Pre-colonial Great Zimbabwe vs post-colonial Zimbabwe


By K.T. Chipunza

AS an archaeologist, I have always wondered if Zimbabweans know that the territorial boundaries of medieval Zimbabwe (13th/14th century) extended far beyond the present colonial boundaries. The boundaries of the Great Zimbabwe civilisation as indicated by the distribution of stonewall settlement structures, extended across the Limpopo covering northern Transvaal (sites such as Mapungumbwe and Thulamela are examples) to eastern Botswana encroaching the fringes of the Kalahari Desert (many sites including Domboshava are such examples) and extended to the Indian Ocean seaboard where Manyikeni and Sofala were important gateways to worldwide commerce. The modern Zimbabwe nation state had its origins in 12th century Great Zimbabwe, which had its capital at Great Zimbabwe with a network of over 350 related royal towns fashioned after it. The nation state had been fully developed by 1450AD which time Mutapa embarked on a full military expansion that gave rise to the Munhumutapa Empire. It is this empire that the Europeans had to contend with and dismantle to give way to the present (smaller) Zimbabwe. Architecture Great Zimbabwe was a robust architectural society. They built Great Zimbabwe, the largest built structure south of the pyramids. It is the largest singular, longest surviving dry stone edifice in the world now enlisted as a world heritage site. Indeed, medieval Great Zimbabwe was bigger than contemporary London both in terms of architectural sophistication and urban population. At its peak Great Zimbabwe had an urban population of 20 000 inhabitants. The site was capital city to more than 350 other related sites covering the whole of modernday Zimbabwe and spilling over into eastern Botswana, northern South Africa and Mozambique. The architectural ingenuity of dry stone walling (building without the use of mortar) and use of natural ground (without prepared foundations) remains an engineering puzzle for the modern construction industry. At Great Zimbabwe 11m high walls have been constructed on hill slope gradients of more than 45o and endured for more than a thousand years. Engineering precisions of tapering walls conform to mechanical standards of rigidity. The drainage systems at these structures especially at Zinjanja near Gweru are profound and modern architects will have to study them for a lifetime. The retaining platforms at Khami, the decorated walls of Nalatale, the maze of Nxalanxala and many more such examples all make Great Zimbabwe the home of architecture. Modern day Zimbabwean architecture is all an imitation of colonial Victorian architecture and the New York concrete block building, lacking in imagination and sophistication, and non-responsive to the environment. Whereas we should be leaders in architecture, the first school of architecture only came after the establishment of NUST University and still fails to inspire home-grown designs. Only a few buildings — the Kingdom Hotel in Vic Falls, the Reserve Bank building in Harare, the Control Tower at the Harare International Airport and The Lodge in the ancient city in Masvingo — pay tribute to Zimbabwe’s architectural greatness. There is need to remind Zimbabweans that colonial cities and towns and especially provincial capitals are built next to ancient capitals. For example, Harare (Chivero), Marondera (Tsindi), Gweru (Danamombe & Nalatale), Masvingo (Great Zimbabwe), Bulawayo (Khami), Mutare (Songo in Mozambique), to mention but a few. Thus the colonial city planning system inherited from the Great Zimbabwe planning and even the road network system follows the traditional trade and link routes which had been established to connect these ancient royal capitals. Many engineers and architects from across the world come to Zimbabwe to study the pre-colonial Great Zimbabwe architecture yet we continue to reproduce monotonous Western architecture and this is an architectural misinheritance. Mining The Zimbabwe mining legacy dates back to medieval Great Zimbabwe. The Munhumutapa Empire had command on and exploited not less than 4 000 gold and 500 copper mines spread across the country. The milling and purification of gold and copper was carried out close to the extraction sites. The gold processing and purification standards achieved then were extremely high. As part of value addition process, gold was made into articles of jewellery and used to decorate articles such as knife handles, ceremonial axe handles and other articles of religion. Archaeological evidence for such domestic use of gold is abundant at Great Zimbabwe and related sites. But, most importantly, gold and copper were major items of trade, first along the Limpopo to Sofala on the sea and later along the Zambezi to Beira on the Indian Ocean. The shift of the capital from Great Zimbabwe to Pfura in northern Zimbabwe was Mutapa’s grand strategy to control gold trade which had migrated northwards due to the coming