The famous Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the south-eastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe, a few kilometers from Masvingo town. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the city is believed to have begun in the 11th century and continued until it was abandoned in the 15th century. The marvellous stone structures were erected by the ancestral Shona. It spans an area of 7.22 square kilometres (1,780 acres) which, at its peak, could have housed up to 18,000 people. It is recognised as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
This massive stone structure is believed to have served as a royal palace for the local monarch of the Shona people. As such, it would have been used as the seat of political power. Among the edifice’s most prominent features were its walls, some of which were over five metres high. They were constructed without mortar dry stone.
Historically, it is interesting to note that, the earliest known written work mention of the Great Zimbabwe ruins was in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, captain of the Portuguese garrison of Sofala, on the coast of modern-day Mozambique, who recorded it as Symbaoe. The first confirmed visits by Europeans were in the late 19th century, with investigations of the site starting in 1871. Later, studies of the monument were controversial in the archaeological world, with political pressure being put upon archaeologists by the government of Rhodesia to deny its construction by native African people. Great Zimbabwe has since been adopted as a national monument by the Zimbabwean government, and the modern independent state was named after it. The word great distinguishes the site from the many hundreds of small ruins, now known as “zimbabwes”, spread across the Zimbabwe Highveld. It is therefore prudent to note that the Great Zimbabwe ruins were constructed by the shona people.
The reasons for the decline of the Great Zimbabwe ruins were closely similar to the reasons for the abandonment of other stone structures in historical Zimbabwe. Economic reasons dominated the abandonment of the site complex. These include ecological factors: the shift of trade from the Limpopo-Sofala area to the Zambezi-Shrine Lake Tanganyika triangle, drought, and decline in population, shift and competition for trade. Political factors played a limited role in the abandonment of the great ruins by the inhabitants. These include succession disputes, incompetent leadership and political oppression. Therefore, it is prudent to consider economic reasons for the abandonment of the Great Zimbabwe Ruins.
The congregation of about thirty thousand inhabitants in such a small valley must have taxed the immediate environment heavily. In the course of time, firewood for fuel, timber for hut construction and other resources must have become increasingly difficult to obtain. It is important to note that, the Great Zimbabwe economy was supported by agriculture that is crop cultivation and animal husbandry. Grazing land for the large numbers of cattle owned by the inhabitants must have become gradually short. Great Zimbabwe state was a subsistence economy based on pastoralism and crop cultivation, it is probable that by the middle of the 15th century AD soil fertility and other natural resources in the vicinity of the site complex become depleted. In particular the establishment of several out posts or Madzimbabwe encouraged further exploration and settlement, which showed that the other part of the plateau were equally attractive. Economic historians, reasoned that in view of the deteriorating environmental factors, the rulers and the people became anxious to look for alternative grazing land in the north and east and also to control the gold producing area around the Mazowe valley and trading routes along the Zambezi valley. Thus had the effect of shifting the centre of gravity to these newly discovered areas resulting in the ultimate decline of the once-famous kingdom.
The shift and competition for trade led to the abandonment of the Great Zimbabwe ruins. Not only was agriculture made difficult because of the environmental degradation, but the lucrative trade would have been threatened by competition from such rivals as the people of Ingombe Ilede who might have become envious of the display of power and prosperity of the Great Zimbabwe people. The competition in trade led to the scarcity of valuable commodities such as salt, gold, ivory and copper resulting in the reduction of the kingdom’s sources of revenues. Exhaustion of gold deposits within Great Zimbabwe ruins economic area weakened the access of the ruling group to the wealthy that was very important to the survival of the kingdom. Beach recorded that, the shift of trade from the Mutirikwe-Save-Limpopo-Sofala area to the Zambezi-Shrine-Lake Tanganyika triangle worsened the situation particularly in view of the greater interest shown by Swahili and later Portuguese traders in the slave trade also known as the black gold. Thus the economic landscape at Great Zimbabwe led, not to the total collapse of the society and the economy but to a new adaptation.
Natural disasters dealt the Great Zimbabwe ruins a blow it never recovered. The decline of the kingdom was probably hastened by the devastating drought, which occurred between the 15429 and 1430, followed by a locust plaque which further destroyed the remaining crops the people had grown. There were ten consecutive droughts between 1465 and 1493, all blamed on the king. The inadequate food supply clearly demonstrated that the society was ravaged by chronic poverty. Food was essential in the growth, expansion and development of the Great Zimbabwe society. People were forced into abject poverty and the only solution was migration to fetch areas of greener pastures were food was available. Migration in search of food to feed the growing population subsequently led to the abandonment of the ruins. Furthermore, to the chronic droughts there were cattle disease which destroyed cattle, locusts and epidemic outbreaks of human diseases due to the inappropriate disposal of human waste. Importantly to note is the fact that, livestock was the mainstay of the Great Zimbabwe economy. Cattle were the property of the Great Zimbabwe ruling oligarchy. Cattle were greatly valued as they produced food in form of meat and milk and skins for clothing. The death of livestock in the society contributed or brought devastating economic impact affecting the socio-economic and political landscape in the dynasty. The Great Zimbabwe population was decimated by the in flakes of epidemics and encouraged the abandonment of the site complex. The population was responsible for the running of the day to day economic activities that shaped the socio-political structures of the society. The decline of the population threatened agriculture that integrated crop cultivation and animal husbandry the mainstay of the Great Zimbabwe economy. Thus the small population found it inappropriate to carry the day to day running of the society thereby encouraged the abandonment of the site complex.
Political forces shaped the decline of the Great Zimbabwe ruins. Incompetent leadership and factionalism hit the society and the shifted the centre of gravity from Great Zimbabwe to the Mazowe valley. By the 1480s the pride and glory of Great Zimbabwe had disappeared, hastened by the rebellious and secessions of Torwa and Changa to be replaced by the Mutapa kingdom. In fact during the reign of King Munembiri Mudadi several ethnic groups like the Venda crossed Limpopo in an attempt to distance themselves from Mudadi’s oppressive and autocracy rule. The death of Munembiri Mudadi saw the Great Zimbabwe state plunged into a succession dispute which was difficult to handle and resolve. The society was affected by the sprawling nature of the kingdom and by the beginning of the 15th century AD and in absence of good means of communication and able leadership, the power of the central authority had become too thinly spread to prevent the decline of the kingdom. Thus a political perspective explains well how the Great Zimbabwe state disintegrated and the final abandonment of the site complex.
Leon Chigwanda is an Economic Historian and Researcher with Great Zimbabwe University.