly on wooden objects.
It is fortuitous that some of these wooden objects created out of hardwoods for the motor and pestle were excavated by colonial archaeologists during the 1970s in Zimbabwe. Obviously colonial scientists missed the maize meal sediment on Zimbabwean cultural artefacts.
Carbon dating is a method primarily for use on archaeological objects that have some carbon in their makeup.
The method relies on the fact that the carbons in the air and tissues of living organisms have a few atoms of what is known as ‘heavy carbon’.
Living organisms (animals and plants which will include in this case, our cultural material) absorb and hold a constant proportion of heavy carbon atoms that allow scientists to date specimens of up to 40 000 years ago.
Objects used to determine the age of maize crops in pre-colonial Zimbabwe will be discovered in clay specimens where residues of a past agro-nutritional culture- characteristic of maize have been found.
Applying the law of radio-active dating gives a datal area of about 300 years.
Indigenous Zimbabweans have erroneously always been associated with the production of small grains that are drought resistant and can withstand the vagaries of the weather.
However, can you imagine an emperor of southern, central and eastern Africa collecting enough small grain to feed the population of this region?
The cultivation of maize in Zimbabwe may go further back in time than has erroneously been assumed by colonial scholars to date.
Further evidence lies in investigations carried out in cave taphonomy where grains and sediment of maize have been found as well as Iron Age tools used in the cultivation of indigenous maize crops.
The implements required for the cultivation, nurturing and processing of maize form an important component of the material culture of Zimbabwe’s indigenous people.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD. in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher.
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