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Early History of Zimbabwe

The remains of early humans, dating back 500,000 years, have been discovered in present-day Zimbabwe. The first inhabitants of Zimbabwe were probably nomadic, adaptable San groups, gradually absorbed by Khoi-Khoi grazier tribes, and slowly transmuting into a culture known as Khoisan. Archaeologists have found Stone-Age implements and pebble tools in several areas of Zimbabwe, a suggestion of human habitation for many centuries, and the ruins of stone buildings provide evidence of early civilization.


The land's earliest settlers, the Khoisan, date back to 200 B.C. After a period of Bantu domination, the Shona people ruled, followed by the Nguni and Zulu peoples. Bantu-speaking farmers, either Khoisan settlers or Iron Age migrants from the north, were the first occupants of the Great Zimbabwe site in the south of the country. The most impressive of these sites is the "Great Zimbabwe" ruins, after which the country is named, located near Masvingo.

Human history of Southern Africa extends back through the millennia to the first rumblings of humanity on the planet. The first upright-walking 'hominids' established themselves in the savannas of southern and eastern Africa nearly four million years ago. These human-like creatures slowly developed into persons-as-we-know-'em as more sophisticated tools were produced and climatic conditions became more favourable. By the middle Stone Age, which lasted until 20,000 years ago, organised hunting and gathering societies had been established, and by 8000 BC, late Stone Age people occupied rock shelters and caves all over southern Africa.

The plateau between the rivers Zambezi and Limpopo, in southeast Africa, offers rich opportunities for human settlement. Its grasslands make excellent grazing for cattle. The tusks of dead elephants provide an easy basis for a trade in ivory. A seam of gold, running along the highest ridge, shows signs of having been worked in at least four places before 1000 AD.

By the Middle Ages, there was a Bantu civilisation in the region, as evidenced by ruins at Great Zimbabwe and other smaller sites, whose outstanding achievement is a unique dry stone architecture. Around the early 10th century, trade developed with Muslim merchants on the Indian Ocean coast, helping to develop Great Zimbabwe in the 11th century. The state traded gold, ivory, and copper for cloth and glass. It ceased to be the leading Shona state in the mid-15th century. In 1837-8, the Shona were conquered by the Ndebele, who arrived from south of the Limpopo and forced them to pay tribute and concentrate in northern Zimbabwe.

Evidence suggests that these stone structures were built between the 9th and 13th centuries A.D. by indigenous Africans who had established trading contacts with commercial centers on Africa's southeastern coast.

The earliest important trading centre is at Mapungubwe, on the bank of the Limpopo. The settlement is established by a cattle-herding people, whose increasing prosperity leads to the emergence of a sophisticated court and ruling elite.

In 1075 the ruler of Mapungubwe separates his own dwelling from those of his people. He moves his court from the plain to the top of a sandstone hill, where he rules from a palace with imposing stone walls.

It is the first example of the zimbabwe of this region - a word in Shona, the local Bantu language, meaning literally 'stone houses'. Zimbabwe become the characteristic dwellings of chieftains, and about 100 hilltop ruins of this kind survive.

Great Zimbabwe is not close to the local gold seam, but its power derives from controlling the trade in gold. The buildings of Great Zimbabwe are evidence of equally great labour. The buildings date from the 13th and 14th centuries, the peak of Great Zimbabwe's power.

In the 15th century Great Zimbabwe is eclipsed by two other kingdoms, one to the south at Khami (near modern Bulawayo) and one to the north, near Mount Darwin. This latter kingdom is established by a ruler known as the Munhumutapa - a title adopted by all his successors.

The Munhumutapa is the potentate of whom word is sent home to Europe by new arrivals on the African coast in the early 16th century. His court is first reached by a Portuguese traveller in about 1511.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to attempt colonization of south-central Africa, but the hinterland lay virtually untouched by Europeans until the arrival of explorers, missionaries, ivory hunters, and traders some 300 years later.

The first British explorers, colonists, and missionaries arrived in the 1850s, and the massive influx of foreigners led to the establishment of the territory Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes of the British South Africa Company. By the mid-19th century the descendants of the Nguni and Zulu, the Ndebele, had established a powerful warrior kingdom.

Meanwhile, mass migrations of indigenous peoples took place. Successive waves of more highly developed Bantu peoples from equatorial regions supplanted the original inhabitants and are the ancestors of the region's Africans today.

Until 1980, Rhodesia was an internally self-governing colony with its own legislature, civil service, armed forces, and police. Although Rhodesia was never administered directly from London, the United Kingdom always retained the right to intervene in the affairs of the colony, particularly in matters affecting Africans.

The white minority finally consented to hold multiracial elections in 1980, and Robert Mugabe won a landslide victory. The country achieved independence on April 17, 1980, under the name Zimbabwe.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008