of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Thus Great Zimbabwe did not collapse as everyone is made to believe. It continued to be a religious capital when Pfura became the commercial capital. Apart from gold mining, pre-colonial Great Zimbabwe recorded tremendous achievements in the field of metallurgy. Zimbabweans then could alloy copper and tin to make bronze to almost exact modern metallurgical proportions. Iron ore processing graduated from individual bellow-driven furnaces to industrial natural draught furnaces as evidenced at the Chigaramboni iron smelting fields near modern-day Bondolfi Teachers’ Training College. Iron forging technology that produced complete hoes without any welding was developed around the Wedza. The mining industry of today has a lot to learn from precolonial Great Zimbabwe and all colonial mining prospecting has to acknowledge that it was guided by pre-colonial workings. Modern Zimbabwe’s failure to ride on this great mining heritage is indeed a mis-inheritance. Religion, Law and Justice Pre-colonial Great Zimbabwe had a well developed Mwari religion that cemented the state system and guided the administration of justice. The Mwari was one if not the only African monotheic religion. It gave reverence to only one god and had a hierarchy of priests starting at the family level. Family spirit mediums were subservient to regional spirit mediums (mhondoro) who in turn answered to territorial priests (makombwe) such Nehanda and Mukwati. The religion had its own prophets such as Chaminuka. So strong and profound was this religion that early missionaries had to adapt to it (for example the Roman Catholic Church), in order to bribe converts. The spiritual hierarchy had a significant role in the judiciary and acted as an electoral college in the event of a leadership dispute. Religion, state and justice were inter-fused and not falsely separated as in modern state systems. It is because of this advanced religious system that Nehanda, Kaguvi and Mukwati found themselves taking a leading role in the First Chimurenga. The expansive Munhumutapa Empire thrived as a religious confederacy that gave independence of worship and freedom of local tribal cohesion. The pre-colonial Great Zimbabwe justice system was anchored on the principle of retribution and open jury court system. Retribution ensured compensation of the aggrieved and the open jury court ensured full public participation in the dispensation of justice. In contrast to precolonial Great Zimbabwe, post-colonial Zimbabwe has mis-inherited the Roman Dutch law which emphasises on the systems of fines (which benefits the state) and punishment which only helps to harden criminals. Education The pre-colonial Great Zimbabwe education system emphasised on entrepreneurship and empowerment and produced artisans, engineers, architects, leaders, craft persons of all trades including sculptors. The first graduate was Munhumutapa’s son who got his degree in India and unfortunately did not come back to Zimbabwe and has direct descendants still living in Goa, India. Post-colonial Zimbabwe education, though rated number one in Africa, has largely produced workers and labourers, who have failed to take advantage of the postcolonial opportunities and continue to aspire to be workers instead of being job creators and employers. This is a direct result of mis-inheritance of a colonial servitude education system. Commerce The pre-colonial Great Zimbabwe commerce started as early as 11th century AD with Mapungubwe trading ivory along the Limpopo River to the sea. This introduced Zimbabwe to world commerce which expanded with the growth of the Zimbabwe civilisation. Indian and Persian articles of pottery and Chinese blue on white porcelain of the Ming dynasty litter archaeological finds from Great Zimbabwe. It is the Chinese blue on white porcelain that has been used to date the later occupation phases of Great Zimbabwe. Intra-regional trade with neighbouring states is evidenced with exchange of copper ingots from as far as Katanga in the DRC and Ingombe Illede in Zambia. Volumes of articles of exchange and commerce form the bulk of the archaeological artefacts of Great Zimbabwe. In its later days the Munhumutapa Empire engaged the Portuguese first in commerce and later as competitors. The pre-colonial Great Zimbabwe was linked to a wider world including the Near and Far East. Post-colonial Zimbabwe mis-inherited restricted trade links with Europe. It is this commercial over-reliance on Europe that has been our undoing with regards to the current economic sanctions. Our Heritage As we debate Zimbabwe’s future we should always think Great Zimbabwe and not limit ourselves to Zimbabwe


  1. wonderful! may you please assist with how reliable sources such as archaeology, oral tradition, etc, were, in the reconstruction of the Zimbabwean pre- colonial states such as Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe, Mutapa and others.





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