Nyanga’s Ziwa ruins

This week we look at the Ziwa Ruins in Nyanga’s chief Saunyama area in Manicaland province. Ziwa Ruins lie on the Ziwa farm formerly called the Van Niekerk Ruins which was previously owned by Fredrick Bernard and his family. Fortunately Fredrick and his family developed an avid interest in the pre-history of the area and in particular the remains of the ancient settlement on their farm. In May 1946 Fredrick generously donated 3337 hectares of land which included the Nyahokwe Ruins and Ziwa Ruins and many surrounding agricultural terraces to the National Museum and Monuments of Rhodesia.

The inhabitants of the Ziwa Ruin area are believed to have pursued a sound economy which was vibrant, self-sustaining and efficient based on agriculture. Agricultural production was largely based on mixed farming involving both crop production and animal husbandry.  Crop cultivation mainly involved growing of millet, sorghum and rapoko.  Animal husbandry concentrated on the rearing of a rare breed of small cattle, sheep, goats and other small livestock were also reared and must have roamed the pasturelands, valleys and the plains of the Ziwa. Ziwa people were also involved in hand craft manufacturing and remains of such artefacts are abundant from archaeological excavations. Iron smelting; pottery making, weaving, hunting, gathering and fishing among others were other the sectors of economic organization and development at Ziwa.

The Nyanga complex was shaped by the high rainfalls, geology, topography, climate, vegetation and the good soils. These factors prove beyond doubt that the growth and development of the Ziwa ruins complex rested on a favourable climatic environment. Agriculture was thus the backbone of the economy of the Saunyama people and this was supplemented by hunting and gathering, manufacturing, fishing and trading. Ziwa people were prosperous and self-reliant subsistent farmers as well as manufacturers and traders. Thus, the whole complex of the Ziwa ruins represents an agricultural society of industrious farmers and stock raisers whose culture developed about 1500 AD to sometimes in the late 18th century

It is intriguing  to identify WHO built the terraces and WHEN the ruins were constructed and WHY such enormous labour was expended on terracing the stony slopes and escarpments when there was plenty of land on the plateaux and in the lowlands which could be far more easily exploited by the inhabitants during the period of 1500- 1800AD. Terraces were defensive forts and were constructed around the 900 AD -1100AD. Radio carbon dating postulated the AD1200-AD1300.  Thus the paper will adopt radio carbon dating as the correct dates for occupation by the Saunyama dynasty at the Ziwa ruins.  

Oral traditions and archaeological evidence exposed that there are no indications of any major migrations or population replacement, so we must attribute the complex to relatively recent ancestors, even though little direct memory of the archaeological remains seems to be preserved. The core area of the complex north of Nyanga town falls within the territory of the Unyama people under Chief Saunyama. There appears to have been little basic change in the distribution of these political units for several centuries and the genealogies of their ruling dynasties extend at least well back into the 18th century in the case of the Saunyama and considerably further for others”.

Fertile environment and position of the slopes prompted the reasons for terrace construction.  However, some scholars speculated that, the Saunyama people were forced into an unfavourable environment of a defensive reaction to stronger antagonistic neighbours. This line of argument might be understandable for the highlands and the escarpments but it hardly applies to the low hills in the plains, which in no sense could provide a secure refugee. Hence it is quite plausible convincing that the Unyama people knew the technique of conservation the environment so they opted terracing to so as to arrest erosion. 

Terraces were also a means of maintaining water percolation hence promoting agricultural prosperity. This hypothesis supports the reasons why Saunyama people spent their enormous labour and energies on exploiting the stony environment.

The socio-political developments at Ziwa site complex was shaped by the growth, expansion and development of sound and efficient economic activities. Mainly the socio-political structures were governed and determined by the use of pottery by Saunyama people. Important to note is the population distribution at the site complex in a way to deduce the socio-political organisation of the Saunyama people. The Saunyama society constituted about 5000 Saunyama in the late 19th century.[1] The point depicts a picture testifying that the community was relatively small. Thus the small population density was responsible for executing duties oriented towards development and expansion. Oral source exposed it that, social stratification existed at Ziwa ruins. Evidence of burial practise at Ziwa site complex testified that the Ziwa people buried their deceased counterparts. Excavations at the ruins exposed that the dead were buried within the homesteads which was then abandoned. Thus, the people were civilised as they knew the concept of burring the dead. Pottery making played central role in the socio-political life of the Saunyama people. The type and style of pottery excavated at the Ziwa ruins helped to explain who the inhabitants of the Ziwa ruins were. Pottery making ensured practise of rain making ceremony and the installation of Saunyama chiefs. Pottery making ensured rainfall.  Rains were needed annually for the people and their livestock to survive as they largely depended on agricultural produces, willingly or unwillingly proper-rainmaking ceremonies characterised by use of traditional rain making utensils that include pottery have to be carried out each and every year as a survival strategy otherwise failure to do so results in drought. This mean that, rainfall was adequate in the region to sustain the livelihood of the Unyama since their society was agricultural based. Politically, the installation of the Saunyama chiefs was governed by the use of ritualistic vessels. Basically the vessel ‘hari youbaba’ amongst all vessels produced in the society was regarded as the most significant and thus shaping the politics of the Saunyama people. Therefore, the Saunyama culture and politics were governed by the use of pottery by the indigenous people.

In fact, the society of the Saunyama flourished and survived in a modest way over a period of 600 years by successive adaptions to varied environment. Interestingly to note is the drought factor that affected both structures although in different years and context emanating from different angles resulting in the decline of both complexes. The decrease in annual rainfall greatly affected the Nyanga agricultural economy that integrated crop cultivation and animal husbandry and other viable and lucrative economic activities that in the long run determines the smooth flow of the socio-political landscape. The struggle to and factionalism destroyed the Saunyama community resulting in the murder of chief Muozi. Also secessionist tendencies rocked the Unyama people complex which had the negative impact of draining the human resources that were the potential builders of economic growth. External factors also played a role in bringing the Ziwa ruins complex in a wage of turmoil and total collapse by the end of the 18th century.

By Leon Chigwanda- Leon is a Researcher at Great Zimbabwe University.

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