The Great Zimbabwe

Scene: 1531, South Africa. You are the leader of a band of Portuguese traders. At the port of Mozambique you heard tales of an enourmous stone complex which possibly was the palace of the Queen of Sheba. You’re wandering around and all of a sudden you see a set of stairs, you follow them up between two gigantic rocks and see what you describe thusly:

Wherever could this lead?

Wherever could this lead?

“Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers there is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them…. This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms [22 m] high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.”

It turns out that what was stumbled upon in the mid-1500’s, in the middle of one of the most expansive continents, was arguably the most important archaeological find in sub-Saharan Africa. The discovery rocked the world. It was so huge that the country Zimbabwe eventually took its name from the ruins. The ensuing investigation is hands down one of the most mishandled operations conducted, and was riddled with opportunism, racism, and general idiocy, and eventually became a symbol for the colonialist oppression in Rhodesia. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The ruins themselves are expansive. There are over 300 buildings within a 100 mile radius. It is estimated that 18,000 people lived there in its heyday.  It is divided into 3 major sites, with the most impressive being the Great Enclosure, the residence of the king, with walls 36 feet tall, and being almost 830 feet long at its longest. Not only that, but the walls are made out of slabs of granite, with no mortar to hold them together.

Inside the Great Enclosure

Inside the Great Enclosure

Who were these people? Well that’s when things start to get tricky. We know that the height of their civilization was between 1100 and 1450, basically during the high Middle Ages. Portuguese traders frequently traded with them through the port of Mozambique. In addition, items from China and Arabia have been found all over the site. They were truly a civilization driven by international trade. For some reason the site was abandoned around 1450. We really have no idea why, but it could easily be any number of things. Regardless, the fact is that this whole operation was conducted by black people. I say this in jest, but the color of the skin of the inhabitants of Great Zimbabwe was extremely controversial until 1970. I am not even joking.

After its decline, Europe slowly forgot about Great Zimbabwe until 1871 until Carl Mauch found some ruins which “could not have been built by a black man”. In fact this was the line for the next hundred years. Cecil Rhodes was intent that he had discovered a long lost white civilization. Despite the fact that the majority of the artifacts which they pulled from the ground were nearly identical to the tools of the local tribes, the conclusion was that some Phoenicians had come here and set up the greatest civilization ever. This is not a direct quote, but is pretty close.

Later on, a man by the name of Richard Hall, who was charged with preserving the monument, not investigating it for science. Instead he basically dug up the entire site, looking for any evidence that the builders were white. Of his investigation it was said, to be “reckless blundering, worse than anything I have ever seen” and that “Hall’s disasterous activities left only vestiges of archaelogical deposits within the walls, a paucity that was to inhibit future scientific work.” During this time virtually all the artifacts were lost to looters.

Cecil Rhodes: Idiot Racist

Cecil Rhodes: Idiot Racist

The terrible legacy doesn’t stop there. The idea that white guys built Zimbabwe was what everyone thought, until 1929, when Gertrude Canton proved explicitly that Zimbabwe was built by black Africans. This didn’t stop the powers that be. The fact was that at the time, Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia, and was controlled by white colonialists, and they used the Zimbabwe ruins as a propeganda tool. Since whites had had this giant civilization in the middle of Africa, it only follows that they should be in charge now. Obviously, this changed when the power turned over in the 70’s.

Zimbabwe is truly one of those mysteries of prehistory. Here are many of the things we do not know:

-Who, specifically were the inhabitants of the area

-Basically anything about their culture

-Why they abandoned the site

Zimbabwe is a cautionary tale of what happens when we find something new and attack it with preconceived notions. Regardless, the Great Zimbabwe is awesome. Its huge, and its in the middle of nowhere. And it was the seat for a civilization that we know next to nothing about.

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Published in: on July 10, 2009 at 3:38 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. […] occasions where people dug stuff up in good faith, but it turns out they were ruining any hope of further investigation. Not to get too preachy, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Also, […]


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