History of land in Zim: Part One…civilisation levels linked to agriculture


By Dr Michelina Andreucci

THROUGHOUT the history of man’s civilisation, land has been a primary source of national development.
Though civilisations have different settlement patterns from each other; all, nonetheless, depended on the land and its cultivation for subsistence and survival.
In Zimbabwe, the words: “Simudzai mureza wedu weZimbabwe …yakazvarwa neropa zhinji ramagamba …kubva kuna Zambezi kusvika kuna Limpopo…ngaikomborerwe nyika yeZimbabwe” in the national anthem emphasise the importance of the land to the people and to the essence of life.
Equally, reference to its importance is also made in songs of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle such as in the lines: “…Moyo wangu wazvipira kufira Zimbabwe…Mumakomo nemunzizi ndichararama…”
From the beginning of time, the various human migrations were necessitated by the pursuit of land.
Nomads, Bushmen and hunter-gatherers wandering in search of fresh grazing and water, brought with them their knowledge and expertise to form part of the story of mankind.
The transition began 80 000 to 70 000 years ago between the Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic Period when groups of hunter-gatherers began to specialise by concentrating on selection hunting of game and gathering a smaller range of food.
This required the creation of specialised tools.
Forest gardening along riverbanks and wet foothills was also being undertaken as part of food production in various parts of the world.
In the process of improving the immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected and improved upon.
During the Stone Age, before the arrival of the Bantu people who also migrated southwards, Khoikhoi herders reached the most southern tip of Africa, bringing with them their domesticated animals.
Remains of sheep dating that far back have been found at various sites that attest to it.
Later, adventurers, such as the early Portuguese navigators, discovering new lands to trade with and/or exploit, trailed by pioneering settlers as in colonial Zimbabwe (1890-1980), to form part of the movement of people in search of new lands.
Altogether, 11 separate regions of the Old and New World were recognised sovereign ‘Centres of Origin’ or ‘Cradles of Civilisations’ among the early civilisations that rose simultaneously, yet independently; accomplishing important developments that included the invention of the wheel, writing, mathematics, astronomy and agriculture.
Unprecedented developments in agricultural practices developed in several different parts of the world that included the Middle East, Asia, Mesoamerica and the Andes (South America), including in Africa.
The Aztecs in Mesoamerica (Central America), were active farmers with an agriculturally focused economy.
Over 6 000 years ago, they transformed wild ‘teosinte’, through human selection into the ancestor of Zimbabwe’s staple food today – maize; which according to Dr Tony Monda’s, Patriot article entitled ‘De-husking and reclaiming our African maize heritage’, they called ‘maiz’.
The Aztecs also developed irrigation systems, fertilised their soil, and developed terraced hillside agriculture, much as the early indigenous settlers developed and practiced on the eastern mountain slopes of Nyanga more than 2 000 years ago.
In the pre-dynastic period from the end of the Palaeolithic into the Neolithic period, Neolithic communities in the Fertile Crescent along the lower Nile River laid the foundations for the North African Old Kingdom in Ancient Egypt, a canonical example of early civilisation.
Approximately 10 000-4 000 BC, Egyptians were among the first peoples to practice agriculture on a large scale.
Their staple food crops were grains such as wheat and barley, alongside industrial crops such as flax (for the production of cotton), and papyrus used for writing.
The fertile soil from the Nile’s seasonal flooding made possible the development of basin irrigation that allowed the Egyptians to build an empire on the basis of great agricultural wealth.
Wheat and barley were also the major cereal crops of the Ancient Mediterranean region.
In mainland Ancient Greece, agriculture was hindered by its topography where roughly only 10 percent of the land could be cultivated adequately.
The cultivation of land for food production, including the domestication of plants and animals began independently in different parts of the globe, together with the development and dissemination of techniques for increasing them productively.
By 5000 BC., indigenous rice and sorghum were domesticated in the Sahel region of North Africa, together with kola nut and coffee that were also first domesticated in Africa.
Archaeological evidence in the Indus Valley (Asia) civilisation shows an animal-drawn plough dating back to 2500 BC., as part of man’s early domestication of animals.
The Indus civilisation was also especially important throughout history for the development of irrigation that led to greater production yields.
In North America, the indigenous people developed a system of companion planting (also known as the Three Sisters), whereby three complementary crops were planted together: for example, winter squash, corn (maize) and beans was common.
This, I have also often seen practised in Zimbabwe’s western Mashonaland maize fields.
The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb on, eliminating the need for poles.
The beans provide nitrogen in the soil for the other plants and the squash spreading along the ground help prevent the growth of weeds by blocking the sunlight; the leaves also act as a mulch to prevent moisture evaporation.
A surplus of food, especially grains, enabled people to perform other activities besides that of producing food for a living, that resulted in a more diverse range of human activity and the division of labour; a defining trait of man’s civilisation.
Through the division of labour civilisations developed many other cultural traits which included central Government planning, organised religion, innumerable advances in science and technology and the development of the arts.
Once farmers began using intensive agricultural techniques such as crop rotation, artificial fertilisation and irrigation introduced soon after the Neolithic Revolution, (further developed during the British Agricultural Revolution), grain farming resulted in surplus accumulation and storage of food.
Civilizations based only on horticulture have been rare in history, since it is difficult to store horticultural produce.
Grain surpluses were especially important since grains could be stored for long periods of time — as with the zunde raMambo systems.
In Africa, hunter-gatherers have had access to food surpluses that made relatively large social organisations and the division of labour possible, pre-dating plant and animal domestication.
The assessment of civilisation levels reached by a polity were based on the relative importance of agriculture as opposed to trade or manufacturing capacities, the territorial extensions of its power, the complexity of its division of labour and the carrying capacity of its urban centres, such as the Empire of Munhumutapa (c.1150-1760AD.), who after attaining ascendancy, asserted control over much of south-eastern Africa.
The Munhumutapas of Ancient maDzimbahwe were also well-positioned to control trade routes to the Indian Ocean coast of Sofala in Mozambique, for the export of gold and other resources from their kingdom.
Other elements of a polity’s civilisation included the development of writing, standardised measurement, currency, contractual and tort-based legal systems, architecture, mathematics, art, scientific understanding, metallurgy, political structures organised religion and a developed transportation system.
The power and wealth of ancient maDzimbahwe, was founded partly on its strategic position on the edge of the Central Plateau, and its livestock and farming activities.
Grain and other crops were produced on the middle and high velds, with relatively unpredictable rains; while large cattle herds were tended on the grasslands and mopane woodlands in the lower veld.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field.


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