Zim’s unbridled African horse heritage


IT has for long been believed that horses are foreign to the African continent.  

Many contend they were imported into Zimbabwe by the European colonial settlers in the early 19th Century.

Defined as a domesticated perissodactyl mammal used by man throughout history for riding, transport and draught work, these imperial animals are associated with royalty, state protocols, travel, hunting, warfare, riding, show-jumping and dressage throughout world cultures. 

To demonstrate the longevity of man’s association with horses, Western records show horses were domesticated for the first time by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, around 4500 BC, and were used for both work and war. 

The regal horse has been part of African indigenous agrarian, linguistic, cultural and economic heritage since pre-historic times. 

As more indigenous ranchers, horse safari owners and equestrian riding schools in the northern suburbs of Carrick Creagh, Borrowdale, Domboshava on the outskirts of the capital, Harare, as well as in Ruwa, Beatrice, Trelawney, Chinhoyi and parts of lower Gweru and Matabeleland are rearing horses, I found it essential to deliberate on Zimbabwe’s ancient equus heritage and Africa’s long-standing affiliation with these majestic animals — equus caballus – the horse.

Centuries ago in Zimbabwe, indigenous breeds of wild horses, known as bhiza-sango or hachi remusango in old Korekore Shona, roamed the plains and forests of our ancestors.  

Pre-historic horse breeds such as equus capensis, equus bambata, equus mangwato and equus matobo are known to have inhabited the East and Southern African hemisphere.  

In fact, according to archaeological imagery and dating, Southern Africa boasts some of the oldest horse breeds in the world, dating back to over 10 000 years.

Principally attesting to a Zimbabwean horse heritage are the language, cave paintings and archaeological findings.  

From a linguistic point of view, Zimbabwean Shona language is replete with words that make reference to horses; words such as mahachi and mabhiza, (which both mean horses), are common Shona surnames and totems. 

The words hachi (horse) and bhiza (horse), entered Shona vocabulary long before the incursions of medieval Portuguese explorers, Chinese traders, Swahili merchants, slavery, the infiltrations of Christianity, imperialist and colonial invasions — and thus prove a Shona equestrian historicity and heritage. 

Historically and linguistically, traditional Shona orature, diction, etymon and ethology in Zimbabwe is replete with words that make references to horses, which gives evidence to African indigenous familiarity and knowledge of horses and is a basis for acknowledging our African horse heritage. 

The expression bhiza rinotasviwa — a horse is mounted and ridden — indicates the linguistic history of the horse in Shona culture. 

Similarly, the expression: Kare majoni aifamba akatasva mabhiza – refers to the era of colonial subjugation when European settler-forces and police travelled about on horseback to monitor ‘their subjects’ during the early colonial times and also shows our familiarity with horses. 

The phrase kutasva bhiza – which means to saddle up and ride a horse, is used by the mounted police and army cavalry; while the adverb: Kubopa bhiza means to outspan a horse. 

The Jesuit priest, Father D. Dale (sj) author of the Shona/English Dictionary (1981) gives a definition of a horse in the Shona language as: Horse – bhiza/hachi: Mhuka ina makumbo mana, nezenze guru, nomuswe une pfunha ndefu. Inotasviwa nokumhanyiswa, pakuvhima, nepamijahwo, nepakudhonza ngoro kana chikochikari. 

Literary translated the phrase means: “A horse is a four-legged mammal with a mane and long flowing tail, used for riding, hunting, horse racing, trotting and for drawing carts and wagons.” 

The Shona word for bicycle is derived from the horse.  

The word for bicycle is bhizautare in the old Korekore Shona dialect, which means ‘steel-horse’.   

Likewise, a horse stable is known as danga remabhiza. A stallion, an uncastrated male horse, especially one used for breeding, is known as hono rebhiza.  

Such expressions lend weight to our African horse heritage and prove indigenous peoples’ familiarity with horses and horse breeding.  

In the medieval oral history of Nyashanu, Neharawa and Zvimba peoples, who were the rulers of the Five Hills around Mbire, present day Harare and its surrounding environs, including Mashonaland West and North, were known to have owned and reared horses and travelled on horseback prior to the arrival of European colonial settlers. 

The Matemayi, Mahachi, Mabhiza, Goto, Gushungo, Moyo, Save and Shava peoples were also known to be familiar with horses. 

