1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Zimbabwe

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Zimbabwe, a Bantu name, probably derived from the two words zimba (“houses”) and mabgi (“stones”), given to certain ruins in South-East Africa. Its use is not confined to Southern Rhodesia and should not properly be restricted to any one particular site. For, as the medieval Portuguese stated, it is merely a generic term for the capital of any considerable chief, and it has been applied even by them to several distinct places. From about 1550 onwards the Zimbabwe generally referred to by Portuguese writers was at a spot a little north of the Afur district, not far from the Zambezi. There is some reason, however, to suppose that before this the capital of the Monomotapa was situated much farther south, and it may plausibly be identified with the most extensive ruins as yet known, viz. those near Victoria (Mashonaland) to which popular usage has now attached par excellence the name of Zimbabwe.

These ruins were discovered by Adam Renders in 1868 and explored by Karl Mauch in 1871. They became well known to English readers from J. T. Bent’s account of the Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, but the popularity of that work disseminated a romance concerning their age and origin which was only dispelled when scientific investigations undertaken in 1905 showed it to be wholly without historical warrant. Even before this it had been clear to archaeologists and ethnologists that there was no evidence to support the popular theory that Zimbabwe had been built in very ancient days by some Oriental people. Swan’s measurements, which had misled Bent into accepting a chronology based on a supposed orientation of the “temple,” had been shown to be inexact. There was no authentic instance of any inscription having been found there or elsewhere in Rhodesia. Numerous objects had been discovered in the course of excavations, but not one of them could be recognized as more than a few centuries old, while those that were not demonstrably foreign imports were of African type.

The explorations conducted in 1905 added positive evidence. For it was proved that the medieval objects were found in such positions as to be necessarily contemporaneous with the foundation of the buildings, and that there was no superposition of periods of any date whatsoever. Finally from a comparative study of several ruins it was established that the plan and construction of Zimbabwe are by no means unique, and that this site only differs from others in Rhodesia in respect of the great dimensions and the massiveness of its individual buildings. It may confidently be dated to a period not earlier than the 14th or 15th century A.D., and attributed to the same Bantu people the remains of whose stone-fenced kraals are found at so many places between the Limpopo and the Zambezi.

There are three distinct though connected groups of ruins at Zimbabwe, which are commonly known as the “Elliptical Temple,” the “Acropolis” and the “Valley Ruins.” The most famous is the first, which is doubly misnamed, since it is not a temple and its contour is too unsymraetrical to be described properly as elliptical. It is an irregular enclosure over 800 ft. in circumference, with a maximum length of 292 ft. and a maximum breadth of 220 ft., surrounded by a dry-built wall of extraordinary massiveness. This wall is in places over 30 ft. high and 14 ft. wide, but is very erratic in outline and variable in thickness. The most carefully executed part is on the south and south-east, where the wall is decorated by a row of granite monoliths beneath which runs a double line of chevron ornament. The interior has been much destroyed by the ravages of gold-seekers and amateur excavators. Enough, however, remains to show that the scheme was a combination of such a stone kraal as that at Nanatali with the plan of a fort like those found about Inyanga. The only unique feature is the occurrence of a large and a small conical tower at the southern end, which Bent and others considered to be representatives of the human phallus. Their form, however, is not sufficiently characteristic to warrant this identification, though it may be noted that the nearest approximation to phallic worship is found amongst the most typical of African peoples, viz. the Ewe-speaking natives of the West Coast. The floor of the enclosure is constituted as in the other Zimbabwe buildings by a thick bed of cement which extends even outside the main wall. This cement mass is heightened at many places so as to make platforms and supports for huts. Groups of these dwellings are enclosed by subsidiary stone walls so as to form distinct units within the larger precinct.

The “Acropolis” is in some ways more remarkable than the great kraal which has just been described. It is a hill rising 200 to 300 ft. above the valley, fortified with the minutest care and with extraordinary ingenuity. The principles of construction, the use of stone and cement are the same as in the “elliptical” kraal, there is no definite plan, the shape and arrangement of the enclosures being determined solely by the natural features of the ground. Between this and the “elliptical” kraal are the “Valley Ruins,” consisting of smaller buildings which may have been the dwellings of those traders who bartered the gold brought in from distant mines. Zimbabwe was probably the distributing centre for the gold traffic carried on in the middle ages between subjects of the Monomotapa and the Mahommedans of the coast.

Compare also the articles Rhodesia: Archaeology, and Monomotapa.

See D. Randall-MacIver, Mediaeval Rhodesia (London, 1906); Journal of Anthrop. Inst., vol. xxxv.; Geog. Journal (1906); Mauch’s report in Ausland (1872) is now only of bibliographical interest, while Bent’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892) and R. N . Hall’s Great Zimbabwe (1905) are chiefly valuable for their illustrations.[1]

(D. R.-M.)


  1. [In 1909 Hall published another volume, Prehistoric Rhodesia, in which he maintained, in emphatic opposition to Dr MacIver’s conclusions, that the ruins were of ancient date and not the unaided work of Bantu negroes. See the review by Sir Harry Johnston in the Geog. Jnl., Nov. 1909. Ed.]