Great Zimbabwe Research Paper

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The state of Great Zimbabwe flourished circa 1290 to 1450 in southern Africa. The ruins of its capital, which was built from massive walls of stone, reflect the grandeur and exquisite workmanship of the original. The state was ruled by a small political elite that also controlled networks in the Indian Ocean trading economy as an exporter of gold.

Visitors to the ruins of the former capital of Great Zimbabwe, a state that flourished in southern Africa from approximately 1290 to 1450, may be struck by two observations. First, the impressive stone structures emerging from the savanna still convey the former wealth and importance of the site. In the local language, Shona, zimbabwe means “houses built of stone,” and there are many zimbabwe in the region, in particular in the area bounded by the Limpopo River in the south and the Zambezi River in the north. Great Zimbabwe thus represents a prominent example of political power and architecture; in fact it was the largest stone structure in Africa south of the Sahara built before European colonization in the late nineteenth century. While having only extended across a fraction of what today is the national territory, its legacy is so important that in 1980 the newly independent country was named Zimbabwe, and the image of an artifact, the stone-carved Zimbabwe bird, of which eight were found at the site, became part of the national flag.

Second, a visitor not too familiar with the history of Great Zimbabwe is likely to be surprised by the artifacts exhibited at the museum on site. These range from locally produced tools to luxury items from the Indian Ocean rim, such as glass beads from India and porcelain from China. Despite Great Zimbabwe’s location several weeks’ march by foot from the coast, the political centralization that led to its formation was based on its links with the Indian Ocean economy, exporting gold in exchange for cotton cloth and luxury items.


Great Zimbabwe’s cultural achievements, wealth, and economic success, expressed in its stone architecture, so gravely contradict prejudiced notions of the African past that since the 1870s, a range of European travelers, archaeologists, and historians, have attributed them to outsiders. In particular, the white-settler regime during the colonial period (1890–1980) claimed that some allegedly superior civilization, such as the ancient Egyptians or the Phoenicians, must have been responsible. Ironically, however, already in the early twentieth century, archaeologists had proved that local Shona-speaking people had built the city.

As is the case elsewhere with agricultural societies, the origins of Great Zimbabwe as a centralized political state lie in its participation in long-distance trade networks, which generated sufficient wealth to sustain a political elite in a highly stratified society. Its rich gold deposits made the region so attractive to Swahili-speaking traders from the East African coast that in the thirteenth century caravan routes were established with Kilwa in East Africa, which became Great Zimbabwe’s most important trade partner on the Indian Ocean rim. Great Zimbabwe was thus incorporated into the Indian Ocean economy, exchanging precious metals, especially gold and from the fourteenth century also copper, for cotton cloth and luxury items. The political elite controlled the long-distance commerce by taxing traders and through its networks of patron-client relationships with miners and agriculturalists. These networks rested upon the redistribution of accumulated wealth, particularly in the form of cattle. The unusually high population density at the capital city and division of labor within the state depended on sustainable agriculture. A shared religion manifest in ancestral worship and reverence of a high god contributed to political unity, which was further cemented through the authority of a king, advised by a group of male elders.

The City

Importantly, as the Zimbabwean historian Innocent Pikirayi points out, the capital of Great Zimbabwe was not merely a large village, but indeed a metropolis. Different population strata lived in close proximity, and the layout as well as architecture expressed power relations. In contrast to zimbabwe elsewhere, where the walls functioned as defense structures, here they served to mark the city’s three distinct areas. There is a hill complex, an elevation of granite rocks with steep slopes. On top, surrounded by a wall, were the living quarters of the king and his court. Interestingly, there is no water source inside this structure. Thus, while access to this hilltop could easily be controlled by a few guards, it could not have withstood a siege for any significant period of time. At the bottom of the hill complex is the so-called great enclosure, where members of the political elite and traders, or as some historians suggest, the royal women, used to live. Today, most of the surrounding high wall, more than five meters tall, is still in place, with a massive stone tower inside. The religious or political purpose of this tower is debated. Between the hill complex and the great enclosure and beyond extends a valley, where the agriculturalists lived in the open savannah. All houses were at the time round huts constructed of mud and wattle. It is safe to assume that the city thus represented the wealth and power of the state, unifying its inhabitants while at the same time reasserting social stratification.


Two factors contributed to the decline of Great Zimbabwe in the fifteenth century. Most significantly, its elite lost control over the gold trade to competing states, especially to Munhumutapa further to the north, which rose to power in the mid-fifteenth century. Subsequently, the caravan routes were relocated and the region was cut off from the Indian Ocean trade. Secondly, the relatively high population density in an area with only one annual rainy season eventually caused much environmental stress. At Great Zimbabwe’s peak up to 18,000 people lived in the city, extending over an area of approximately 720 hectares. Once the state could sustain its elite no longer, the city lost its purpose. Out-migration occurred, and political decentralization eventually led to the fragmentation of the state into small-scale local communities and the rise of states elsewhere in the region.


As a city built of stone, with a small political elite deriving its power from controlling the state’s incorporation into the Indian Ocean economy through the export of gold, Great Zimbabwe represents common patterns of state building in the region between the tenth and nineteenth centuries. Great Zimbabwe’s decline was typical for agricultural societies elsewhere, deriving from the ecological crisis caused by population concentration and its marginalization from long-distance trade. However, unique in the region is that the layout and the architecture of the city did not appear to have served defense purposes at all and instead were an expression and re-inscription of power relations between population groups.


  1. Beach, D. (1980). The Shona and Zimbabwe, 900–1850: An outline of Shona history. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press.
  2. Beach, D. (1994). The Shona and their neighbours. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.
  3. Beach, D. (1998). Cognitive archaeology and imaginary history at Great Zimbabwe. Current Anthropology, 39(1), 47–72.
  4. Carroll, S. T. (1988). Solomonic legend. The Muslims and the Great Zimbabwe. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 21(2), 233–247.
  5. Garlake, P. (1973). Great Zimbabwe. New York: Thames & Hudson.
  6. Garlake, P. (1982). Great Zimbabwe: Described and explained. Harare, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe Publishing House.
  7. Huffman, T. N. (1996). Snakes and crocodiles: Power and symbolism in ancient Zimbabwe. Johannesburg, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press.
  8. Mudenge, S. (1988). A political history of Munhumutapa c. 1400– 1902. London: James Currey.
  9. Pikirayi, I. (2001). The Zimbabwe culture: Origins and decline in southern Zambezian states. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.
  10. Pwiti, G. (Ed.). (1997). Caves, monuments, and texts: Zimbabwean archaeology today (Studies in African Archaeology No. 14). Uppsala, Sweden: Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University.

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