In fact, my own great great-grandfather was renowned for horse keeping and breeding.

Archeological studies carried out in the early 1980s revealed skull fragments, phalanges, tooth fragments and bone shafts of indigenous horse breeds at several stone and Iron Age sites.  These include Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Domboshava, Harava, Khame, Murewha, Mutoko, Nyanga, Zvimba Hills, Chinhoyi, Mutare Altar Site, Epworth, Amathobo (Matopo), areas near southern Matabeleland and north-eastern Botswana. 

In Zimbabwean archaeology, pre-historic rock art visualisations in the Matopo Hill’s area depict equestrian images, referred to in archaeo-zoology as equus capensis – the giant Cape horse, which is believed to have been extinct for at least 9 000 years. 

These ancient horses are said to share the same genetics with some later-day autochthonous descendants of northern and Southern African horse breeds. 

The antecedent horse breeds seen on select pre-historic cave paintings are often mistaken for unmarked zebra or eland.  

But ethnographic research by Frobenius among the San and Khoi people of Tsodilo shed light on the fact that the equus-like images on some caves in Zimbabwe and the Ghanze region of Botswana and other parts Southern Africa, do, in fact, represent a wild indigenous horse breed as equus capensis or equus bambata horse. 

Further testimony to pre-historic horse breeds in Zimbabwe is recorded in a 1996 study by renowned archaeologist Nicholas Walker, entitled The Rock Art of The Matopos —The painted hills.  

The author, who specialised in the Stone Age rock art in Southern Africa, explored the Matopo Hills assisted by two local rangers (John Thokozane and Peter Genge).  

In his study of excavations at Bambata Caves, Walker reveals indisputable evidence that the later Stone Age started in the Matobo Hills some  13 000 years ago, and that some of the rock art imagery alludes to an extinct horse breed he equates to the now extinct, giant Cape horse or equus capensis.

Pursuing this cue, I analysed several animal images of rock paintings in caves around the Matopo’s area which Walker submits could be depictions of the giant Cape horse – equus capensis, and other suggested Zimbabwean pre-historic horse breeds Equus Matopo’s and equus bambata, and concurred with is suppositions and findings. 

Indeed, evident in many Stone and Iron Age rock art friezes are dominant depictions of thick-set savanna horses, often portrayed in isolation from the main imagery; a notable example being the Giant Cape Horse.

Other unexamined rock art sites that may contain more equestrian imagery include the Gulumahwe Cave, Nanke Cave, Njerere, Amadzimba and Buhwe caves in the Matobo Hills.  

All the images in these caves prove that horses were part of indigenous ethnography in the pre-historic rock art of Zimbabwe.

Further artistic indications and visual testimony lies in the images of hornless bovines shown in profile with forward-facing erect ears typical of horses; the extended mandibles, large nostrils and distinctive horse’s tail and mane, which differ anatomically from other hornless animals such as zebra, donkeys and polled cattle, are also in evidence.

While we can speculate about oral narrative and historical evidence of indigenous horse breeds in the land of the Mwenemutapa, the imagery in pre-historic rock art, the familiarity of the indigenous people with horses is quite revealing.  

In reality, rock art reveals the horse as an image of power and prominent place in Shona archaeo-history.

Today, in Zimbabwean visual culture, particularly the modern contemporary Shona stone art of Zimbabwe, several indigenous artists are renowned for their equestrian art. 

These artists include Bernard Matemera, Arthur Fata, Joe Mutasa and Ephraim Chaurika and this writer; whilst metal artists Juliette Coperri, Helen Lieros and Arthur Azevedo all drew on rare equestrian subject matter depicting horse symbolism in their graphics, paintings and sculptures. 

During various interviews with indigenous Zimbabwean horse grooms and equestrian breeders, particularly in the Borrowdale and Umwinsidale areas, I discerned clearly the commitment, passion, pride and pleasure they have for horses and their chosen fields, attesting to our unbridled indigenous horse heritage.

Dr Tony M. Monda is Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and scholar.  He is currently conducting Veterinary Epidemiology, Agronomy and Food Security and Agro-economic research in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa. He holds a PhD, DVM, and a DBA in Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. E-mail tonym.MONDA@gmail.com


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